Kevin Drum

The 60-Vote Conundrum

| Sun Dec. 20, 2009 7:30 PM EST

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?

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All Hail Pat Toomey

| Sun Dec. 20, 2009 6:29 PM EST

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?

| Sun Dec. 20, 2009 6:11 PM EST

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

| Sun Dec. 20, 2009 2:30 PM EST

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.

Leverage and You

| Sat Dec. 19, 2009 5:45 PM EST

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.

Quotes of the Day: Healthcare Edition

| Sat Dec. 19, 2009 4:24 PM EST

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.

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Healthcare Gets to 60

| Sat Dec. 19, 2009 2:42 PM EST

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.

Copenhagen Finale

| Sat Dec. 19, 2009 1:41 PM EST

David Corn and Kate Sheppard have a pretty good first-draft-of-history tick-tock on the final round of negotiations at Copenhagen, and you should read their whole piece.  But just to get a flavor of the thing, here's how the final few minutes of the dealmaking went down according to Brazilian Ambassador Sergio Serra:

As the discussion continued, Obama dropped a term on the table: "examination and assessment." This suggested direct monitoring of Chinese emission curbs by outsiders. Chinese officials in the room pronounced it unacceptable."We weren't that happy with it, either," Serra noted. So a new description—"international consultations and analysis" — was worked out. A "consultation" is obviously less intrusive than an "examination." But what does "international consultations and analysis" — soon to be referred to as ICA — mean? Asked this, Serra shrugged and said, "Ehhhh." He added, "The definition will be negotiated by a panel of people. They will decide what it means, like everything else." Obama promised to sell this not-well-defined ICA phrase to the Europeans. He also told Wen and the others that he had been asked by the Europeans to push for the below-2 degrees level.

The resolution of that six-word dispute eased the US-China deadlock that had paralyzed the summit, creating space for an agreement that may not be an agreement — christened the "Copenhagen Accord."

This is worse than an arms control negotiation.  Yuck.  And of course, the final agreement is almost comically vague, providing no numerical targets at all except for those in Appendix I, which is entirely blank.  Each individual country will fill it in later.  In other words, there's virtually nothing here except for a vague agreement that, yes, global warming is real and we probably ought to do something about it someday.

On the other hand, this post from Bill McKibben about how Barack Obama has "gutted progressive values" seems pretty over the top.  Copenhagen obviously didn't produce much of an agreement, but it's hard to see how Obama is the big villain in all this.  He's hemmed in domestically by Congress and internationally by China and other countries that flatly aren't willing to accept tough limits, and it's a little hard to see how he could have waved a magic wand and changed this.

Still, there's no two ways about it: by last September it was already obvious that Copenhagen wasn't going to produce much, and it managed to fail even those low expectations.  The only minuscule bright spot is that what we got was slightly better than what seemed likely Friday morning: total chaos and a complete breakdown.  By that low bar, producing a piece of paper of any kind counts as a success.

Protesting with Doughnuts

| Sat Dec. 19, 2009 1:10 PM EST

If you're ever curious about why so many people hate teachers unions, check out this little story in the LA Times today about the Centinela Valley Union High School District.  Long story short, on the last day of school before break, a minimum day, the district planned to feed their mostly low-income kids the usual mid-morning snack.  The union was pissed about this because it would extend the day by 15 minutes, so teachers all kept the kids in class and fed them Krispy Kreme doughnuts instead.  Result: the district had to throw away the unused snack food, they lost $10,000 in federal funds, and teachers got to leave 15 minutes earlier.

"A lot of teachers are very protective of their time," said the union rep.  No kidding.

Friday Cat Blogging - 18 December 2009

| Fri Dec. 18, 2009 4:17 PM EST

Man, am I in a bad mood today.  I'll spare you the details.  And there's only one answer for that: cats!  Big ones.  On the left, I figured I'd show you the pillow/pod combo that I mentioned last week as a distraction to keep Domino off my desk.  It was working pretty well until yesterday, when she suddenly seems to have decided it's no longer a favored snoozing spot.  Not sure why.  Hopefully it's just a passing thing.  On the right, Inkblot is inhabiting a box of tissue paper that a few minutes before was a box full of Christmas ornaments.  A few minutes later it was a napping spot.  Festive!

Speaking of which, a regular reader emailed this morning to remind me that next Friday is (a) Christmas and (b) a Friday.  I'm not really planning to blog that day, so how about a catblogging extravaganza instead?  Send me a Christmas-themed photo of your cat, and I'll post a bunch of them next Friday.  In fact, since I'm actually a secular liberal Christmas-hater underneath my mild exterior, you can also send me Hanukkah cats, Kwanzaa cats, Eid cats, or just plain old holiday cats.  Just make it festive somehow and your cat can be famous!  I'll post a dozen or so of the best.  My email address is calpundit@cox.net.