Kevin Drum - June 2013

Don't Count on Republicans Being Crafty Enough to Pass Immigration Reform via a Discharge Petition

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 10:16 AM EDT

It's hard to believe, but after decades of calling the Senate the place legislation goes to die, suddenly the Senate is the place where legislation and compromise are the order of the day. It's the House where legislation goes to die, thanks to the House Republican caucus's near total takeover by its hardcore tea party wing. So does this mean that immigration reform is dead?

That's my guess. But the hot topic lately among the chattering classes is that there's actually a way to force passage: a discharge petition. Steve Benen outlines the theory for us:

As a rule, the only bills that reach the House floor for a vote are the ones House leaders allow to reach the floor. But there's an exception: if 218 members sign a discharge petition, their preferred legislation is brought up for a vote whether the majority party's leadership likes it or not.

In terms of specific numbers, there are 201 Democrats in the House caucus. If literally all of them are prepared to support the bipartisan Senate bill, they would need 17 House Republicans — just 7% of the 231 GOP House members — to join them on the discharge petition. If, say, 10 conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats from Southern states balked, they would need 27 Republicans to break party ranks.

Just last week, we were told they were as many as 40 House Republicans who consider themselves moderates, unhappy with their party's far-right direction. Is there a chance half of these alleged centrists might sign a discharge petition and get immigration reform done? Sure there is.

The odds aren't great, but don't let all the "D.O.A." talk convince you the reform fight is already over.

Hey, it worked for the Civil Rights Act! Maybe immigration reform is next.

But I'm not a believer. Here's why: it actually makes sense. If Republicans really do want to pass immigration reform just to get it over and done with, but they want to do it without getting their fingerprints all over it, the discharge petition is easily their best bet. As Steve says, all it requires is 20 or 30 Republicans in safe seats to vote for it, while the entire rest of the caucus gets to continue railing against it while secretly breathing a sigh of relief. That's totally logical.

And that's why it won't happen. Logic is simply not the GOP's strong suit these days, and frankly, neither is Machiavellian maneuvering. The only thing they know how to do is yell and scream and hold votes on endless doomed repetitions of bills designed to demonstrate their ideological purity. A different House and a different party leader might be crafty enough to see the value in a discharge petition, but not this one. They're true believers. They won't secretly agree to leave the defectors alone after the vote, which is the minimum necessary for this to work, nor will John Boehner risk telling them secretly that he won't take away their committee assignments or otherwise retaliate against them. The party leadership just doesn't have this level of craftiness in them.

Which is too bad. It's an elegant idea.

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There's Some Good News About the Future of Affirmative Action

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 5:00 AM EDT

Affirmative Action supporters rally outside the US Supreme Court in 2012.

Although the Supreme Court's decision earlier this week in the University of Texas affirmative action case was basically a punt, the end appears to be very near for racial preferences in university admissions. The case was sent back to the Fifth Circuit Court for review, and the majority opinion said that the court could uphold affirmative action only if "no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity." That's a very stiff test, and one that neither UT nor any other university is likely to meet.

So if race-based affirmative action gets struck down in the near future, what's next? One alternative that liberals should probably embrace more enthusiastically is class-based affirmative action.

This isn't a perfect substitute for race-based affirmative action. In a study of elite universities, Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose concluded that class-based affirmative action would probably produce student bodies that were about 10 percent black and Latino, compared to 12 percent with purely race-based affirmative action. Taking wealth into consideration might boost that a bit more, as would policies that take account of whether a student lives in concentrated poverty, a partial proxy for racial housing discrimination.

Still, there's no question that in practice, even well-designed class-based policies would probably represent a net loss for minority representation. But it's a fairly modest loss, and class-based policies also have some advantages—quite aside from the fact that we might soon be forced into using them whether we like it or not. For one thing, they help poor people. That's worthwhile all by itself, since elite universities are notorious for the affluence of their student bodies. Current affirmative action programs mostly select rich and upper-middle-class minorities, something that even Barack Obama admits isn't fair. "My daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged," he told George Stephanopoulos back in 2007, "and I think that there's nothing wrong with us taking that into account as we consider admissions policies at universities."

Class-based policies also provoke a lot less resentment from working-class whites. As Richard Kahlenberg, a tireless one-man advocate for class-based policies, points out, race-based admission policies are supported by only about a quarter of the population. Conversely, class and income-based policies are supported by upwards of two-thirds of the population. That represents a far stronger foundation for keeping diversity policies thriving over the next few decades.

And there's more. Carnevale and Rose concluded that class-based policies produce higher graduation rates than either a pure merit-based system (test scores and high school GPAs) or a traditional affirmative action program. And eliminating race-based policies would also put an end to the suspicion that continues to dog black and Latino college graduates from employers who wonder if their degrees were really fairly earned.

Would it be possible for us to adopt class-based programs? One obstacle, as I wrote a couple of years ago, is the insistence of conservatives on refusing to even admit that racism is a problem anymore. It's become practically a truism on the right that racism is a thing of the past, nothing more than a convenient whipping boy to be exploited by race hustlers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who prey on liberal guilt and federal largesse. This is just poisonous, and it justifiably provokes a defensive attitude on the left. There's no way that blacks or any other ethnic minority will ever take conservative complaints about affirmative action at face value if they flatly refuse to concede that there's even a problem left to be addressed.

But that shouldn't stop us. We should be forthright in conceding that class-based policies are likely to produce slightly lower minority representation at elite universities. But well-designed policies can make that loss very small, and the advantages of class-based policies go a long way toward making up for that. It's something we should face up to before we're forced into it whether we like it or not.

Scandalmania Has Turned Out to Be Just Another Bubble

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 12:10 AM EDT

Jon Chait makes an astute observation today: even Republicans aren't talking much about White House scandals anymore. Scandalmania—which just a few weeks ago was widely thought to mark the beginning of the end of Obama's second term—has turned out to be little more than a typical DC feeding frenzy, one that's fading away as quickly as it burst into our collective id. It still exists in the conservative fever swamps, of course, along with Obamaphones and death panels, but out in the real world Benghazi is mostly a military debacle; the IRS is just another bureaucratic screw-up; and the NSA's surveillance programs are a garden variety policy dispute. So what happened?

The whole Obama scandal episode is a classic creation of a “narrative” — the stitching together of unrelated data points into a story. What actually happened is this: House Republicans passed a twisted account of a hearing to ABC’s Jonathan Karl, who misleadingly claimed to have seen it, creating the impression that the administration was caught in a major lie. Then the IRS story broke, which we now see was Republicans demanding a one-sided audit and thus producing the impression of one-sided treatment. In that context, legitimate controversies over Obama’s civil-rights policies became the “three Obama scandals,” exposing a government panopticon, if not a Nixonian administration bent on revenge.

The collapse of the Benghazi story happened very quickly, when Jake Tapper’s reporting found that Karl had peddled a bogus story. (It’s notable that the only misconduct in both the Benghazi and the IRS stories was committed by House Republicans.) But the scandal cloud lingered through the still-extant IRS scandal, which in turn lent the scandal odor to the civil-liberties dispute. Now that the IRS scandal has turned into a Darrell Issa scandal, we’re left with ... an important dispute over domestic surveillance, which has nothing to do with scandal at all. The entire scandal narrative was an illusion.

More at the link.

Chart of the Day: The Immense Power of Naming a Thing

| Thu Jun. 27, 2013 8:00 PM EDT

Via Bill Gardner, we learn today that infant diagnoses of GERD—gastroesophageal reflux disease—have skyrocketed in recent years. This is good news for the makers of Prilosec and other proton pump inhibitors, and as you might expect, the increased rate of diagnosis of infant GERD is largely because they've been aggressively marketing their pills for just this purpose. But guess what? It turns out that an awful lot of doctors are diagnosing GERD for any baby who's spitting up and just generally crying a lot. However, for those babies—ones who don't have objective evidence of GERD—randomized trials show that Prilosec and its cousins have no effect.

So what's the answer? Well, how about if we tell parents that these drugs are ineffective? Amazingly enough, that doesn't work. As the chart below shows, parent interest in the medication goes down only if you tell them it doesn't work and you refrain from diagnosing GERD in the first place:

Gardner ruminates on the underlying cause of this: "Getting a diagnosis, I speculate, activated a mental schema that 'my baby has reflux disease, therefore she needs an acid-reducing medicine,' and this neutralized the information that 'PPIs don’t work.' So simply getting a diagnosis can have a harmful side effect on parents' understanding of physician communication."

So there you have it: once you put a label on an illness, people are more likely to want medication for it even if they're explicitly told the medication doesn't work. And this is even more important than it appears at first glance, since diagnoses of GERD vary from hospital to hospital by a factor of 13x. This may be a small example by itself, but those hospitals at the high end of the GERD curve are a perfect illustration of one of the reasons that healthcare in America costs so much.

A Wee Bit of Immigration Reform Arithmetic

| Thu Jun. 27, 2013 4:46 PM EDT

Today the Senate passed its immigration reform bill. It passed by a huge bipartisan majority, which is supposed to bode well for its future. But here's a little bit of bipartisan math to ponder over:

  • It received 14 Republican votes.
  • That's 30 percent of the Senate Republican caucus.
  • If the eventual House bill does as well—not likely, but let's be optimistic—it will receive 71 Republican votes.
  • To pass, it will then need 147 Democratic votes.

This is pretty much a best-case scenario. So ask yourself: Is John Boehner willing to let immigration reform pass with a 2:1 Democratic majority? Or, more likely, something like a 3:1 Democratic majority? I guess you never know, but it doesn't seem very likely.

NSA Claims That It Has Stopped Collecting Bulk Domestic Email Records

| Thu Jun. 27, 2013 2:36 PM EDT

The NSA revelations of the past few weeks have focused heavily on telephone metadata, records of telephone calls made both domestically and internationally. But under George Bush, NSA also collected records of domestic email traffic. This was supposedly a temporary program started in the wake of 9/11, but it continued for years and eventually led to the now-famous hospital room rebellion led by James Comey in 2004.

Because of the DOJ rebellion, the program was shut down for a while, but was then restarted under FISA authority. So is this metadata still being collected? According to a secret inspector general's report obtained by Glenn Greenwald and Spencer Ackerman, it continued throughout the Bush administration and then for a couple of years into the Obama administration. But it's since been halted:

"The internet metadata collection program authorized by the Fisa court was discontinued in 2011 for operational and resource reasons and has not been restarted," Shawn Turner, the Obama administration's director of communications for National Intelligence, said in a statement to the Guardian.

"The program was discontinued by the executive branch as the result of an interagency review," Turner continued. He would not elaborate further.

Needless to say, an official denial like this should be taken with a grain of salt. Turner says here that "the program authorized by the FISA court" has been discontinued, but that doesn't necessarily mean that internet metadata on U.S. persons is no longer being collected. Maybe it's simply being collected via a different program. Turner was carefully noncommital about that.

And even if domestic email records aren't being collected any longer, it would be nice to know why. "Operational and resource reasons" doesn't tell us much. Was it really too expensive? Was it ineffective? Did the president become disturbed by it? We don't know.

The IG report is here. Marcy Wheeler has some notes about the report here.

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The Exciting Return of Zero-Based Tax Reform

| Thu Jun. 27, 2013 12:26 PM EDT

This is from the Washington Post today in a story about congressional efforts to write a tax reform bill:

Aides in both parties acknowledged that a tax bill cannot pass unless President Obama and congressional Republicans resolve their long-standing dispute over the national debt. Obama wants a tax overhaul to generate additional revenue to rein in borrowing; Republicans say they will agree to fresh revenue only if Democrats agree to restrain spending on expensive health and retirement benefits.

Wait. What? Did I miss something? Which Republicans have said they'd agree to new revenue if Democrats rein in entitlement spending? I can think of two or three who have kinda sorta said this was a possibility, but it's the same two or three who have been saying this for a long time. For the party as a whole, this is still a complete nonstarter. No new revenues, no how, no way.

Right? Does anyone know where this came from?

Anyway, moving on, the gist of the story is something we started to hear about a few days ago: Max Baucus's plan to do tax reform starting with a "blank slate." That is, wipe out every tax credit, deduction, subsidy, or tax expenditure, and only include it in the final bill if someone can affirmatively justify it:

The Senate’s chief tax writers plan to scrap the entire code and start from scratch in their push for tax reform, and on Thursday they gave lawmakers a month to make a case for preserving some of the $1.3 trillion in breaks on the books.

....“We plan to operate from an assumption that all special provisions are out unless there is clear evidence that they: (1) help grow the economy, (2) make the tax code fairer, or (3) effectively promote other important policy objectives.”

I guess this sounds bold and innovative—it got top billing from the Post, anyway—but color me unimpressed. It's possible that this approach will end up eliminating some of the hundreds of small tax loopholes out there, but the top twenty account for something like 80 or 90 percent of the revenue, and no one will have the slightest trouble justifying those. What really matters isn't forcing a few lobbyists to write term papers, it's whether Congress has the political will to stand up to them. So far, I've seen zero evidence of that.

Nor have I seen any evidence that the Republican Party will accede to any significant new revenues—and by this I mean actual revenue, not sham revenue based on dynamic scoring fairy tales. Hope springs eternal, I suppose, but the stars sure don't seem aligned for any real progress on this issue. Is there anyone out there who wants to try to persuade me I'm wrong?

The Worm Turns in the IRS Scandal

| Thu Jun. 27, 2013 11:28 AM EDT

Steve Benen reports today that the IRS scandal might be changing gears. In the beginning, it was supposedly about a lawless agency targeting conservative groups at the behest of a thuggish Democratic president. That charge has pretty much crumbled away. But now the worm is turning, and the scandal is about a lawless inspector general, appointed by a hyperpartisan Republican president, who has deliberately misled Congress about IRS activities.

Wouldn't it be sweet if things turned out that way? And it couldn't happen to a more deserving guy than Darrell Issa. Keep your fingers crossed.

Immigration Reform Is Driving Republicans Insane

| Thu Jun. 27, 2013 10:51 AM EDT

Today, Dave Weigel passes along the non-news that House Republicans don't care—at all—about the Senate immigration reform bill. Rep. Peter Roskam, the Republican deputy whip, outlined the reasons for reporters this morning, and it was mostly the same stuff we've been hearing about forever. But then there was this:

But the no-go reason Roskam kept returning to was all about electoral politics. "If you're the White House right now," he theorized, "and you have a signature law — that is, Obamacare — that is completely a legacy issue for the president, and it's looking like implementation is going to be a disaster, and if you're on your heels in terms of these scandals, and you're flummoxed by the NSA, there's one issue out there that's good for the White House. That's immigration. The question is: How much energy does the White House actually put into getting the legislation, or do they want to keep the issue for 2014?"

It's a paradoxical theory with a little whiff of projection. Roskam (like many Republicans) was saying that a desperate White House would rather run against Republicans in 2014 on the immigration issue than pass a bill and remove the issue. With that in mind Roskam was saying Republicans would probably kill the bill, thus keeping the issue alive. How far has Obama crawled inside their heads?

Well, either Obama is way inside their heads, or else Roskam is desperately flailing around to figure out a way to avoid having Republicans take the blame for the failure of immigration reform. Maybe a bit of both.

Here in the real world, we know perfectly well why Obama is keeping a low profile: because everyone on both sides of the aisle wants him to. Obama Derangement Syndrome is so virulent on the right that speaking in favor of the bill would almost certainly doom the whole enterprise. That's the reality of the Republican base these days, and Roskam knows it. We've already got Obamacare, Obamaphones, and Obamacars, and this would just add ObamaMexicans to the list.

Of course, the conundrum for House Republicans is that Roskam is right: Killing the bill probably would be good for Democrats in the short run. It would gin up lots of Latino resentment against Republicans and probably help Democratic turnout in 2014. Conversely, passing the bill would be good for Republicans. They wouldn't get a ton of credit for it right away, but at least it would blunt Democratic efforts to rally the Latino community to the polls. Relatively speaking, that's a win for the GOP, which would then have a freer hand to set the terms of debate for next year's midterms.

So we're faced with a peculiar prospect here. Democrats are fighting to pass a bill because it's the right thing to do, even though they'll probably take an electoral hit from it. Republicans are fighting to kill a bill, even though it would be an electoral winner, because a small part of their base hates it. It's basically electoral suicide because they simply can't get out from under the tea party elephant that's strangling the life out of them. They built a monster, and now it's turned on them.

America's Place in the World is Basically Just Fine, Thanks Very Much for Asking

| Thu Jun. 27, 2013 10:10 AM EDT

Dan Drezner suggests that America's foreign policy community needs to take a very deep breath:

I suggest a community-wide vacation because, right now, a lot of them are writing a lot of nonsense. The combination of perceived U.S. inaction on Syria and Snowden is leading to a lot of silly talk about how Russia is back and China is back and the U.S. can't do anything anymore and everything is going to hell in a handbasket.

I don't mean to go on a rant here, but this is just so much bulls**t.

OK, it's not all that. Advocates of humanitarian intervention are justifiably upset about inaction on Syria — and they should be even more upset if the administration is actually doing what I think they're doing in Syria.

That said, there's not much that's new in these laments. China and Russia are opposing U.S. interests? Well, blow me down!! I haven't seen that kind of activity since... since... every year for the last decade. There's nothing new here.

This is truth. The Middle East has been a festering trouble spot for, oh, about the last five or six decades. Our relations with China and Russia have been tetchy (or worse) for about as long, and are likely to continue that way pretty much forever. Hell, our relations with France are kinda tetchy sometimes. As for all the Snowden hysteria, President Obama has roughly the right attitude: "No, I'm not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker."

Our current problems are, in historical context, fairly modest, and America's place in the world is basically fine. Relatively speaking, it's almost certain to improve in the medium-term future, not decline. And Obama's foreign policy, though it's had the usual share of missteps, has been pretty solid. Dan is right: we need to chill, people.