Kevin Drum

A Congress That Works! Huzzah!

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 10:55 PM EST

Jon Chait on the flurry of congressional activity that closed out the year:

I strongly approve of the ends of the lame duck Congress, but as a small-d democrat, I don't approve of the means. Why should Congress have a period of time to act in which many members enjoy zero accountability before their constituents? The arrangement is ripe for abuse.

On the other hand, the manic productivity of the lame duck session appears to be a response to another anti-democratic mechanism, the filibuster. Mitch McConnell's block-everything, grind-down-the-clock method created a pent-up demand among moderate and even mainstream Republicans who waned to govern. So now they have a few frantic weeks to do a lot of things they wanted to do all along, but refrained out of partisan loyalty.

I'd look at this with a little wider lens. Basically, what happened this year is that we've finally reached the logical end state of a longtime problem. For as long as I can remember, it's been a truism that you can't get anything done in an election year. The out party doesn't want to give the president a victory and the in party is afraid to take on anything controversial that might hurt at the polls. So legislative progress in even numbered years is generally pretty paltry.

This year that dynamic turned pathological. There were, it turned out, quite a few issues that both sides really did want to address, but party discipline simply trumped everything. It wasn't just one thing that got held up, it was nearly everything. Republicans didn't want to hand Democrats a victory on DADT or New START or even a food safety bill, and Democrats were too cowardly to press for progressive tax legislation.

So we finally reached the nonsensical point at which both sides wanted to get things done but the upcoming election allowed none of it to move forward. Even though all of this stuff had supermajority support (hell, New START turned out to have the support of 71 senators), the only time it could get done was during a lame duck session.

I don't know if this was a one-off occurrence or a harbinger of things to come. I guess we'll find out in 2012. But until something finally implodes and produces a real groundswell for systemic change, maybe we should all be grateful for the existence of lame duck sessions. It might be the only time that the modern Congress actually works the way it's supposed to.

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Filibuster Reform Warms Up

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 8:35 PM EST

This is unexpected: every single returning Senate Democrat has signed a letter urging Harry Reid to change the rules surrounding filibusters when the new Congress convenes in January. Ezra Klein has a good take on this:

They say elections have consequences. So too, it turns out, does obstruction.

....It's no surprise that some Senate Democrats want to see the practice reworked. What's remarkable is that all Senate Democrats want to see it reworked. It's not just the young senators like Jeff Merkley and Tom Udall and Michael Bennett, but the older veterans like Barbara Mikulski and Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin.

Their unity stems from an unlikely source: Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has mounted more filibusters in the past two years than occurred in the ’50s and ’60s combined. Uncontroversial bills like an extension of unemployment benefits that passed 97-0 and food-safety legislation that passed with 73 votes frequently faced multiple filibusters and months of delay. The minority has been so relentless and indiscriminate in deploying the once-rare failsafe that the majority has finally decided to do something about it.

There's no telling exactly what changes Democrats might try to impose, and no telling if they have the gumption to do it on their own if they can't garner any support from the Republican leadership for a bipartisan compromise reform. For one thing, if they aren't able to come to a compromise agreement with Mitch McConnell, any attempt to change the rules would require favorable rulings from the president of the Senate, Joe Biden. And obviously his support would depend on whether his boss goes along.

So we'll see. But this is actually a suprisingly auspicious time to take action. On the Democratic side, you have a lot of anger caused by the relentless obstruction and bad faith from the Republican caucus over the past two years. On the Republican side, you have the fact that they control the House, which means they don't have too much to fear from a filibuster-less Senate in the immediate future. The real benefit of reform would come sometime down the road when a single party once again controls both houses of Congress and the presidency, and there's no telling which party will be in charge the next time that happens. In any case, January might turn out to be pretty interesting. Stay tuned.

Senate Deal on First Responders Gets Closer

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 2:33 PM EST

Greg Sargent reports that the 9/11 first-responders bill might pass after all:

UPDATE, 12:43 p.m.: Senate aides say they are now hopeful they can pass the bill via "unanimous consent," which means it can happen quickly today. More when I learn it.

UPDATE, 1:08 p.m.: GOP Senator Mike Enzi, one of the lead Republican negotiators on the 9/11 bill, supports the deal, Enzi spokesperson Jessica Straus confirms to me. That's a big step forward: It means Republicans are on board, which makes "unanimous consent" passage — which is the fastest way forward — more likely.

Straus also confirms to me that the deal trims the cost of the bill from $6.2 billion to $4.2 billion.

So pressure from the base combined with garden variety dealmaking (unanimous consent in return for cutting the bill to $4.2 billion) wins the day after all. And everyone gets to go home for Christmas. More details at the link.

Net Neutrality Fever

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 2:18 PM EST

The FCC approved new net neutrality rules yesterday, and conservative talkers have gone ballistic. It's a "Trojan horse"; it's "total government control of the Internet"; it's "yet another government takeover." ThinkProgress provides a handy greatest hits compilation on the right, and George Zornick notes just how crazy this all is:

Of course, these provisions do nothing of the sort. Network neutrality rules are explicitly designed to prevent anything like Internet censorship or control — they prohibit providers from being able who gets to “determine who gets to say what, where, how often,” in Limbaugh’s words. In fact, as noted, open Internet groups like Free Press believe the new rules do not go far enough because they do not protect the Internet over mobile devices, and contain exemptions for companies like AT&T. Needless to say, there is nothing in the provisions that would allow the government to censor or control Internet access.

I've had an email conversation lately with a conservative reader who is absolutely convinced that this is an effort by Democrats to rid the internet of conservative voices. But as Zornick notes, this is nuts. The whole point of net neutrality is just the opposite: it would continue to allow internet providers to discriminate on the basis of volume but not on content. So if you're a heavy internet user and have a lot of bits streaming through your pipe, they can charge you more. But that's it. They can't charge either content providers or you based on what you say or who you are. It's hard to think of anything that should assuage conservative concerns more. And yet, somehow this has become the latest grand conspiracy theory. It's craziness.

The War on Pensions

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 2:03 PM EST

Dave Weigel reports in Slate that Republicans are determined to wage a battle in 2011 to slash public employee pensions. And it might work:

What could the pension fund people and the public sector unions be so worried about? Right-leaning Reuters columnist James Pethokoukis laid it out for them. If the states aren't bailed out, they're going to have to start cutting budgets. If there's total transparency about pension funds—and voters are already in the mood to shave the benefits and numbers of public workers—then that's where you can cut. Republicans might even be able to pass legislation that would allow states to declare bankruptcy, which would move the pension debate from politics to court, zapping all of the unions' leverage. "From the Republican perspective," wrote Pethokoukis, "the fiscal crisis on the state level provides a golden opportunity to defund a key Democratic interest group."

In a nutshell, state pension problems are twofold. First, states haven't been keeping up the necessary contribution levels over the past decade. Second, the recent financial collapse has hit pension funds hard. Pension funds always look bad during recessions, and they look especially bad now. So if you create forecasts based on the current depressed values of the funds, as pension critics like to do, they look like disaster areas. In reality, if you use more reasonable forecasts, public pension funds are stressed, but not quite the monster black holes that Republicans are making them out to be. Dean Baker has a bit more on that here.

Politically, though, this could work anyway. In the past, taxpayers accepted the tacit tradeoff between low pay for public employees and high pensions. But public employees aren't low paid anymore. The bulk of the evidence suggests that the upper echelons (doctors, lawyers, managers) are underpaid compared to comparable private sector employees, but the lower echelons (clerks, mechanics, trash collectors) aren't. And those are the workers that most taxpayers think about. The model public employee for most people isn't a public defender, it's a unionized DMV clerk or a unionized public school teacher. Both are pretty unsympathetic figures these days.

(I was talking to a union guy a few weeks ago for a story I'm writing, and he mentioned with a grimace that whenever he talks to white collar types about unions, they always bring up teachers unions. They don't necessarily hate public sector unions generally, but they loathe teachers unions, which are the ones they actually come into contact with on a regular basis if they have kids in school. That loathing then seeps into their attitude toward every other union as well.)

This promises to become a pretty serious battle. For Republicans it's got everything: the tea parties will love it, it provides an alternative to raising taxes, and as Pethokoukis says, it helps defund a key Democratic interest group. What's not to like?

And Democrats are going to have a tough time with it. You can make a pretty good argument that pension funds aren't as badly off as their worst critics say, but the fact remains that they're in bad shape. And hitting up recession-weary taxpayers for a tax increase to make them solvent is going to be very, very unpopular. This could very well turn into a latter-day version of the tort reform war, which also (from the GOP point of view) combined an ideological win with a chance to defund a major Democratic donor group. It could get pretty ugly.

Conservatives Finally Turn on Their Own

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 1:21 PM EST

When liberals complained about Republican opposition to the 9/11 first-responders bill, it wasn't news. But when conservatives complain, suddenly it can no longer be ignored:

The remarks by Mr. Giuliani capped several days of withering criticism from all corners of the political spectrum as it appeared that Congress could depart for the year without voting on the first responders bill because of Republican efforts to block it.

Headlines in normally conservative news outlets blasted Republicans. Newsmaxx.com wrote that: “Giuliani Raps Fellow Republicans for Holding Up 9/11 Heroes Money‎.” Fox News host Shepard Smith drew attention to Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who has said he will try to block the legislation.

....On Wednesday morning, the MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, called the G.O.P.’s opposition to the bill “a terrible mistake” for the party.

I suppose this is useful in a way. Some days I wonder just what it takes to get conservatives to treat anything as an actual issue, rather than just a partisan cudgel, and I guess now I know. This is their limit.

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Quote of the Day: Skinning the Duck

| Wed Dec. 22, 2010 1:56 AM EST

From Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–SC), on the Democratic victories of the lame duck session:

When it's all going to be said and done, Harry Reid has eaten our lunch.

Munch, munch.

Healthcare Reform and the Public

| Tue Dec. 21, 2010 9:13 PM EST

I guess I shouldn't care too much about stuff like this, but it bugs me when I get egregiously misquoted. Here is Tevi Troy in the Wall Street Journal today writing about the political disaster of healthcare reform:

Obama told wavering Democrats [that HCR] would suddenly become acceptable or even popular with the American people once it was passed. As Mother Jones's Kevin Drum put it in March, "once people get a taste of universal healthcare, they like what they see and they don't stop until the job is finished."....Alas for Obama and Drum [], it turned out that the more people tasted it, the less they liked it.

And here's what I actually wrote, in response to a question from Charles Pierce about why I thought passage of PPACA would lead to bigger and better reform down the road:

What's the argument for longer term progress? This isn't quite as black and white, but the historical evidence is pretty clear. Look at virtually every other advanced economy in the world. They started off with small programs and grew them over time. Germany spent over a century getting to universal healthcare. France started after World War II and didn't finish until 1999. In Canada, national healthcare started in Saskatchewan in 1946, spread to the other provinces over the next couple of decades, and became Medicare in 1984. The trend here is pretty obvious: once people get a taste of universal healthcare, they like what they see and they don't stop until the job is finished.

Obviously I was talking about long-term public acceptance of national healthcare after it starts getting implemented, not public reaction during a midterm election six months after passage. I might, of course, turn out to be wrong about even that, but I said what I said, not what Troy pretended I said.

But hey — there's more to this than just personal pique. There are also facts, which Troy cherry picks with abandon. I don't know whether healthcare reform was really responsible for one-third of the 63-seat loss that Democrats suffered in November, as Troy says, but I do know in general terms how public opinion toward healthcare reform has trended during the year. Kaiser has been sampling it monthly and you can see the results on the right. In April, right after PPACA passed, it was viewed favorably by a 45%-40% margin. In November, that had changed to 42%-40%. And, as we all know, attitudes toward most of the specific provisions of PPACA remain even more strongly favorable. That's not really evidence of a massive turnaround in public opinon.

Other surveys show other things, but in general healthcare reform polls favorably among Democrats and slightly favorably among independents; more favorably among the working age population than the elderly (probably due to the tsunami of Medicare demagoguing during the campaign); and modest majorities favor giving the bill a chance rather than repealing it. And, as always, the individual mandate polls badly.

In other words, the jury is still out on the political impact of healthcare reform. I'd say Democrats made a mistake by delaying implementation of most of it until 2014, and I'd also say (obviously) that Republicans are going to take a stab at repealing/defunding parts of it next year. There's no telling how that's going to play out. In the long term, though, if PPACA survives I'll stick to my prediction: once it's real and people start benefiting from it, it will become popular and the public will want it expanded. I'll check back in 2020 to see how my crystal ball panned out.

Good Teachers Wanted, Apply Within

| Tue Dec. 21, 2010 6:07 PM EST

Stanford’s Eric Hanushek reports on research he's done into teacher effectiveness:

A teacher one standard deviation above the mean effectiveness annually generates marginal gains of over $400,000 in present value of student future earnings with a class size of 20 and proportionately higher with larger class sizes.

These aren't just superstars that Hanushek is talking about, either. About 16% of teachers are one standard deviation above the mean, so these are good teachers but not necessarily sensational ones. Karl Smith is impressed:

Social value isn’t a feel good concept. Hanushek limits himself to future earnings of the students. The other big drivers are always crime reduction and public assistance reduction. So we are saying better teachers lead to higher wages, lower crime and less welfare. This is a far cry from trying to put numbers on soft factors like civic engagement.

And Reihan Salam wants more:

I do wish that someone would connect the dots and make the obvious yet important point that Rick Hess has been making for ages: shrinking class sizes over the last forty years has diluted the teacher talent pool. Had we stayed at the teacher-student ratios of the 1970s, we’d have 2.2 million public school teachers rather than 3.2 million. Know what else happened over the last 40 years? Labor market discrimination against women and African Americans declined, giving talented female and African American workers who had once gravitated to the teaching profession other options. Allowing effective teachers to take on larger classes in exchange for more pay could have a powerful positive effect. With the same compensation bill, we could pay far higher salaries.

It makes sense that we'd be paying teachers more if there were fewer of them, though I'm not sure that's how things would actually play out in the real world. However, given the lack of evidence that lower class sizes improve educational outcomes, it seems worth a try.

Still, this leaves us with the biggest question unanswered. I think lots of people are sympathetic to the idea that good teachers make a big difference, but how do we decide who the good teachers are? Or who the best teaching recruits are? Value-added results from standardized testing regimes seem to be about the best we have at the moment, and those are pretty questionable. But for a wide variety of reasons both good and bad, there's no way that we'll ever end up dedicating large sums of money to a massive social experiment in teacher selection and retention unless we're pretty sure we have this question licked.

Obviously there are plenty of other problems bedeviling education too: concentrated poverty, disaffected parents, pedagogical conflicts, etc. etc. But teacher quality comes up repeatedly, and the problem of how to actually judge teacher quality in the real world always comes up right along with it. I'm not sure what the answer is. Lots of experimentation, I suppose.

The Really Big Country Problem

| Tue Dec. 21, 2010 3:34 PM EST

Brad Plumer has a useful piece today about  Sen. Tom Coburn's "Wastebook 2010," which allegedly exposes massive amounts of waste, fraud and abuse in the federal budget. You should read it, but I want to add a separate comment.

Nearly all WFA discussions fall victim to the Really Big Country problem. That is, the United States is a really big country, which means that no matter what kind of weird pathology you go looking for, you'll always find a fair amount of it. Or, more accurately, you'll find what seems to be a fair amount but really isn't. It's why so many parents worry about their kids being snatched off the street by strangers: only about a hundred abductions a year fall into this category, which seems like a lot. But in a country of 300 million, that's actually about as big as the number of people killed each year by lightning strikes. It's incredibly rare. [See update below.]

I'd venture to guess that barely any organization in human history has managed to reduce WFA below about 2%. If you earn $50,000 a year, that means waste of $1,000. Even careful households probably piss away that much each year. If you run a million-dollar small business, it means waste of $20,000 a year. Again: even a very miserly small business probably loses that much. It's just impossible to keep track of every expenditure, monitor every employee every minute of the day, or make sure you get the best price on every possible purchase.

Probably no one would argue too much about this because these numbers are human size. An average family blows a hundred bucks a month on dumb stuff? Sure. A business with half a dozen employees makes $20,000 worth of mistakes each year? Sure. But what about a federal government that spends upwards of $3 trillion per year? The same rate of WFA amounts to $50 billion or more. Or, using the usual budget window, $500 billion over ten years. That seems like an outlandish amount, but it's actually the same 2% as everyone else.

None of this is to say that we shouldn't fight this stuff. Families should, small businesses should, and the government should. Hell, Coburn's book might be a public service. But even if we do a rip-roaring job of fighting WFA and run the cleanest government in human history, any decent investigator will still probably be able to find at least 2% waste in the system. It seems like a huge amount, but it's largely a mirage based on people getting fooled by numbers too big for human comprehension. This happens a lot in modern society.

UPDATE: This doesn't really affect the main point of the post, but I was off base on the abduction figure. It's based on a 2002 report by David Finkelhor, which estimates 115 abductions per year "perpetrated by a stranger or slight acquaintance and involving a child who was transported 50 or more miles, detained overnight, held for ransom or with the intent to keep the child permanently, or killed."

However, a definition that includes any kind of abduction, even those lasting only a few minutes or a few hours, brings the tally up to 58,000 per year — and obviously parents are concerned about these kinds of abductions too. Some of them are what you'd think of as child snatchings and some aren't, but in any case the number is far higher than 115. Using the broader definition, the odds of having your child snatched is (depending on how broadly you cast your net) one in a thousand or less, which is quite low but still nowhere near the odds of being struck by lightning.