2011 - %3, June

Is the Debt Ceiling Unconstitutional?

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 12:05 PM EDT

The Constitution states that “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law....shall not be questioned." Bruce Bartlett suggests that this trumps the debt ceiling, which means the president can simply ignore Congress if he wishes and keep spending money even after the debt ceiling has been reached. To back this up, he quotes George Washington University law professor Michael Abramowicz:

A requirement that the government not question a debt’s validity does not kick in only once the time comes for the government to make a payment on the debt. Rather, the duty not to question is a continuous one. If as a result of government actions, a debt will not be paid absent future governmental action, that debt is effectively invalid. The high level of generality recognizes that instead of referring to payment of debts, the Clause bans government action at any time that affects the validity of debt instruments.

Maybe I'm missing something here, but it strikes me that this doesn't come close to implying that the debt ceiling is unconstitutional. What it really suggests is merely that the public debt is the only untouchable part of the federal budget. The government is required to dedicate its tax revenue first to paying off any debt that's due, but once that's done the Constitution is silent. If the debt ceiling has been reached, and there's not enough money left to issue Social Security checks or buy more aircraft carriers after current debts have been paid, then Social Security checks get reduced and aircraft carriers get put on hold. The constitutional argument for ignoring the debt ceiling would only come into play if for some reason things got to the point where it literally interfered with paying off current bondholders. We're not even within light years of that happening.  

I don't really like this conclusion, and I'd like to see the statutory debt ceiling go away entirely. It's an archaic budgetary vestige that makes no sense at all anymore. Still, it exists whether I like it or not, and I don't really see how it offends the Constitution as long as creditors keep getting paid.

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Our Sadly Lowered Standards for Dickitude

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 10:05 AM EDT

Mark Halperin is one of my least-favorite political analysts, a reliably unimaginative weathervane of conventional wisdom. Today, on Morning Joe, he gave his considered opinion of Barack Obama's press conference performance on Wednesday: "I thought he was kind of a dick yesterday."

Halperin didn't quite realize he was on the air when he said this, and when he did he immediately apologized and was later suspended by MSNBC. However, this is of zero interest to me. If Halperin thinks Obama is a dick, it's fine with me if he says it publicly. In fact, I'd rather he say it publicly. A mild reproach from MSNBC management for offending the delicate sensibilities of Morning Joe viewers would have been sufficient apology.

Needless to say, what's actually interesting here is that Halperin, in fact, thinks Obama is a dick for getting slightly combative yesterday. And this is interesting precisely because Halperin is an unimaginative weathervane of conventional wisdom. It presumably means that a fair-sized chunk of the DC press corps also thinks Obama was a bit of a dick yesterday.

If this is the case, all I can say is that the standards for dickitude have become alarmingly low in Washington, DC, these days. I mean, Republicans have spent several consecutive months holding the country hostage to their tea-party base, pretending to negotiate a budget deal when they obviously had no intention of ever agreeing to any kind of compromise, all but chortling publicly at their own cleverness, and dressing down Obama in front of the TV cameras at every opportunity. But after putting up with this for months, it's Obama who's a dick for finally pushing back a bit against these guys? Seriously?

As I was writing this, I knew I'd shortly hear from one of my regular readers who's a close student of Halperin. His comment just popped into my inbox:

In many ways, Obama really is in a box with the Republicans and the media right now. Part of it, I'm sure, is his press operation's lack of messaging. But by far the most significant part of it is the right's mastery of the media. It's not just John Boehner vs. Obama, by which the playing field would be more fair, but it's virtually every conservative senator, congressman, pundit or voter who cares to spout something outrageous or inciteful vs. Obama. Not vs. the Democrats. Obama.

....If Obama cannot get past this, if provocation of the right is forbidden, then Obama has no option other than to deal — and according to Halperin, that means cave and move on. If this really is the view, then Obama's re-election is doomed as are those of liberal Democrats.

Yes indeedy. And Republicans are keenly aware of this. Whatever else you can say about Obama's performance or lack thereof over the past few months, it would be nice if his Democratic colleagues in Congress figured this out and started to fight back too.

Chart of the Day: Republicans Reject Republican Plan

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 9:30 AM EDT

The chart below represents Republican nirvana as of March 2011. According to their own JEC report, the best research suggests that successful "fiscal consolidation" efforts (i.e., deficit reductions) have historically been heavily weighted toward spending cuts. The sweet spot is 85% spending cuts, 15% tax increases:

The research touted here by Republicans is almost certainly wrong because it uses cherry-picked data from countries that weren't trying to fight off high unemployment and a stagnant economy. But as Mike Konczal points out, that doesn't matter. Right or wrong, this is what Republicans were touting as recently as three months ago.

So what happens when the president proposes a plan that's almost exactly 85% spending cuts and 15% tax increases? They summarily reject it, and continue to insist that if they don't get their way they'll happily burn down the country by refusing to increase the debt ceiling. This should surprise no one, of course. This is how it usually goes when you negotiate with terrorists.

Is Barack Obama a Lefty?

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 9:18 AM EDT

While I was in New York I met up with one of my longtime readers (and a fellow cat lover — see Coco at the very bottom of 2009's Holiday Catblogging Extravaganza) and we were joined by Stuart Zechman, who you may recognize as a regular guest on Jay Ackroyd's Virtually Speaking. We got to talking about Barack Obama and ended up in some very airy, meta, navel-gazing territory that I thought I might toss out for comment. This isn't usually my thing, and it might not be yours either. If it isn't, don't stress out about it. Just skip it and scroll down to the next post.

Anyway. Obama. At some point in our conversation one thing led to another and I offered up the conventional view that Obama is a center leftist. Stuart disagreed: Obama, he thinks, is a pure centrist, full stop. Now, I'm convinced that by every normal measure of these things, I'm right. Obama is, plainly, to the left of —

Well, what? This is where things broke down a bit. How do you measure this?

There's Obama's Senate voting record, of course, which by multiple measures put him in the leftmost quarter of the Senate. But that's the Senate. It doesn't say anything about his performance as president.

Or there's Obama compared to some mythical median voter. But that's almost undefinable. Obama pushed to repeal DADT, but by the time he did, repeal was supported by more than half the country. So you could say that repeal was actually a centrist position. By that definition, however, pretty much everything supported by a majority of the country is "centrist." Tax cuts are centrist. The Iraq War was centrist. FDR was centrist. This gets you nowhere.

Or there's conventional wisdom. Keynesian stimulus is leftist, national healthcare is leftist, and financial reform is leftist. So if you do moderate versions of those three things than you're a moderate leftist. President McCain wouldn't have done any of them, after all.

I'll stop now. Like I said, this is the kind of airy metapolitical discussion that I usually don't have a lot of patience for, and I think that by almost any measure Obama is obviously left of center. Still, it brings up a good question: it's relatively easy to look at a legislator and get a fairly rigorous, quantitative read on how far left or right they are. But how about presidents? Aside from gut instinct and conventional wisdom, what's the best measure of their political leanings? Anyone want to take a stab at this?

The US Senate Gets Gold Rush Fever

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 8:38 AM EDT

Good news, gold bugs. In an effort to promote hard money as an alternative to paper dollars, three tea party senators—Jim DeMint (R-SC), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.)—introduced legislation this week to exempt gold and silver coins from taxation. Via Peter Kasperowicz:

"In order to rebuild strength and confidence in our economy, we need both the fiscal discipline to cut wasteful spending and the monetary discipline to restrain further destructive monetizing of our debt," [Lee] said. "This legislation would encourage wider adoption of sound money measures, and that's a step in the right direction."

In the same statement, Lee said the dollar has lost 98 percent of its value since 1913. Sen. Paul said it would show that "states are serious about an alternative to a weakening dollar."

The bill is designed to make it easier for state governments to transition to the use of so-called "sound-money" currency. As I reported back in March, more than a dozen states have introduced proposals to, in various ways, promote the use of alternative currencies in official transactions. The argument for this is a constitutional one—supporters say they're simply trying to bring their states in line with Article 1 Section 10 of the Constitution, which stipulates that gold and silver coins be legal tender. 

There are also economic concerns. As tends to be the case with collectors of precious metals, supporters believe that the nation's finances are in even worse shape than we've been led to believe, and that the only way out of a Zimbabwe-style (or Weimar-style—take your pick) inflationary collapse is a return to the hard stuff. "It's kind of like if you think back to the Katrina catastrophe, and you read about all the proposals that were made to strengthen and secure the levies that were just never done," as one gold booster told me at the time. Utah—which, in the grips of a tea party fervor, replaced long-time conservative stalwart Robert Bennett with Lee last summer—became the first state to actually pass a pro-gold bill back in March. That law asserts the right of the state to use gold and silver as legal tender and sets up a committee to study the implementation.

But states that are looking to go back to gold face a few obstacles—namely, that there's no infrastructure to actually handle an infusion of gold currency. Carrying around a pouch of gold coins would be a burden (and vaguely Medieval), and so boosters tend to agree that for it really to take off, you'd need a centralized storage facility and then a debit-card-like transaction system, neither of which currently exist. And then there's the cost: gold and silver coins from the US Mint are the only coins that could be used as legal tender, and there's a significant markup on those in addition to the taxes. The Lee-Demint-Paul bill is attempting to tackle just one piece of the problem by making it less cost-prohibitive.

So, does the bill stand any chance of passing? It's a long shot. But it doesn't hurt that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is himself an unabashed cheerleader for the gold lobby.

The State Budget Blame Game

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 5:25 AM EDT
West Palm Beach, Florida, U.S. - Financial Counselor Denise Floyd(cq) helps client Carlos Pasos(cq) of West Palm Beach navigate services, including Medicaid. Health care reform is going to make significantly more people eligible for Medicaid.

Dear struggling states: things are bad, getting worse, and there's no end in sight. That's the general thrust behind a report published this week by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The study looks at the impact of savage cuts in FY 2012 state budgets around the country. Of the 32 spending bills enacted so far—most of which go into effect on Friday—as least 24 of them essentially gut public service spending.

In the cuts, there's a little of something for the austerity fiend in everyone. For the anti-entitlement crowd:

Arizona is eliminating Medicaid coverage for 130,000 adults without children, freezing Medicaid enrollment for all other childless adults, and setting in motion a phase-out of the 150,000 childless beneficiaries still enrolled.

Meanwhile, Florida's ripping a page out of the Scott Walker playbook and taking its budgetary woes out on public workers (and poor kids):

Florida is terminating employment for 1,300 public employees, reducing Medicaid payment rates by 12 percent for most hospitals, and cutting 15,000 children from a school readiness program that helps low-income families obtain high quality child care, among many other cuts.

And speaking of Wisconsin:

Wisconsin is cutting the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit for 152,000 families with two or more children by 21 percent, which amounts to an average credit cut of $518 for families with three or more children and $154 for families with two children. The state also is cutting $740 million, or about 8 percent, from K-12 spending designed to equalize funding across school districts.

While the recession certainly bears its fair share of the blame, some states, including Georgia and Arizona, recently enacted irresponsible tax cuts for businesses and the wealthy while further widening tax loopholes that lapped up potential government revenue. Arizona, for example, cut corporate income tax rates and commercial property taxes, voluntarily forgoing $38 million in potential revenue for 2012. That amounts to 4 percent of the state's 2012 budget shortfall, according to CBPP's number crunchers.

So is the Obama administration to blame? States did receive $165 billion in stimulus money over the past two-and-a-half-years to help them avoid some spending cuts and tax increases. But most of that funding officially dries up today. CBPP recommends that the federal government help out the most vulnerable by extending emergency Medicaid funding to struggling states. The odds of that happening, though, are laughable, given the anti-spending mood in the Republican-run House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, whatever debt ceiling compromise emerges in the coming weeks is almost certain to exacerbate states' problems. Seems there's more than enough blame to go around.

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Dennis Kucinich's Syria Problem

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 5:13 AM EDT

Here's a good rule-of-thumb for any congressman: When someone accuses you of supporting a brutal, fascist-influenced regime that is openly slaughtering its own people, it's generally a good idea to respond with an unambiguous "No, I do not support, and I strongly denounce, the actions of [insert regional dictator's name here]."

That advice seems to have been lost on Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who has drawn some attention for his most recent "fact-finding" mission to Syria.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June 30, 2011

Thu Jun. 30, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

U.S. Army 1st Lt. John Dundee (left) leads a group of Soldiers from the town of Gomerai, back to Combat Outpost Najil in Laghman province, Afghanistan, on June 15, 2011. DoD photo by Staff. Sgt Ryan C. Matson, U.S. Army.

Jerry Brown 2.0: Friend or Foe of Farmworkers?

| Thu Jun. 30, 2011 5:00 AM EDT
Jerry Brown: one more chance to stand up for farm workers.

Back in 1975, a young, newly elected California governor named Jerry Brown signed into law a historic bill recognizing the right of his state's farm workers to unionize. Nicknamed "Governor Moonbeam" for his new-age tendencies, Brown might have been a bit spacey, but he didn't waver in standing up to his state's powerful agribusiness interests.

In the decades since, the protections offered by that law have eroded. Farmworkers say field bosses use intimidation to keep people from voting to form unions. The United Farm Workers have been pushing for years for new protections that would make it easier for workers to cast their votes without being under the noses of the bosses. Advocates have managed to push such a bill through the California legislature four times in recent years. And each time, Arnold Schwarzenegger—unapologetically carrying water for the state's powerful agribusiness lobby—vetoed it.

Now The Arnold is gone, and that '70s-era governor is back—again deciding the fate of legislation that would improve the lot of the thousands of people who work in California's fields. But this time, Jerry Brown came down on the side of the bosses. On Tuesday, he vetoed the the Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Act.

He had signed the original 1975 act at a press conference with much fanfare. Jerry Brown 2.0 rejected the 2011 bill hidden away in his office, accompanying the veto with a weasely memo (PDF). In that sad document, the onetime-firebrand wrings his hands over the possibility of "drastic changes" to the state's farm-labor law.

And in His 84th Year, the Pope Tweet-eth

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 8:45 PM EDT

On Tuesday, June 28, 2011 AD at 6:07 PM Vatican time—12:07 PM Eastern Standard Time—Pope Benedict XVI tweeted. The inaugural papal tweet, announcing a new online information portal, came from the Vatican's account, @news_va_en, and was sent by the 84-year-old pontiff via iPad! It reads: "Dear Friends, I just launched News.va Praised be our Lord Jesus Christ! With my prayers and blessings, Benedictus XVI."

 

 

Okay, so it's not the most barnstorming entry onto the social media scene ever, but props for the effort. I think I speak for all avid papal observers when I say I await His Holiness' next tweet with barely contained anticipation. In honor of the historic occasion, here's a brief survey of some other venerable institutions and figures' belated first steps into the brave new world of modern technology.