Kevin Drum

The Democrats' Jobs "Plan"

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 12:44 PM EST

Scott Brown is set to be sworn in as the newest member of the United States Senate later today. That means Democrats will need at least one Republican to switch sides if they hope to beat a Republican filibuster of their jobs bill. An initial vote on the package is set for Monday. Brian Beutler has the latest on how the Dems' plan to do that:

"You need two to tango. And you need Republicans for bipartisanship," said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (I-IL). "Hope is prospective...we don't have bipartisanship at this moment. I hope we'll have it in a matter of minutes, hours, days."

Hope may be prospective. But it's not a plan.

Maybe the Dems really do have a GOPer on board, and they just don't want to say yet. But more likely, they're expecting the bill to fail and plan on blaming the Republicans for it. That might be good politics, but it doesn't actually help anyone get a job.

Kevin is traveling today.

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Paul Ryan's Budget

| Thu Feb. 4, 2010 12:06 PM EST

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) has received a lot of attention in recent days for his plan to slash the deficit. (If you haven't yet, read Ezra Klein's interview with Ryan.) Mostly that's because he actually has something resembling a plan. The bulk of the "savings" from the plan come from converting Medicare to a voucher program and limiting the value of the vouchers. In other words, Ryan would change Medicare from what is essentially a single-payer plan for the elderly into a coupon program, with coupons that wouldn't cover the full cost of your medical care. (Ryan would also essentially privatize Social Security, but he doesn't get much in the way of savings from that.) And it's true—if you eliminate the whole "social insurance" bit about Medicare, it gets a lot cheaper. 

Now, Kevin says the plan is all "smoke and mirrors" because Ryan doesn't say "how his spending limits will be met." But using vouchers is actually a great way to set spending limits, if that's what you want to do. The real problem with Ryan's plan is that it's the kind of plan you propose when you don't actually have to pass a plan. Ross Douthat writes that "even if there were a politically-feasible path toward the kind of overhaul Ryan has in mind, it’s not clear how many Republican politicians would want to take it." Even Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), who appeared with Ryan at a press conference on Tuesday to discuss the plan, hasn't embraced its proposals. The Atlantic's Derek Thompson has it right: "It's a shocking budget, and the kind of thing that no party in power would ever have the cojones to propose." It's the "gradual extermination" of Medicare, Thompson says. 

The biggest problem with Ryan's plan is that it doesn't actually control health care costs. It simply shifts the burden of paying for them from the public sector to individuals. Instead of the government going bankrupt trying to pay for medical care, it'll be individuals. That's all well and good for the rich, who might be able to pay for their own health care. But people who would have relied on Medicare are going to be out of luck. Medical costs wil rise much faster than the value of the voucher will. Ryan's plan seems to pretend that the problem isn't medical costs—it's just that the government is trying to pay for them. James Kwak is good on this:

The implicit premise [of Ryan's plan] is that we have to screw ordinary people–or at least make them bear a high degree of risk–in order to save the government budget. But what is the government budget? It’s a pile of money that we contribute and that our representatives are supposed to spend on things we can’t buy for ourselves individually. I know that those representatives make mistakes, are borderline corrupt, etc. But Medicare is exactly the kind of program that we want government to provide–a program that shifts risk from individuals to the government, and thereby the country as a whole–and that’s why it’s so popular.

Other countries manage to keep their citizens healthy at a much lower cost than we do. They don't have to dismantle their social insurance programs to do it. Why should we?

Kevin is traveling today.

More Question Time?

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 5:21 PM EST

Last week, President Barack Obama and the House Republican caucus held a riveting, televised question-and-answer session at the GOP's retreat. Now a bunch of lefty and righty bloggers, academics, and media figures (including Mother Jones' David Corn, who drafted the petition) have formed a coalition to demand more events along the same lines. Alex Balk thinks this is a bad idea:

It's a good idea unless you've seen how Question Times actually work in parliamentary democracies, where members of the governing parties ask self-serving softballs (e.g., "Do you agree with me that the American worker is the hardest worker in the world?") designed to run out the clock, while the opposition party tosses up as many cheap shots as it can in hopes that something will stick. And even were the process to be modified so that it was simply the President and Republicans, what does it benefit the President to reward the opposition with a continuing platform from which they can repeatedly voice their disagreements without offering credible, concrete alternatives? I mean, doesn't he already do that enough with the Senate's Democratic caucus? Nobody wants to watch that.

David actually addresses this concern fairly well in his piece announcing the coalition:

None of us are naive and believe that implementing Question Time will cure what ails our country and our political process. We do realize that if QT does become a Washington routine, politicians and their aides will do what they can to game it to their advantage.... There may well be attempts to institutionalize Question Time in a fashion that renders it nothing more than a canned replay of pre-existing spin. But even though there are problems with the presidential debates—which have been taken over by the political parties and a corporate-sponsored commission—those events still have value.

At Wednesday's White House press conference, when David asked Bill Burton whether the administration would commit to more Question Time-type events, Burton essentially said no, arguing that last week's event worked because of its "spontaneity." Burton and Balk have a point. Even if Question Time happens again, it probably won't be as good as it was last week. But I think David actually comes out on top here. No one thinks that a few question-and-answer sessions will fix America's problems. But QT could make things a little bit better. How can that be bad?

(FWIW Kevin thinks last week marked the "first and last" Question Time. Despite all this, he could very well be right.)

Kevin is traveling today and tomorrow.

Interrogating Abdulmutallab

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 3:47 PM EST

Flickr/Mike Licht (Creative Commons).Flickr/Mike Licht (Creative Commons).On Tuesday, Sens. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.) joined Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and a bunch of Republicans to slam the Obama administration's plan to try the alleged 9/11 co-conspirators in federal court. Graham announced that he planned to introduce a bill—with Lincoln and Webb's support—to prohibit funding for civilian trials for Khalid Sheikh Mohamed and the other accused planners of the 9/11 attacks. The Senate rejected a similar bill, 55-45, back in November, but Graham and many of his allies pointed to the failed Christmas attack allegedly carried out by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as evidence that the Obama adminstration's strategy for fighting terrorism isn't working.

Many of the critics of the Obama administration's response seem to be claiming that Abdulmutallab should not have been arrested or read his Miranda rights. They seem to believe he should have been turned over to military custody so he could face the same military tribunals that they want KSM et. al. to face. (TPM's Justin Elliott has a good piece on why tribunals might not be the most effective way to try and convict terrorists.) And some of the critics are suggesting that Abdulmutallab should have faced "harsher" interrogation—an argument-by-euphemism for using techniques that have been banned as torture.

On Tuesday night, the Obama adminstration fought back at the criticism with a barrage of leaks to the press. Abdulmutallab is cooperating with investigators, sources told the New York Times. Gaining his trust by involving his family was supposedly key to getting him to provide information on Al Qaeda. So the Obama administration is defending its way of dealing with terrorist suspects by claiming that its way works. (The Obama administration's way is also the way it was almost always done before 9/11, and sometimes after—shoe-bomber Richard Reid was Mirandized, too, and no one raised a fuss.)

But in some ways, using the "it works" defense is too weak. Attorney General Eric Holder has a better idea: defend the Obama administration because, when it comes to Abdulmutallab, it's following precedent, the Constitution, and the law. In a letter to Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate minority leader, Holder writes:

The practice of the U.S. government, followed by prior and current Administrations without a single exception, has been to arrest and detain under federal criminal law all terrorist suspects who are apprehended inside the United States... Some have argued that had Abdulmutallab been declared an enemy combatant, the government could have held him indefinitely without providing him access to an attorney. But the government's legal authority to do so is far from clear. In fact, when the Bush administration attempted to deny Jose Padilla access to an attorney, a federal judge in New York rejected that position, ruling that Padilla must be allowed to meet with his lawyer. Notably, the judge in that case was Michael Mukasey, my predecessor as Attorney General. In fact, there is no court-approved system currently in place in which suspected terrorists captured inside the United States can be detained and held without access to an attorney; nor is there any known mechanism to persuade an uncooperative individual to talk to the government that has been proven more effective than the criminal justice system.

Adam Serwer, who first wrote about the Holder letter, has a good list of the ways in which Abdulmutallab's successful interrogation "explodes" key torture myths. But I also especially enjoyed the take of "M.S." at The Economist (although I know Kevin hates their semi-anonymous blogs):

THERE are apparently a significant number of people in America who don't think that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab should have been arrested, read his rights, and interrogated by FBI officers, with a view to ultimate prosecution in a court of law for the crime of attempted murder. I don't really understand what it is that these people do think.... Eventually, one assumes, such people want Mr Abdulmutallab tried by some other parallel system of justice, a military tribunal perhaps, so that he gets less of an opportunity to defend himself than he would have in the normal criminal-justice system. As Scott Brown says, "In dealing with terrorists, our tax dollars should pay for weapons to stop them, not lawyers to defend them." I have no idea what Mr Brown is afraid might happen to Mr Abdulmutallab in court: that, with a clever lawyer, he might beat the rap? The man's underpants burst into flame in full view of an airplane full of passengers.

This is a really important point. The criminal justice system is how America has traditionally dealt with terrorists. It has so far proven more effective at actually convicting them than military tribunals have. The burden of proof should fall on those who advocate using a different system.

Kevin is traveling today and tomorrow.

Decision "Next Week" On Health Care Strategy

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 2:39 PM EST

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said last night that he hopes Democrats will settle on a strategy for moving forward on health care reform by sometime next week. That's good news of a sort, but take it with a few grains of salt. 

The way forward is already pretty clear. If the Democrats are going to do this, the Senate needs to use the filibuster-proof reconciliation process to pass some fixes to its health care reform bill. Then the House needs to pass the "fixed" Senate bill. That's the only remotely realistic path that anyone has suggested that gets to comprehensive reform. Every other plan is either politically unworkable (e.g., having the House pass the Senate bill unchanged) or doesn't lead to comprehensive reform (e.g., breaking the bill up). If the Democrats want to pass reform, the path is obvious. Reid is sort of beating around the bush here. When he talks about settling on a strategy, what he means is agreeing on potential "fixes," figuring out workarounds to potential procedural roadblocks, and, most important, figuring out whether he and Pelosi have the votes to proceed.

It's worth remembering that some Democrats, including Steny Hoyer, the House Majority Leader, said last week that this week would be the week that Dems would settle on a strategy for getting health care reform done. When confronted with that fact at his weekly press briefing on Tuesday, Hoyer said, "Did I say that? I was in error." He added that he anticipates making a decision "just as soon as the way forward is clear."

Democrats would also do well to think about another thing Hoyer said on Tuesday. He told the story of a woman with an "orange-sized tumor" and no insurance who called his home, explaining that she didn't know what she was going to do. She couldn't go to the emergency room, because she wasn't gushing blood, she wasn't poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, and she wasn't old enough to qualify for Medicare. But she didn't have the $12,500 she needed to have the tumor removed. "That's what this health care debate is about," Hoyer said. "We talk a lot about this complication, that complication, this that and the other thing. But what this debate is about is really that woman who called and left me a message and said 'what do I do?'"

Kevin is traveling today and tomorrow.

Chris Dodd vs. the Volcker Rule

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 1:53 PM EST

Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), who has apparently been possessed by the spirit of his colleague Max Baucus (of "gang of six" fame), is desperate to get bipartisan financial regulatory reform. Unfortunately, that probably means not actually reforming the financial sector. Here's the Times:

Mr. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, added that the administration was "getting precariously close" to excessive ambition for the legislation. "I don’t want to be in a position where we end up doing nothing because we tried to do too much," he said.

It's hard to see how anything that the administration has proposed to rein in the financial sector amounts to "excessive ambition," if by "excessive ambition" you mean something like "overregulation." But if "excessive ambition" means "too hard on the banks to actually pass," well, that's just sad. Digby says "One hates to be cynical about this, but Dodd is leaving.  And he's going to need a job." That could be right. But the other prospect, just as frightening, is that Dodd has accurately assessed the situation and realized that real financial reform can't get through Congress because the banks own the place. (That is basically what Kevin thinks, after all.) Either way, the Volcker rule is looking increasingly like a good proposal that will remain just that—a proposal.

Kevin is traveling today and tomorrow.

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Health Care Questions

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 11:54 AM EST

Nancy Pelosi says "we are very close," to passing health care reform. She's in a position to know, but from the outside, Democrats don't look very "close" at all. That's because Pelosi has said that there is zero chance that the House will pass the Senate health care bill unchanged. ("Our members will not support the Senate bill. Take that as a fact.") And according to Pelosi, just having the Senate "fix" its bill at some point in the future won't cut it—changes have to pass before the House votes on the Senate bill. So there's still a lot to be done if the bill is going to pass. The Senate and the House will have to agree on a package of changes to the Senate bill. Harry Reid will have to find the votes to pass those changes through the filibuster-proof reconciliation process in the Senate. And then Nancy Pelosi will have to assemble the votes she needs to pass the modified Senate bill through the House.

There are a bunch of obstacles to this. As Greg Sargent has reported, Senate aides are balking at the prospect of passing the fixes first. David Waldman at DailyKos says it shouldn't be a problem to pass the fixes first using reconciliation. But even if Waldman's right, it hardly matters—what matters is that Senate aides think it'll be hard to pass the fixes first. That essentially means that the two houses of Congress are waiting on each other to act. The House wants the Senate to move first; the Senate says (anonymously, so far) it can't move first. That's a recipe for disaster. It's really important to find out whether what the Senate aide told Sargent is right. If the aide is right, Democrats are going to have to consider other ways to pass health care reform (or face the prospect of letting it die). And if the aide is wrong, well, what is the Senate waiting for? 

Update: In the comments, Donny Shaw points to a Politico article that has Reid saying that passing the fixes through reconciliation before the House votes on the Senate bill is a "strong possibility." That's not that different from what Senate folks have been saying openly since last week, but it does indicate that Reid may think that Sargent's aide is wrong about potential problems with passing the fixes before the actual bill. (Reid does say the House would have to start the reconciliation bill.)

Kevin is traveling today and tomorrow.

Housekeeping Note

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 2:14 AM EST

I'll be traveling for a couple of days, and Nick Baumann from our DC bureau will once again be filling in for me during my absence. (Thanks, Nick!) I may contribute a post or two while I'm gone, but that depends on time and the WiFi gods. If not, I'll be back Friday afternoon. See you then.

The Kitchen Sink

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 5:09 PM EST

Josh Marshall makes the point today that one thing hurting congressional Democrats is that they aren't doing enough to force Republicans to cast embarrassing votes that can be used against them during the upcoming midterm elections.  Matt Yglesias calls this belief "a bit dangerous and delusional":

Look out the window at the state of the labor market. Not the labor market for the Washington DC metro area or for the kind of college-educated professionals likely to be social acquaintances of congressional staff, but of the country as a whole. How on earth is the electoral situation not going to be bleak for the party in charge? This is the worst recession since World War II.

Under the circumstances, there are two useful things a member of congress can do. One is to take actions that improve the economic situation. The other is to pass laws that tackle important long-run problems. But if you can’t do the first thing, I think you’re really fooling yourself if you think some kind of parliamentary hijinks are going to transform the situation.

I think my take is different: there's no reason Dems shouldn't be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. Fixing the economy would clearly do Democrats more good than anything else, but honestly, it's too late for anything passed this month to have much effect by September. And although I'm in favor of tackling long-term problems, that probably has a pretty negligible effect on short-term opinion too.

So whatever happens on these fronts, that's the background that you have to accept. If the economy sucks, it's going to be bad news for Dems. But once you've done everything you can to improve the economy and address things like healthcare reform, why not also do whatever else you can to scare up a few votes? Playing games with wedge votes probably won't have a huge effect, but you might as well give it a try. Unless it's literally preventing you from doing more important stuff, there's no reason not to.

A Ray of Hope on Healthcare

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 4:41 PM EST

Greg Sargent flags the latest robopoll from Public Policy Polling as good news for the cause of healthcare reform. It turns out that Republican are ahead in the generic congressional ballot regardless, but there's a direct pair of questions asking for support levels if healthcare passes vs. healthcare failing. If it fails, Republicans lead by five points. If it passes they lead by only four points. In other words, there's no difference: Dems don't lose anything by passing healthcare, so they might as well do the right thing and then do their best to sell it to the public over the next ten months.

As much as I'd like to believe this, I was all ready to disagree with Greg. After all, what matters isn't the national sample, but how people in each state respond. And if swing states have more Republicans and fewer Democrats, "no difference" could easily lead to a several point deficit once you look at the crosstabs.

But then I went and looked at the crosstabs. And guess what? The news is actually better than I expected. Basically, Republicans are already as opposed to Democrats as they can get: 85%-4% if healthcare fails vs. 87%-4% if it passes. So it's not as if passing healthcare is going to cost any Republican votes. Likewise, Democratic support for Democrats goes from 76%-8% if healthcare fails to 79%-11% if it passes. It's the same margin either way.

But take a look at independents. If healthcare fails they support Republicans by a 14-point margin. But if it passes they support Republicans by only an 8-point margin. Democrats clearly make up some ground.

This is only one poll, and state-by-state results still matter more than a national sample. But it sure looks as though independents would be noticeably less disgusted with Democrats if they have the spine to pass their healthcare plan. What's more, since this poll makes it clear that independents are more open on the subject than either confirmed Democrats or confirmed Republicans, there's a real opportunity to win them over once healthcare is passed and everyone calms down a little.

This is a small beacon of hope, but it's real. It really does look as if passing healthcare is better for swing-state Democrats than not passing it.