Kevin Drum

The Tea Party Is Dead. Long Live the Tea Party.

| Wed Feb. 12, 2014 11:56 AM EST

Does yesterday's vote for a clean debt ceiling increase mean that the Republican Party is finally coming to its senses? Ed Kilgore doubts it:

You will forgive me for an enduring skepticism on this latest "proof" that "the fever" (as the president calls radical conservatism) has broken, the Tea Party has been domesticated, the grownups are back in control, and the storms that convulsed our political system in 2009 have finally passed away. We've been hearing these assurances metronomically from the moment "the fever" first appeared.

....[But] it is not all that clear just yet that the GOP back-benchers racing to get out of Washington before a winter storm are satisfied with how the deal went down. Their level of equanimity will not improve after puzzled conservative constituents grill them on this "surrender," and after they are congratulated by everyone else on the political spectrum for their abandonment of "conservative principles."

In other words, it's once again premature to read into this development a sea-change in contemporary conservatism or the GOP. Best I can tell from reading conservative media the last few weeks, the reluctance of GOPers to engineer another high-level fiscal confrontation owed less to the public repudiation of last autumn's apocalypse than to the belief that Republicans are on the brink of a historic midterm victory accompanied by a decisive negative referendum on Obamacare. If that's "pragmatism," it's of a very narrow sort.

Yes indeedy. For all practical purposes, the tea party is moribund as an independent force, but only because it's been fully incorporated into the Republican Party itself. Sure, there are still groups out there with "tea party" in their name, but the funding and energy are mostly coming from the Koch brothers, the Club for Growth, ATR, and other right-wing pressure groups that have been around forever.

The difference between previous fluorescences of the nutball right and this one is simple: previous ones either died out in failure or else succeeded only in moving the GOP to the right a bit. The tea party fluorescence has finally captured the party for good. But this doesn't mean that every single political confrontation is going to turn into a scorched-earth campaign. Even fanatics can tell when a particular tactic has stopped working, and even fanatics like to win elections. But that doesn't mean they've lost their influence. They've learned a bit, and perhaps decided to become a bit more sophisticated about their opposition tactics, but they still control the Republican Party. Make no mistake about that.

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Chart of the Day: A High School Diploma Ain't What It Used to Be

| Wed Feb. 12, 2014 12:51 AM EST

As we all know, the biggest driving force behind rising income inequality has been the skyrocketing earnings of the top 1 percent. But although that might account for most of the story, it doesn't account for all of it. There's also a growing disparity between the earnings of college grads and the earnings of high school grads.

The chart below, from Pew Research, tells the story. In 1965, high school grads earned 19 percent less than college grads. Since then, the earnings of college grads have gone up (though slowly over the past two decades), while the earnings of high school grads have plummeted. As a result, high school grads today earn a whopping 39 percent less than college grads. Life for the 47 percent of Americans who have high school diplomas but no more is an increasingly parlous one.

The Fed Chairman Wore Sensible Shoes Today

| Tue Feb. 11, 2014 8:16 PM EST

Elizabeth Williamson of Real Time Economics, the home for "economic insight and analysis from the Wall Street Journal," analyzes Janet Yellen's first appearance before Congress today:

She took her seat at 10:01 a.m., clad in a monochrome suit and sensible shoes, carrying a black vinyl binder with rainbow-colored tabs. Once chided by an uncharitable commentator for wearing the same black dress twice in a row, Ms. Yellen hadn’t bought a new suit for the occasion, her spokeswoman, Michelle Smith, confided to a reporter. “I’ll try to come up with some color for you,” she whispered.


Paul Ryan Votes Against the Debt Ceiling Increase

| Tue Feb. 11, 2014 7:19 PM EST

With John Boehner finally crying uncle over the debt ceiling and dumping the whole thing on Democrats, the only suspense left was which members of the Republican leadership would suck it in and vote yes to get the bill over the finish line. Here's the answer:

Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy voted for the increase. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, on the other hand, voted against the bill.

There you go. Even Eric Cantor gritted his teeth and voted for the increase, but Paul Ryan didn't. Kinda makes you think he might still be keeping a presidential run in the back of his mind, doesn't it?

Will Democrats Kill the Filibuster Entirely Next Year?

| Tue Feb. 11, 2014 4:25 PM EST

After the 2000 election, with the Senate divided 50-50, Democrats demanded a power-sharing agreement in which both parties would have the same number of committee members and the same budget. Even though Dick Cheney provided the tiebreaking vote in favor of Republican control, Democrats got their way by threatening to filibuster the organization of the Senate.

So what if this happens again after the 2014 election? Joe Biden will provide the tiebreaking vote this time, but Republicans will threaten to filibuster unless they get equal representation. Richard Arenberg thinks this could lead to the end of the filibuster:

Here’s the interesting question. Last November the Democratic majority used the so-called “nuclear option” to eliminate the filibuster for presidential nominations (with the exception of the Supreme Court). This established the principle or at least demonstrated the means by which any rule could be changed at any time by a simple majority. In the wake of a hard-fought election to determine control of the Senate, would the temptation to eliminate the filibuster in order to gain clear control using the simple majority (with the vice president’s vote) be irresistible?  Would the Democratic base tolerate any less?

I have long argued that the use of the nuclear option would place the Senate on a slippery slope. I believe that the elimination of the filibuster on legislative matter is close to inevitable.

A tied Senate could be the test.

Maybe! But I'm not sure that either party has much motivation to kill the filibuster entirely at this point, regardless of what their bases demand. Let's examine the two parties separately.

Democrats: Killing the filibuster for presidential nominees made sense because nominations require only Senate approval. But what's the value of killing the filibuster for legislation? With the House under Republican control, it wouldn't do them much good. Nor would it be worth it just to avoid power-sharing during the last two years of Obama's term, when little is likely to be accomplished anyway. That simply isn't a big enough deal. And as unlikely as it seems, Democrats do need to be concerned with the possibility of complete Republican control after 2016. It's a slim possibility, but it's a possibility. If that happens, why hand over the rope to hang themselves?

Republicans: Suppose Republicans win the Senate outright in 2014. A lot of liberals take it as an article of faith that they'll immediately kill the filibuster completely. But why? With Obama still in office, it wouldn't do them any good. And they have to be deeply concerned about complete Democratic control after the 2016 election. It's not just a slim possibility, it's a very real possibility. If that happens, why hand over the rope to hang themselves?

Bottom line: There's nothing new about the procedure Harry Reid used to kill the filibuster for nominations. It's always been available, and everyone has always known it. But it hasn't been used before because both parties have always been afraid of what the other party would do in a filibuster-less world. That fear would continue to far outweigh the negligible benefits of killing the filibuster while government remains divided.

But what about after 2016? What if one of the parties wins total control of Congress and the presidency? That's harder to predict. I still think that fear of what the other party could do without a filibuster runs deep, and may well prevent either party from axing it. But I wouldn't bet on it. Both Republicans and Democrats will be chomping at the bit to break the grinding deadlock of the post-2010 era, and either party might decide to finally take the plunge.

But if it happens, it will be after 2016. The benefit of killing the filibuster after the 2014 election is just too slim to make it worthwhile.

Google Reads My Mind (And My Web Searches) Once Again

| Tue Feb. 11, 2014 2:36 PM EST

I realize this is old news, just part of the modern world, etc. etc., but it still seems sort of creepy to me. A few minutes ago I got the email on the right asking, "Why are the charging cables so short?"

And you know what? That's a good question! In fact, I was asking myself that just a few days ago. As a result, I spent a bit of time googling around for cheap USB power cables, and of course I clicked on cables of various lengths. Because, you know, those 3-foot cables really are kind of dinky.

Anyway, I know that Google knows all and sees all, but this is just a little too specific for comfort. It's like it was reading my mind and sending advertisers my way. Which it was. And I suppose some people would consider this pretty cool. I'm getting ads not for the usual junk, but for something I'm actually interested in. And yet, it still seems a little creepy. Maybe I should start using private browsing tabs a little more often.

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The Hillary Papers: Yet Another Conservative Bombshell That Strikes Out

| Tue Feb. 11, 2014 2:11 PM EST

Jonah Goldberg watched the NBC Nightly News last night and was unhappy that they didn't devote more time to Obama's delay of the employer mandate. There's a reason for that, of course: it's not really very important and most people don't care about it. Sure, all of us partisan junkies care about it, but that's about it. To everyone else it's a minor administrative rule change.

But he was also unhappy with another segment:

The highlight of the night was Andrea Mitchell’s “report” on the Washington Free Beacon’s big take-out on the “Hillary Papers.” Her discomfort was palpable. She assured viewers that the “inflammatory excerpts” weren’t necessarily in context (Mitchell the Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent for NBC who spent much of the last year covering Sarah Palin is a great stickler for context and eschews anything inflammatory). Hillary Clinton, the front runner for her party’s presidential nomination was treated like the victim. Thank goodness she didn’t joke about putting traffic cones up on the George Washington bridge!

By chance, I happened to see that segment. What struck me was less Andrea Mitchell's "discomfort" than the fact that this supposed bombshell seemed like a total nothingburger. When it was over, I sort of shrugged and wondered what the point was. Here's a bit of the transcript from Mitchell's report about the Diane Blair papers:

Tonight, the once-private papers of the woman Hillary Clinton has previously described as her closest friend are getting a lot of attention....Thanksgiving, 1996, Blair quotes Clinton saying "I'm a proud woman. I'm not stupid. I know I should do more to suck up to the press. I know it confuses people when I change my hairdos. I know I should pretend not to have any opinions, but I am just not going to. I'm used to winning and I intend to win on my own terms."

....September 9, 1998, Bill Clinton had finally admitted his relationship with Lewinsky. Blair writes of Hillary, "she is not trying to excuse him; it was a huge personal lapse." But she says to his credit, he tried to break it off, tried to pull away." Blair did not survive to provide context for her diary. Now Republicans say her notes are fair game.

Um, OK. Is that supposed to be damaging? The entire Beacon story is here, and I guess there are some outtakes that can be spun as unflattering toward Hillary, but that's about it. It's a bit of tittle tattle about who Hillary was annoyed with at various points in time, and not much more. And even that depends for its power on just how accurately Blair represented Hillary's views.

Maybe I'm demonstrating a lack of imagination here, but I'm having a hard time seeing this as especially damaging or bombshellish. For the most part, it strikes me as confirming that Hillary was pretty much who we thought she was: tough-minded, goal-oriented, sometimes defensive, and not always sure how to handle the tsunami of invective that beset the Clinton presidency. If you're a Hillary hater, it will be yet more evidence that she's Satan incarnate, but for the rest of us, I'm not sure what's really new here.

We Shouldn't Denigrate the Diginity of Work, Even Accidentally

| Tue Feb. 11, 2014 1:01 PM EST

Paul Krugman writes today about the Republican insistence that when they oppose safety net programs, they're doing it because they really care about the poor. Paul Ryan, for example, says that Obamacare is bad because it reduces incentives to work: "Inducing a person not to work who is on the low-income scale, not to get on the ladder of life, to begin working, getting the dignity of work, getting more opportunities, rising their income, joining the middle class, this means fewer people will do that." Here's Krugman:

Let’s talk, in particular, about dignity.

It’s all very well to talk vaguely about the dignity of work; but the idea that all workers can regard themselves as equal in dignity despite huge disparities in income is just foolish. When you’re in a world where 40 money managers make as much as 300,000 high school teachers, it’s just silly to imagine that there will be any sense, on either side, of equal dignity in work.

....Now, one way to enhance the dignity of ordinary workers is through, yes, entitlements: make it part of their birthright, as American citizens, that they get certain basics such as a minimal income in retirement, support in times of unemployment, and essential health care.

But the Republican position is that none of these things should be provided, and that if somehow they do get provided, they should come only at the price of massive government intrusion into the recipient’s personal lives — making sure that you don’t take advantage of health reform to work less, requiring that you undergo drug tests to receive unemployment benefits or food stamps, and so on.

In short, while conservatives may preach the dignity of work, their actual agenda is to deny lower-income workers as much dignity — and personal freedom — as possible.

There's so much here that I agree with. Massive levels of inequality are indeed corrosive to both dignity and a basic sense of fair play. Making certain entitlements universal is indeed a way of enhancing dignity. And the endless Republican efforts to shame the poor are simply loathsome.

And yet....I really hate to see liberals disparage the value of work, even if it's only implicit, as it is here. Even people who hate their jobs take satisfaction in the knowledge that they're paying their way and providing for their families. People who lose their jobs usually report intense stress and feelings of inadequacy even if money per se isn't an imminent problem (perhaps because a spouse works, perhaps because they're drawing an unemployment check). Most people want to work, and most people also want to believe that their fellow citizens are working. It's part of the social contract. As corrosive as inequality can be, a sense of other people living off the dole can be equally corrosive.

I know, I know: Krugman wasn't trying to advocate a life of government-supported sloth. I'm not trying to pretend he was. And yet....we should be careful about this stuff. Work is important for dignity, both at a personal level and a broader societal level. We all acknowledge this when we talk about economic policy, making it clear that our goal is to attack high unemployment and create an economy that provides a job for everyone. We should acknowledge it just as much when the talk gets more personal.

Boehner Gives In, Introduces Clean Debt Ceiling Bill

| Tue Feb. 11, 2014 11:51 AM EST

John Boehner has surrendered completely on the debt ceiling. None of his proposals managed to attract majority support among Republicans, so now he plans to introduce a clean bill and leave it up to Democrats to pass it:

"House Republican leaders told members this morning that it is clear the paid-for military COLA provision will not attract enough support, so we will be bringing up a 'clean' debt limit bill tomorrow," a Republican official said, referring to a plan on veterans' benefits. "Boehner made clear the G.O.P. would provide the requisite number of Republican votes for the measure but that Democrats will be expected to carry the vote."

…Mr. Boehner explained the decision to go forward with a "clean" debt ceiling bill as a reflection of the political reality that he simply did not have enough Republican votes to pass anything more ambitious.

"It's the fact that we don't have 218 votes," he said after meeting with House Republicans, "and when you don't have 218 votes, you have nothing." He added that he expected almost all of the House Democrats to vote to pass the bill, though he said he would still need to muster about 18 Republican votes to get the legislation over the finish line. "We'll have to find them," Mr. Boehner said. "I'll be one."

So whom did Boehner surrender to? That's actually a little fuzzy. Democrats were willing to support his previous plan, which would have tied the debt limit increase to a restoration of full benefits for veterans, but it was the tea party that rebelled against that plan. So in a way, this was basically a surrender to the tea party.

In any case, that's that. Boehner has decided (probably wisely) to take one for the team and get a bill passed so that Republicans can move on. In a way, this is the best choice he could have made. He gets the debt limit off the table, which is good for the party, since it means no more public debacles getting in the way of their election-year messages. At the same time, he's allowing virtually the entire Republican caucus to vote against it, which is also good for the party, since it allows individual candidates to rail against it and attack big-spending Democrats. And who loses? No one, really. Boehner himself will take some flack as a sellout, but he's been taking it anyway.

So will Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan vote for the debt ceiling increase? How about Kevin McCarthy, who will theoretically be the guy in charge of rounding up those 18 votes? Good question. Wait and see.

Study: Health Care Reform Likely to Reduce Bankruptcy and Catastrophic Debt

| Mon Feb. 10, 2014 9:01 PM EST

Today's email brings word of an interesting new paper from Bhashkar Mazumder of the Chicago Fed and Sarah Miller of Notre Dame. They set out to measure the effect of the Massachusetts health care reform on bankruptcy and personal debt, a subject that's topical for a number of reasons:

  • The Massachusetts plan is quite similar to Obamacare, so results from this study are suggestive of the impact that Obamacare will eventually have.
  • One of the primary purposes of universal health insurance is to relieve the financial stress of large unpaid medical bills.
  • Massachusetts is a good case study because its reform affected everyone, not just those below the poverty line.

The authors take advantage of the fact that health care reform had bigger effects on some groups than others. Most middle-aged people, for example, were already insured, so the Massachusetts reform affected them only modestly. Conversely, young people had relatively low insurance rates, so they were more heavily affected. Ditto for counties, some of which had higher initial rates of uninsurance than others.

The study exploits a very large data set of consumer finance based on reporting from credit bureaus, which provided a sample of nearly 400,000 individuals to look at. Its conclusion is unsurprising:

We find that the reform significantly improved credit scores, reduced the total amount past due, reduced the fraction of debt past due, and reduced the probability of personal bankruptcy. We find particularly pronounced reductions in the probability of having a large delinquency of over $5,000. These effects tend to be larger among individuals whose credit scores were low at the time of the reform, suggesting that the greatest gains in financial security occurred among those who were already struggling financially.

The charts below, excerpted from the study, illustrate the effect of health care reform, which was implemented in the period shown by the yellow bars. Despite the severe recession that followed, the amount of current debt stayed pretty flat while the amount of debt more than $10,000 past due declined sharply. Obamacare is not as universal as the Massachusetts reform, so its effects will probably be less pronounced. Nonetheless, it will not only provide routine health care for millions of Americans who aren't currently getting it, it will also make their lives far less financially precarious. That sounds like a win to me.