Kevin Drum - 2013

Nice Sunset Over Irvine Tonight

| Sat Nov. 23, 2013 8:05 PM EST

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Dreaming of a Majoritarian Congress

| Sat Nov. 23, 2013 12:24 PM EST

Martin Longman wonders what the Senate will be like if, eventually, the filibuster on legislation is eliminated. First he notes that the Employee Free Choice Act got the support of every single Democrat in 2007, when everyone knew it was doomed anyway thanks to a Republican filibuster, but suddenly lost several votes in 2009, when a big Democratic majority and a Democratic president meant that it actually had a chance of passage:

This is the kind of dynamic that is altered by eliminating the filibuster. Hiding behind cloture votes enables you to support things your base wants but that you think are too politically perilous to support if they might actually become law. Blanche Lincoln (D-Walmart) was pro-union when it didn't count, and the Waltons were okay with that…wink, wink, nod, nod.

In the new Senate, particularly if the legislative filibuster soon succumbs, there will many fewer of these free votes, and imperiled senators in the middle will need to break with their party more often and more openly, which should provide more opportunities for bipartisan coalitions in the middle to form to cover each other's asses. Rather than joining together to block legislation, which wasn't even necessary so long as the Republicans remained united in their opposition, these senators will have to join together to mitigate the damage that could be done to their political careers if legislation actually passed. If sufficient mitigation cannot be achieved, they will have to join together to vote the legislation down.

There will certainly be fewer chances for cheap grandstanding if the filibuster is eliminated, though as Longman points out, those chances won't go away entirely. They'll stick around in circumstances when you know the House won't go along or the president has threatened a veto. In some sense, this is good: it means that parties are actually responsible for their rhetoric. If Republicans say they want to cut Social Security or ban abortion, then by God, they'll have to do it if they win control of Congress. It can't just be cheap rhetoric. Ditto for Democrats who say they want to pass labor-friendly bills or gun control legislation.

Will this mean that centrist coalitions will become more important? I'm not sure. I feel like we need to game this out a little more thoroughly to get an answer. But it might!

Friday Cat Blogging - 22 November 2013

| Fri Nov. 22, 2013 2:56 PM EST

Five quilts to go! Our year of quiltblogging is almost over. Today's quilt doesn't have a name, but Marian calls it a picnic quilt because it's squarish and a bit of an odd size. So you should summon up a mental image of this quilt laid out in a park and covered with delicious lunchtime goodies. That's probably what Domino is doing in this picture. In any case, it's constructed out of 1930s repro charm squares, and it's machine pieced and machine quilted.

In local cat news, an LA city councilman wants to allow Angelenos to own five cats, up from the currently allowed three. I have a suspicion that no one has ever paid much attention to this law in the first place, but hooray anyway. Next up: the feline council will be considering a proposal that raises the minimum number of human servants per cat. It's expected to pass easily.

Do Governors Make the Best Presidents?

| Fri Nov. 22, 2013 2:29 PM EST

Apparently the latest hot topic of conversation among our nation's governors is the indisputable merit of electing a governor as our next president. I don't have a lot to say about this. Instead, I offer only the brief table of postwar presidents below. If anyone can find any reason to prefer one column over the other, I'm all ears.

Obamacare Has a Friend in the Health Care Industry

| Fri Nov. 22, 2013 1:50 PM EST

In the LA Times today, Noam Levey writes that Obamacare has an ace in the hole: the insurance industry. Sure, they have their gripes:

But since 2010, they have invested billions of dollars to overhaul their businesses, design new insurance plans and physician practices and develop better ways to monitor quality and control costs.

Few industry leaders want to go back to a system that most had concluded was failing, as costs skyrocketed and the ranks of the uninsured swelled. Nor do they see much that is promising from the law's Republican critics. The GOP has focused on repealing Obamacare, but has devoted less energy to developing a replacement.

.... For many of these organizations, the prospect of new customers and a more rational system outweighs their sometimes intense irritation with the Obama administration. Insurance executives, in particular, have gnashed their teeth at the president's attacks on their industry....Despite the frustrations, most insurers remain committed to moving to a new market that would achieve the central promise of the Affordable Care Act: that all consumers can buy health plans even if they have preexisting medical conditions.

This is really a crucial point. Like it or not, the entire health care industry has spent the past three years gearing up for the rollout of Obamacare. At this point, they're committed—and doubly so since the Republican Party very clearly has no real alternative for them. This means that all the doom-mongering on Fox News is basically just chum for the rubes: Obamacare isn't going anywhere, and everyone knows it. The health care industry will do everything it can to make it work, and one way or another, it's going to work. Even the Medicaid expansion is almost certain to be taken up eventually by nearly every state as passions cool down a bit and hospitals start complaining about the lost income.

The tea party may not quite know yet that it's lost the war, and Republican politicians have every reason to egg them on in this delusion, but the war is well and truly lost. It's all mopping up now.

Retiree "Replacement Rates" Are Tricky Things (A Bit Wonkish, Sorry)

| Fri Nov. 22, 2013 12:58 PM EST

A couple of days ago I wrote about Social Security MINT projections, which suggest that retiree income will continue on a fairly steady upward path for the next few decades. "It suggests that we don't really face a historic retirement crisis," I said.

Dean Baker has a response up today, which I'll respond to in more detail later. I agree in part and dissent in part with what he says. For now, though, I just want to do two things. First, call attention to his post so you can go read his objections. Second, I want to make a point about "replacement rates" that's subtle enough (and lengthy enough) to require a post of its own.

As both Baker and I point out, the MINT projection suggests that future retirees will be better off than current retirees in absolute dollar terms (adjusted for inflation, of course), but will have lower income replacement rates. In particular, MINT projects that past retirees, on average, received 95 percent of their working-age income. Future retirees will receive only 84 percent. What's going on?

Part of the answer has to do with stagnant wages. In the past, wage growth was strong, so workers could expect to see their incomes grow strongly throughout their lifetimes (again, adjusted for inflation). More recently, wage growth has been weak. Incomes still rise over a worker's lifetime, but not as much.

So take a look at the stylized chart on the right. Our first worker started out earning $50,000 and ended up at $100,000. (Yes, those are big numbers. I'm using them to make the math come out nice.) Her average lifetime income is $75,000.

Our second worker started out earning $75,000 and ended up at the same $100,000. Her average income is $85,000.

They both retired making $100,000. And suppose their retirement incomes are also identical at $71,000. What does that mean? Replacement rates are calculated as a percentage of average lifetime income, so worker #1 is receiving a 95 percent replacement. Worker #2 is receiving an 84 percent replacement.

It seems like our second worker has gotten the shaft. But did she? Both workers ended their careers making the same amount of money, and both are receiving the same retirement income. The difference in replacement rates is more a statistical artifact than a meaningful number.

Now, you can draw different conclusions from all this. It's just raw data. But I want to make the point that replacement rates can be tricky things. In many cases, I think they tell us less about retirement income per se, and more about the fact that working-age incomes have suffered from sluggish growth over the past four decades. My underlying concern in this conversation has always been to wrest liberal attention away from retirees, who I think are doing relatively well, and keep it focused like a laser on rising income inequality and sluggish wage growth among middle-class workers.

In a sense, this is more a matter of emphasis than real dispute, since I doubt that Baker seriously disagrees here. But I do think the emphasis is important. It's a thriving and vibrant middle class—and by this I mean the working-age middle class—that's truly critical to a healthy modern democracy. If we get that, everything else will follow. I'll have more to say about this later.

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The Senate Really Can't Get Much More Dysfunctional at This Point

| Fri Nov. 22, 2013 10:45 AM EST

The New York Times reports that the Democratic change to the filibuster may turn Republicans even more obstructionist than in the past:

The rule change lowered to a simple 51-vote majority the threshold to clear procedural hurdles on the way to the confirmation of judges and executive nominees. But it did nothing to streamline the gantlet that presidential nominees run. Republicans may not be able to muster the votes to block Democrats on procedure, but they can force every nomination into days of debate between every procedural vote in the Senate book — of which there will be many.

And legislation, at least for now, is still very much subject to the filibuster. On Thursday afternoon, as one Republican after another went to the Senate floor to lament the end of one type of filibuster, they voted against cutting off debate on the annual defense policy bill, a measure that has passed with bipartisan support every year for decades.

The Senate is such a bizarre institution that there's always something more the minority party can do to gum up the works. But honestly, it's hard to see what it is at this point. Sure, legislation is still subject to filibuster, and Republicans have been filibustering every piece of legislation they can. What can they do next? Filibuster everything twice? And nominees can be slowed down in committee, but Republicans are already doing that too. I suppose Republicans can start making a fuss over every single assistant deputy sub secretary, but hell, they've done that too. All that means is that the executive branch will end up being more understaffed than it is now.

Besides, there's a point at which this stuff goes beyond the traditional (filibusters, blue slips, holds, etc.), which the press mostly ignores as boring procedural issues, and turns into antics (refusing to let committees meet, filibustering post offices, threatening the credit of the United States, etc.). Right now, I think Republicans don't have much left in their obstructionist toolkit except antics, and that could backfire. The press will pretty gleefully report this stuff, and it makes the GOP look childish, not principled.

But we'll see. As long-time readers know, I just flatly oppose the filibuster, and I think the only thing Democrats did wrong yesterday was not getting rid of it completely. Majority rule is fine. It works for presidential elections, it works for the House, it works for the Supreme Court, and it works in every other country in the world. "Senate tradition" is just a euphemism for "weird historical accident," and I'd sweep the whole rulebook clean if I could. I'm keenly aware that this means the other party can do stuff if it wins elections, and that's OK. That's what elections are for.

3 Charts Explain Why Democrats Went Nuclear on the Filibuster

| Fri Nov. 22, 2013 6:00 AM EST

No one has completely clean hands when it comes to filibusters in the Senate. Democrats have used them and Republicans have used them. But hoo boy, Republicans sure have used them more. That's why Democrats went nuclear on Thursday. Three charts tell the story.

The first two charts show the evolution of filibusters by presidential administration. As you can see, their use rose steadily through the '80s and then leveled off starting around 1990. Democrats mainly kept things pretty stable throughout the Bush administration, with the number increasing only when Republicans lost the 2006 midterm elections and became the minority party. At that point, they ratcheted up the use of filibusters to record levels, and there was no honeymoon when Obama won the presidency, not even for a minute. Republicans went into full-bore filibuster mode the day he took office, and they've kept it up ever since. For all practical purposes, anything more controversial than renaming a post office has required 60 votes during the entire Obama presidency.

 

But it was Republican filibusters of judicial and executive-branch nominees that finally drove Democrats to act on Thursday. Democrats had struck one deal after another with Republicans to try and rein in their abuse of the filibuster, but nothing worked. A few nominees would get through, and then another batch would promptly get filibustered. The chart below tells the tale. Under George Bush, Democrats mounted filibusters on 38 of his nominees. That's about five per year. Under Obama, Republicans have filibustered an average of 16 nominees per year.

The last straw came when Republicans announced their intention to filibuster all of Obama's nominees to the DC circuit court simply because they didn't want a Democratic president to be able to fill any more vacancies. At that point, even moderate Democrats had finally had enough. For all practical purposes, Republicans had declared war on Obama's very legitimacy as president, forbidding him from carrying out a core constitutional duty. Begging and pleading and cutting deals was no longer on the table. Eliminating the filibuster for judicial and executive branch nominees was the only option left, and on Thursday that's what Democrats finally did.

UPDATE: Some edits made to the passage about Republicans losing control of Congress in 2006, to clear up exactly who was filibustering during the 2008-08 period.

President Obama Is Getting Camera Shy

| Fri Nov. 22, 2013 12:06 AM EST

The New York Times reports that the press is unhappy with the Obama White House:

A mutiny has erupted among photographers who cover President Obama over what they say is the White House’s increasing practice of excluding them from events involving the president and then releasing its own photos or video.

On Thursday, the White House Correspondents’ Association and 37 news organizations submitted a letter to the press secretary....The letter cited seven recent examples of newsworthy events from which photographers were banned, including an outdoor lunch for Mr. Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a meeting with Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, and a session in the Oval Office at which Malala Yousafzai, a young Pakistani human rights campaigner, spoke with Mr. Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their daughter Malia.

....White House photographers have historically captured private moments of the president, with his family or conferring with advisers in the Oval Office or the Situation Room. During the debate over the civil war in Syria, Mr. Souza’s images of internal meetings provided a revealing account of the tensions felt by the president and his staff....“The way they exclude us is to say that this is a very private moment,” said Doug Mills, a photographer for The New York Times who has covered the White House since the Reagan administration. “But they’re making private moments very public.”

The story is a little frustrating because it doesn't provide a good sense of whether photographic access has changed significantly over the years. But the AP's director of photography, Santiago Lyon, added this on his blog:

While photographers are granted some access to Oval Office meetings and other activities, it has decreased markedly under the Obama administration when compared to previous presidents....In fact, since 2010 we have only been granted access to the President alone in the Oval Office on two occasions, once in 2009 and again in 2010. We have never been granted access to the President at work in the Oval Office accompanied by his staff. Previous administration regularly granted such access.

This is part of a troubling trend, as presidential administrations have all gotten successively more and more single-minded about managing their image. By itself, it's hard to get too worked up about photographers not being allowed into a few meetings here and there, but this is yet another step in the direction of obsessive White House media management. It's the wrong direction, and it's also kind of pointless. Whether he likes hordes of photographers around or not, Obama should know that it's all part of the job. He should let the photographers back in.

Republicans Refuse to Cover the Poor, Then Complain that Obamacare Isn't Covering the Poor

| Thu Nov. 21, 2013 6:30 PM EST

The New York Times has gotten hold of the "House Republican Playbook" on Obamacare, and I have to admit that it brought back warm memories. It's just like the launch kits I used to produce for our sales force whenever we came out with a new product, and I have to say that it looks very professional. For Eric Cantor's sake, I hope his sales force pays more attention to it than my sales force used to pay to mine.

In any case, it's all pretty predictable stuff: Obamacare is an abomination; people are losing their insurance; small companies are being ruined; etc. etc. But I have to say that this is my favorite talking point:

Needless to say, this is primarily because Republicans governors have refused to implement Obamacare's Medicaid expansion, even though it's 100 percent paid for at first and 90 percent paid for forever. These governors literally prefer to have their state's residents pay taxes and get nothing in return rather than give so much as an extra dime to poor people who need health care. It's truly hard to fathom what kind of human being is callous enough to do this, but apparently there are a bunch of them in the Republican Party.

And then, just to add a cherry of chutzpah on top of this ice cream sundae of spitefulness, they crow about how Obamacare isn't covering as many people as Obama hoped it would. You really have to marvel.