Kevin Drum

The Financial Lobby at Work

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 6:48 PM EST

Ryan Grim and Arthur Delaney write today about the House Committee on Financial Services — aka the banking committee — and how Democrats decided to populate it when they won control of Congress in 2006:

The banking committee [...] is known as a "money committee" because joining it makes fundraising, especially from donors with financial interests litigated by the panel, significantly easier. The Democratic leadership chose to embrace this concept, setting up the committee as an ATM for vulnerable rookies. Eleven freshman representatives from conservative-leaning districts, designated as "frontline" members, have been given precious spots on the committee. They have individually raised an average of $1.09 million for their 2010 campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics; by contrast, the average House member has raised less than half of that amount.

....Because the frontline members face the possible end of their careers in November and may be beholden to the whims of powerful donors, the Democrats' 13-seat advantage on the committee is weaker than it appears. If seven members break with the party on a vote, the GOP wins. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) refers to them as "the unreliable bottom row." (The second row is little better, populated by the Democrats from red-leaning areas who first took office after the 2006 election.)

In short, by setting up the committee as a place for shaky Democrats from red districts to pad their campaign coffers, leadership made a choice to prioritize fundraising over the passage of strong legislation. "It makes it difficult to corral consensus," says Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), a subcommittee chairman, of the unwieldy panel.

The whole piece is worth a read, including the explanation of how financial interests these days tend to get local frontmen — realtors, car dealers, farmers, small credit unions — to push for loopholes that would be hard to pass if it were obvious that Wall Street firms were behind them. And for sheer entertainment, don't miss the description of senior members of the banking committee twisting themselves into knots to change their votes on legislation in order to curry favor with industry lobbyists once they've decided they were supporting a lost cause. It's politics at its finest.

But of course, keep one other thing in mind too: Democrats may cave on some of this stuff — and shame on them for doing so — but at least there's still a core group of them willing to do what's right. On the Republican side, the number of committee members willing to what's right is precisely zero.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Quote of the Day: Grandstanding Watch

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 2:08 PM EST

From Chris Hayes, responding to the mindless blathering of Rep. Peter King (R–Hysteristan) about Obama's response to the underwear bomber:

It sounds like you're saying they've been insufficiently grandstanding on the issue.

"I don't know why you'd say that," King said. And you know what? He probably really doesn't.

Repealing Reform

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 1:43 PM EST

Apparently the conservative base is demanding that all good Republicans campaign next year on repeal of healthcare reform. This is probably a good strategy since it (a) makes for good rabble rousing but (b) will never have to be followed up on.  Republicans will never get either the 60 votes they'd need for repeal or the two-thirds they'd need to override an Obama veto, so why not promise the moon?

But since there's not a lot to blog about this week, I guess I'm curious about how exactly they're going to do this. The problem, as other people have also pointed out, is that the current bill has basically been stripped down to the bare minimum you can have once you start from the point that everyone agrees about: reforming the insurance industry. Crudely speaking, the moving parts go together like this:

  • Insurance companies are required to take all comers, regardless of preexisting conditions.
  • This requires regulation of pricing, since taking all comers is meaningless if they're priced out of the market.
  • Regulation of pricing would destroy the private insurance market, since sick people would all buy cheap insurance and bankrupt the companies. So you have to ensure that everyone buys insurance, even the young and healthy. Thus, an individual mandate.
  • But if you're going to have an individual mandate, then you have to include subsidies so that poor people can afford it.
  • And that's the ball game.

Now, there's more to healthcare reform than just this. There's Medicaid expansion for example, which I suppose Republicans could fight against. But Medicaid is cheaper than subsidies, so costs would go up if they did that. There are also all the cost cutting measures and pilot projects in the bill, and some of them are unpopular. But again, they'd basically be surrendering completely on even the idea of reining in healthcare costs if they attacked that.

So what do they have left to campaign against? Maybe the specific funding sources, but that would be a pretty raw bit of pandering to the rich. The fact is that at any level of real detail, Republicans just don't have much of an argument.

I suppose this doesn't matter, though. It sort of reminds me of the too-clever liberal response whenever conservatives start railing about cutting the deficit without raising taxes. It goes something like this: "OK, fine. But two-thirds of the federal budget is taken up by Social Security, Medicare, national defense, and interest on the debt. You don't want to cut that stuff, so to eliminate the deficit you'd have to slash about half of the remaining stuff. So what are you going to cut?"

Liberals always ask that question, conservatives never answer it since they know perfectly well it would piss off practically every registered voter in the country, and it makes no difference. They just keep saying it anyway, and lots of voters buy it. Probably it would be the same with healthcare reform. They'd refuse to say just exactly what they'd cut, and it wouldn't really make any difference. It's the thought that counts, after all.

More Drama Please, Obama

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 12:40 PM EST

"I'm not sure you can get more beltway than this article," writes a friend.  Here's the article:

There is a sense of déjà vu in the Obama administration’s response to the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day. A by-now familiar pattern has been established for dealing with unexpected problems.

First, White House aides downplay the notion that something may have gone wrong on their part. While staying out of the spotlight, the president conveys his efforts to address the situation and his feelings about it through administration officials. After a few days, the White House concedes on the issue, and perhaps Barack Obama even steps out to address it.

....By the time Obama addressed the public with a brief televised statement, his critics had made such headway that the White House was left with this lede in the New York Times: “President Obama emerged from Hawaiian seclusion on Monday to try to quell gathering criticism of his administration’s handling of the thwarted Christmas Day bombing of an American airliner as a branch of Al Qaeda claimed responsibility.”

It’s the kind of story the White House might have avoided if Obama hadn’t waited so long to forcefully react to the incident.

That's right: if only Obama insisted on immediately grabbing the spotlight and relentlessly overhyping events for his own political gain, maybe the right would leave him alone. Sounds like a solid plan to me.

A Bold Stand from the Journal

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 11:20 AM EST

As a wise man once said, you could devote your entire life to debunking inane Wall Street Journal editorials once you let yourself get sucked into their gaping maw. But via Ezra Klein, today's editorial is a gem, not pretending to even a germ of reason or sanity:

The White House is now floating a bipartisan commission to reduce federal borrowing, and much of the political class is all for it. We only hope Republicans aren't foolish enough to fall down this trap door....Republicans should respond with their own choice: They'll agree to a deficit commission only if it takes tax increases off the table....

Yeah, I'm sure Democrats will jump at that deal. And I can't wait for the Journal's detailed fiscal plan for cutting federal spending by 30% — especially since they simultaneously seem to think that Medicare should be cut and that it should be preserved as is. Should be a crowd pleaser.

In fairness, plenty of liberals agree with the Journal in a mirror image sort of way: a commission would be nothing but a facade for Pete Peterson to gut Social Security and Medicare and probably throw in a few tax cuts for the rich for good measure. It looks like bipartisanship has as bleak a future in 2010 as it did in 2009.

Miscellany

| Mon Dec. 28, 2009 11:20 PM EST

Three quick items:

  • Yes, the filibuster sucks, but I agree with both Ezra Klein and Bruce Bartlett that the tradition of Senate holds is even more odious. But if it's not possible even to do away with holds, I'll reiterate my suggestion that the Senate scale way, way back on the number of officials that it has to confirm. Maybe the top two officers in each executive department, appellate judges and above, and a few others of similar rank. The rest should just be straight presidential appointments.
  • Can we all, please, chill out about the failed plane bombing, chill out about Janet Napolitano's "the system worked" gaffe, and chill out about Obama remaining in Hawaii? Just. Chill. Out. We don't have to go completely cuckoo every time something like this happens. Instead, let's find out where the system failed instead of hysterically guessing about it, and then figure out what we ought to do about it.
  • For decades now, the initiative process in California has primarily been a tool of the rich and powerful, not the grassroots. Here's the latest outrage.

That is all. You may now return to Monday Night Football.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Iran's Economy

| Mon Dec. 28, 2009 12:18 PM EST

Conventional wisdom says that the Democratic Party's chances in next year's midterm election will mostly depend not on terrorism, not on healthcare, but on simple economics. If the economy is improving, they'll do OK.  If it's not, they'll get hammered.

Juan Cole suggests this dynamic may be playing out in Iran as well, where this weekend's demonstrations have grown ever bigger and more violent. Ideology may seem to be at the forefront, but the economy is probably playing a big role in the background:

Richard Spencer of the Independent reports from Dubai on the darker side of Sunday's events, as crowds went on rampages, setting fire to banks, government buildings and even a local police station....

The report of attacks on banks makes me think that there is an economic dimension to this uprising. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's profligate spending had provoked very high inflation last year, up to nearly 30%. Although the government maintains that inflation is now running 15%, that is still a hit that average families are taking, on top of the high prices of last year.

....Moreover, as as Robert Worth recently reported, the government has been threatening to remove subsidies from staples. I was in Egypt in January of 1977 when President Anwar El Sadat stopped subsidies under pressure from the IMF, and it threw the country into 3 days of turmoil from Aswan to Alexandria. Iranians have been upset by this talk of no more subsidies and it may have fed economic anxieties already inflamed by the high inflation (in fact, removal of subsidies is essentially a form of price inflation for consumers).

More at the link.

Modern Conservativism

| Mon Dec. 28, 2009 11:57 AM EST

Here's the last two weeks in a nutshell:

Conservative response to a guy setting his underwear on fire on an airplane: It's Obama's fault! We should declare war on Yemen! We should stop allowing Muslims on our airplanes! We need to connect the dots! We're all going to die!

Conservative response to providing healthcare to 30 million Americans: It's socialism! It's going to bankrupt America! It's Chicago thug politics! It's going to kill grandma! It's going to turn our healthcare system into an abattoir!

Conservative response to regulating the financial industry that almost destroyed America's banking system: It's Marxism! It's going to cause hyperinflation! It's Uncle Sam's jackboot on the commerce of the country! It's the end of innovation! Buy gold!

Conservative response to catastrophic climate change: It's a hoax from the liberal media. Pay no attention to it.

Feel free to add your own observations in comments.

Quote of the Day: Fiscal Conservatism

| Mon Dec. 28, 2009 11:18 AM EST

From Sen Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), on his dedication to fiscal prudence:

Six years ago, "it was standard practice not to pay for things," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "We were concerned about it, because it certainly added to the deficit, no question."

Note to Hatch: It has never been "standard practice" not to pay for things. It was a short-lived innovation of the Bush/Rove White House not to pay for things. And no, you showed no serious concern about it at the time. Other than that, you're right.

No Drama Obama

| Sat Dec. 26, 2009 3:51 PM EST

Adam Nagourney yesterday:

As much as Mr. Obama presented himself as an outsider during his campaign, a lesson of this battle is that this is a president who would rather work within the system than seek to upend it. He is not the ideologue ready to stage a symbolic fight that could end in defeat; he is a former senator comfortable in dealing with the arcane rules of the Senate and prepared to accept compromise in search of a larger goal. For the most part, Democrats on Capitol Hill have stuck with him.

And Ross Douthat:

Obama baffles observers, I suspect, because he’s an ideologue and a pragmatist all at once. He’s a doctrinaire liberal who’s always willing to cut a deal and grab for half the loaf. He has the policy preferences of a progressive blogger, but the governing style of a seasoned Beltway wheeler-dealer.

....In hindsight, the most prescient sentence penned during the presidential campaign belongs to Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker. “Perhaps the greatest misconception about Barack Obama,” he wrote in July 2008, “is that he is some sort of anti-establishment revolutionary. Rather, every stage of his political career has been marked by an eagerness to accommodate himself to existing institutions rather than tear them down or replace them.”

I think the thing that surprises me is that anyone ever thought otherwise. Among low-information voters I understand the disconnect: they heard hopey-changiness, haven't really gotten it, and are disappointed. But even some very high-information voters seem to be disappointed the same way, and it's baffling. Obama's entire career has been one of low-key, pragmatic leadership. He's clearly a mainstream liberal, but during the Democratic primaries he was famously the least progressive (by a small margin) of the three major candidates on domestic issues. He did everything he could to avoid taking dangerously inflammatory stands on hot-button social issues. His advisors during the campaign were nearly all members in good standing of the center left. His nickname was "No Drama Obama," and his temperament was plainly cautious, sober, and businesslike.

This was all pretty obvious during the campaign, and everybody understood it perfectly well when Republicans went crazy and started tarring him a radical socialist and a bomb-throwing revolutionary. Remember how we mocked all that stuff? But I guess that deep down, an awful lot of people were hoping that he was just play acting during the campaign, pretending to be a solid citizen while the real Obama was plotting to turn us into Sweden.

Personally, I wish Obama would articulate the liberal agenda more full-throatedly, and I wish he'd take a few more risks and push his own caucus a little harder. I've thought that ever since the 2008 campaign. But the fact that he hasn't hardly comes as a surprise. He's as liberal a president as we've had in 40 years, but he's no starry-eyed idealist. Why would anyone ever have thought differently?