Morning light streams across a farm field in Fahama, Iraq, as Soldiers with 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division dismount from their vehicles to search the area for caches of weapons and explosive materials. The BCT is securing rural areas for upcoming elections. (US Army photo by 1st Lt. Joshua Risher.)

Need To Read: December 21, 2009

Today's must reads:

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The 60-Vote Conundrum

James Fallows wants more public awareness about the modern-day corruption of the filibuster:

In a discussion with Guy Raz this afternoon on Weekend All Things Considered [...] we touched on a point that I think needs to be elevated from a background/insider's issue to absolutely first-tier consideration in mainstream political discourse. It has to do with the distorting and destructive effect of the Senate's modern "60 votes to get anything done" system of operation.

As Fallows notes, this is a topic that's well known among bloggers and political types, but almost completely unknown among the general public.  They still think of filibusters as occasional dramatic events from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or the civil rights era, not as an institutionalized 60-vote supermajority required for all legislation.

If you want to read more details about this, click the link.  But I assume most of you already know the basic story. So instead, think about this: is it possible to elevate the filibuster into the public discourse?  If so, how?

In one sense, it should be easy: most people don't know about the 60-vote requirement and would instinctively be offended by the idea that you can no longer pass routine legislation with a simple majority.  On the other hand, most people also don't really care.  Plus, one party or the other is always out of power at any given time, so there's always a substantial minority of partisans who are motivated to argue that keeping the majority from running roughshod over everything we hold dear is a sacred principle of the Republic.

So what would it take to get people to care? One answer: a high-profile supporter.  If Sarah Palin suddenly tweeted that the filibuster is a threat to democracy, for example, everyone would start talking about it.  But who else is a plausible candidate for this?  The president, of course, but he's not going to.  Anyone else?

Another answer: a popular, high-profile issue that gets blocked repeatedly by a 40-vote minority. Unfortunately, genuinely popular, high-profile issues generally don't get filibustered.  That's why Supreme Court vacancies are filled pretty quickly but appellate court vacancies aren't.  So it's not clear what issue would fit the bill here.

And a third answer: some kind of fabulously effective grass roots campaign.  That seems pretty unlikely to me, though.  Any other thoughts?

All Hail Pat Toomey

Paul Krugman:

I haven’t seen anyone point this out; but it occurs to me that we all owe thanks to the Club for Growth. If they hadn’t targeted Arlen Specter, he wouldn’t have switched parties, the Democrats wouldn’t have 60 seats, and the world might look very different.

C'mon Paul, you gotta get on the Twitter bandwagon!

Why 2014?

Josh Marshall mentions something about the healthcare bill that bugs me too: why wait to implement it until 2014?

2010 doesn't worry me that much....But why go into 2012 without many of the benefits of the legislation actually going into effect? I tend to think that even a resurgent GOP will probably have a harder time repealing this stuff than people might think. But you could certainly have health care reform repealed in 2013 before much of it even goes into effect.

....I know stuff like this can't just be done on a few months notice. Health care is a huge part of the nation's economy. And you need frameworks of predictability, planning and transition to put such big changes into place. But four or five years seems way, waaay too long.

My impression is that some of the delays are there because it makes the budgetary accounting work better in terms of deficit neutrality. And I know the Dems would likely lose critical support without being able to show that the overall bill actually lowers the deficit. But if that's the main reason, I suspect the legislative authors may be too clever by half since they may be slitting the bill's and perhaps their own throats in the process.

I'm pretty sure the 2014 date is mostly due to budget finagling.  This stuff can't be done overnight, but I'll bet most of it could be implemented within 12 months, and it could certainly be implemented within 24.

So how big a problem is it that nothing is going to happen until 2014 instead?  My first order guess is: not much.  In fact, I think everyone will be surprised at just how fast healthcare reform fades from the public discourse once it's passed.  Climate legislation will takes its place as conservative enemy #1, new celebrity scandals will distract the apolitical, and within a few months everyone not intimately associated with it will barely even remember it happened.  After all, the plain fact is that as important as it is, healthcare reform affects a pretty small chunk of the population either for good (better coverage) or ill (higher taxes).  Around 15-20% tops.

Still, sooner would be better.  It's easier to demagogue healthcare reform as long as the supposed disasters to come are still speculative, and it's easier to keep around the longer it's had to work.  I'm more interested in 2016 than I am in 2010 or 2012, and it would be nice if healthcare reform had had a nice long time by then to start working and really become part of the legislative fabric.  Three years is a short enough time that it could still be in some danger of repeal (or semi-repeal) when1 Republicans regain control of the presidency in 2016.

Overall, though, it's probably not too big a worry.  Conservatives are right about one thing: entitlement programs virtually never get eliminated once they've become law. Plus the last paragraph of this post is pretty compelling.  I'd prefer 2012 to 2014, but I imagine that healthcare reform is pretty safe regardless.2

1Yes, I think they'll win in 2016.

2Assuming it actually passes in the first place, of course.

UPDATE: More here from Austin Frakt on the potential pitfalls awaiting healthcare reform after it passes.

Embracing Twitter

So: Twitter.  I've decided to take a second crack at it.  I've had an account for quite a while, but the problem is that most of the time I forgot all about it and never wrote any updates.  However, being the dork that I am, I concluded that if technology was the problem, then technology could be the answer too.  So I downloaded a copy of TweetDeck and set it up.  It works pretty well and offers some nice convenience features (multiple columns, real-time link shortening, easy replying/retweeting/etc.), but the main thing it does is pop up a little box on my screen whenever a new tweet arrives.  Benefit: I always remember Twitter is around.  Drawback: little boxes are constantly popping up on my screen.

I dunno.  Is this how it feels to be eighteen in 21st century America?  With a screen constantly full of things demanding attention: email, Twitter, Facebook, IM, etc.?  (Except no one uses email anymore, do they?  Instead they use the unbelievably primitive messaging functions built into apps like Facebook and Twitter, which feels to me like going back to the days of dial-up.)  Maybe.  I imagine I'm just getting a small taste of it, though.

Still, so far, so good.  TweetDeck forces me to pay attention to Twitter, and this inspires me to tweet more often.  Whether that's a good thing or not remains to be seen, but it doesn't really seem to be interrupting my concentration or anything.  And it was pretty handy for following the chaos of the final day of the Copenhagen conference.  Plus there's another bonus: Twitter seems to be generally friendlier than the blogosphere.  You really can't get a good rant going in 140 characters, so you mostly get snark and wittiness instead.  That's actually kind of a nice break.

Next step: build up the list of people I follow, which is currently a ramshackle of random names. Next step after that: get a new picture.

Late Friday night, after the word had come down that the climate talks had ended in a five-way non-binding, unfair, and breathtakingly unambitious agreement between the US, China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, a crowd of demonstrators from around the world gathered at the Metro station outside the Bella Center. It was 1 a.m., and it was bitter cold, in several ways.

These were not angry anarchists. These were young people who had spent the last few years of their lives working hard to make this process work. They came from groups like Greenpeace and Avaaz and Energy Action and 350.org. They all had credentials to the conference, but almost none had been inside for days, ever since the UN decided to stop letting more than a token few NGOs into the hall. They had written position papers, advised small nations, organized email blasts, and now—at least for the moment—it had all come to an end, an end far worse than most had imagined.

Inside, the less important nations of the world were still “negotiating,” trying to decide whether to sign on to the text that the powers that be had left behind. It was an empty and impotent debate, resembling in its power more the “model UNs” that high schoolers conduct in civics classes across the U.S. It was also brave—an effort to say that the process of trying to solve the world’s problems will continue.

It’s unclear what that process will look like, or what role global civil society will play in a world where the power balance is now more nakedly obvious than it was before yesterday. China and the US have taken it upon themselves to solve the biggest problem we face, but both have set out profoundly unambitious plans for doing so. The best guess from the modelers at Climate Interactive was that the proposals various countries were making might yield a world 6 or 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, and with a carbon concentration of 770 ppm. That’s hot, and it’s why it felt cold down by that Metro station.

Leverage and You

The Wall Street Journal reports some evidence that the housing market is starting to loosen:

Some mortgage insurers and lenders are beginning to relax their down-payment requirements, in a sign of increased confidence in the housing market. The changes, which are being done on a market-by-market basis, mean buyers in some parts of the country can now borrow 95% instead of 90% of a property's value. Until recently, mortgage companies had tighter standards for these markets because of falling home prices.

....Under the looser requirements, a borrower with a credit score of 680 or higher in New Orleans, for instance, can finance up to 95% of a home's value.

I'm not thrilled with this.  Financial leverage has gotten a lot of attention lately as the cause of our recent banking woes, and that attention is fully justified.  Asset bubbles are pretty much always credit driven, with leverage climbing relentlessly until suddenly the bubble pops and all the bills come due.  One of the things that I wish Obama's regulatory proposals had focused more strongly on is limiting leverage wherever and however it shows up in the financial system.

But leverage is everywhere, not just on Wall Street.  If you buy a house with 20% down, you're employing leverage of 4:1.  At 10% down it's 9:1.  At 5% down it's 19:1.  At the FHA minimum of 3.5%, it's 27:1.

That's too much.  Just as leverage much above 10:1 is dangerous in the banking system, it's dangerous in the home mortgage market too.  If 10% had been the minimum down payment over the past decade, the housing bubble never would have taken off the way it did.  Crazy loans would have been rare.  Unqualified buyers would have continued to rent.  Mortgage fraud would have been dramatically reduced.  Speculation and flipping would have been dampened.  Foreclosures wouldn't have decimated entire cities. The derivatives market wouldn't have reached such stratospheric heights.  We still might have had a medium-sized housing bubble, but the world probably wouldn't have been on the verge of imploding last year.

We should limit leverage everywhere: in the real banking system, in the shadow banking system, in hedge funds, and where it's baked into derivatives.  But we should also do it at the individual level: mortgage loans, car loans, and credit card loans.  The point is not to cut off credit, but to do what we can to ensure that it grows steadily and sensibly, not catastrophically.  A minimum 10% down payment to buy a house is a place to start.

Take your pick.  First, here's David Waldman on Ben Nelson's abortion compromise:

The problem with leaving the decision up to the states, he says, is that it doesn't go far enough. "I think states should leave the abortion question up to the counties," he explains. "Then I think counties should leave the abortion question up to municipalities. Then the neighborhoods should leave the abortion question up to each block." And each block, as you might have guessed, should leave the abortion question up to each household.

And here's Stan Collender on Olympia Snowe's claim that after endless months of negotiation she's going to vote against the healthcare bill because she feels "rushed":

Many things in American politics are silly but, assuming it's true, this has to be considered a lifetime achievement award.

And finally, here's Ezra Klein's favorite line from the CBO report that scored the Senate bill:

The 5 percent excise tax on cosmetic surgery was eliminated, and a 10 percent excise tax on indoor tanning services was added.

But the day is still young.  There's bound to be more good stuff later on.  Especially when senators start getting tired and cranky later tonight.

Healthcare Gets to 60

Finally, some good news: Sen. Ben Nelson (D–Neb.) has agreed to support the Senate healthcare bill.  That's 60 votes, and that should be the ball game.

So what got his vote?  Aside from a comically transparent piece of bribery that gives Nebraska a little extra Medicaid money, it was a deal over abortion language. Here's the LA Times explanation of Nelson's "opt-out" provision:

Under the agreement, individual states would be allowed to prohibit insurers from offering abortion services in new regulated insurance marketplaces, or exchanges, where Americans who do not get health benefits through work would shop for coverage. Senate officials said that is consistent with current law, which gives states this authority over their insurance markets.

But if states do not exercise that option, insurers would be free to offer abortion coverage to customers in an exchange, even if they receive federal subsidies. If a woman who receive a subsidy wants to get a policy that covers abortion, she would have to send two payments to the insurer, one of which would be placed in an account reserved for abortion coverage.

Any insurer that offers an plan with an abortion benefit would also have to offer a parallel plan that does not cover abortion services.

This is....not that bad, actually.  Obviously it's not as good as full funding for reproductive services, but that was never even remotely on the table.  But not only does this language mean that probably two-thirds of the population will have access to abortion coverage through the exchange, it also (I think) relieves the fear that the Stupak amendment in the House bill would eliminate abortion coverage from private insurance altogether.  The argument was that insurers would decide it was too much trouble to offer multiple policies and would just default to the version they offered on the exchange, which wouldn't cover abortion services.  But Nelson's compromise makes it clear that there are going to be multiple policies one way or another, so there's little reason to think that current private coverage will change much.

That's my first take, anyway, and since Barbara Boxer and Patty Murray support Nelson's language, I assume they see it the same way.  Curious to hear from others on this, though.

Onward, then.  I always figured that Nelson would eventually compromise, since I think he's driven largely by genuine, longstanding concerns, not by personal pique.  But he sure had me thinking otherwise for the past couple of days.  In the end, though, he hasn't gutted any major provisions, he's agreed to a constructive compromise on abortion, and his only price was a ridiculous but tiny deal for Nebraska on Medicaid reimbursement.  Not bad.  Now all we have to do is rein in Bart Stupak, who's busily trying to scuttle the whole thing.