Kevin Drum

Republicans Get Desperate

| Mon Mar. 22, 2010 12:49 PM EDT

We all know that Republicans are going to do their best to kill the healthcare reconciliation rider in the Senate. Their latest scheme, apparently, is to claim that the rider affects Social Security, thus falling foul of reconciliation rules. Igor Volsky provides the details:

The most substantive and immediate GOP challenge could occur as early as Tuesday, when the Senate plans to take up the bill. Republicans will try to send the reconciliation package back to the House by citing a rule that prohibits reconciliation measures from making ‘recommendations’ about Social Security. “The Congressional Budget Office found that the bill would have an ancillary effect on Social Security’s trust funds, and GOP lawmakers will argue that such a finding constitutes a ‘recommendation.’” They’ll be arguing that since the excise tax on high cost plans “would cause some employers to reduce the cost of their workers’ insurance and pay them higher wages,” workers would have to pay higher Social Security taxes, which would also have the effect of extending the life the life of the Social Security trust fund by $53 billion.

I'm not sure what to say about this. Volsky quotes Sarah Binder suggesting that Republicans might have a point, but that seems laughably unlikely to me. Seriously, the chain goes like this: (1) rider affects excise tax, (2) excise tax pushes down insurance costs, (3) lower insurance costs lead to higher wages, (4) higher wages lead to higher payroll taxes, and (5) higher payroll taxes affect the Social Security trust fund.

This is mind-bogglingly convoluted. It means that anything that ever had even the smallest and most roundabout effect on wages would be ineligible for reconciliation. Using logic like this, I doubt that any budget bill ever passed has met reconciliation rules.

Honestly, if this is the best Republicans can come up with, they're just desperate. I can't believe there's the slightest chance of the parliamentarian upholding this. And besides, what's the point? If Republicans force Democrats to ditch the excise tax, they'll just pass the rider and send it back to the House with some other tax in its place. Labor unions will be ecstatic. The House will be ecstatic (they didn't like the excise tax in the first place). And Republicans will be responsible for killing one of the key cost control provisions in the bill.

But other than that, it's a great plan.

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A Pretty Good Presidency So Far

| Mon Mar. 22, 2010 12:07 PM EDT

Right before the 2008 election I said I'd consider the Obama presidency a success if he accomplished three things:

  • Withdrawal from Iraq. Sure, sure, Obama will leave a few "residual troops" in place. I get it. But it's time to get out.
  • Serious healthcare reform. Obviously I'd prefer reform even more serious than what Obama has proposed, but his plan is a good start if it doesn't get watered down too much.
  • Carbon pricing. Obama needs to pass a real energy plan that includes a version of cap-and-trade with teeth. (A carbon tax would also be fine, but I don't think that's politically feasible.) Price signals work, and increasing the price of carbon has to be the backbone of any attempt to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. We're already too late on this, and getting the rest of the world on board may take decades, but we have to start. We're condemning hundreds of millions of people to an early death if we don't.

Obviously your mileage may vary, but it looks to me like he's on track to withdraw from Iraq on schedule and he just passed serious healthcare reform. Carbon pricing increasingly looks unlikely, though, as does serious financial reform, which I left off my list. On the other hand, Obama also passed a historic stimulus bill and has run a pretty effective foreign policy so far.

Even if this is his high point, then, his presidency will have been pretty successful based just on his first year. But if he manages to grow in office and accomplish even more? Then he'll be the most successful president of the past half century.

The Healthcare Bill and You

| Mon Mar. 22, 2010 11:50 AM EDT

Looking for an EZ-to-read chart that explains what the healthcare bill does — something suitable for passing along to friends and family? There's probably a bunch of 'em out there, but here's a pretty good one from the LA Times this morning. It's worth a look if you need a refresher about exactly what ended up in the bill and what didn't.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

| Sun Mar. 21, 2010 10:56 PM EDT

Stupak Switches

| Sun Mar. 21, 2010 1:07 PM EDT

MSNBC and others are reporting that dead-end abortion holdout Bart Stupak (D–Mich.) has agreed to vote yes on healthcare reform. Apparently President Obama has agreed to issue an executive order reaffirming longstanding policy not to allow federal funds to be used to pay for abortions.

There are, however, still some dead-end lefties refusing to vote for the bill because it's not pure enough. They should take a long look at themselves in the mirror. If Stupak can come around, so can they.

But: the bottom line is that this probably cements the bill's passage. By tonight healthcare reform will be a reality.

UPDATE: Dave Dayen says I'm wrong about lefty congressmen refusing to vote for the bill. He's right. I was thinking of Stephen Lynch (because I happened to be emailing with a friend in Massachusetts last night) and Loretta Sanchez (because she represents the district I grew up in). But Lynch is anti-abortion and Sanchez is a Blue Dog, so they hardly count as hardcore lefties. I spoke in haste on this. Sorry.

Quote of the Day: Newt Gingrich is a Moron

| Sun Mar. 21, 2010 12:45 PM EDT

From the inner id of the conservative movement:

Former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich said Obama and the Democrats will regret their decision to push for comprehensive reform. Calling the bill "the most radical social experiment . . . in modern times," Gingrich said: "They will have destroyed their party much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years" with the enactment of civil rights legislation in the 1960s.

This comes via Mike Lillis, who headlines his post, "Gingrich: Civil Rights Laws Weren’t Worth the Political Price." But the problem here isn't that Gingrich is some kind of stone racist (though he's certainly racially tone deaf), it's that Gingrich is an idiot. The old Democratic Party got torn apart in the 60s when racist southern congressmen abandoned it in favor of a Republican Party that was more tolerant of their views. But who exactly does Gingrich think is going to leave the party today over healthcare? Bart Stupak? Aside from abortion, Stupak would be a pariah in the Republican Party. Ditto for virtually everyone else in the Democratic caucus. If Dems lose even two members over healthcare, I'll personally buy Gingrich a beer and let him write my blog for a day. As for the public at large, passing healthcare will make the party more popular in the fairly near future. Gingrich knows this perfectly well, which is why healthcare reform terrifies him so.

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Threading the Healthcare Needle

| Sat Mar. 20, 2010 2:19 PM EDT

Ezra Klein surveys the political landscape behind healthcare reform and concludes that big business doesn't really have that much power after all:

This year, the Obama administration succeeded at neutralizing every single industry. Pharma supports the bill. Insurers are incoherent on it, but there's not a ferocious and united campaign to kill the proposal. The American Medical Association has endorsed the Senate bill. The hospitals have endorsed the bill....[But] it's been almost meaningless when it's come to Republican support. For all that liberals think the GOP is owned by insurers and pharmaceutical companies, this battle has been proof positive that they are owned by their base and they represent industry only when convenient. Imagine the concessions Pharma or the hospitals could have gotten by bringing three Republican senators onto the bill. They could've written the thing. But no such luck. Partisan incentives proved far stronger than industry interests.

Matt Yglesias takes the opposite lesson from the events of the past year:

What happened in the health care debate is that interest groups were able to get their way on most key points without needing to seriously attempt to deliver votes in exchange. The AMA is supporting the bill, but it’s not running ads against opponents. Pharmaceutical companies and insurers haven’t dropped out of the ferociously anti-reform Chamber of Commerce. No interest group that I’m aware of is cutting off the flow of funds to Chuck Grassley to punish him for his role in sabotaging health reform. Nobody is hitting Olympia Snowe for her bait-and-switch. I haven’t read a single story about a single Republican being “in trouble” with supporters for his or her opposition to reform.

I think I'd interpret this a bit differently. Obama had three basic choices when it came to dealing with the big industry groups:

  1. 1993 Redux: Push for the best possible bill and plan on a knock-down-drag-out fight with every interest group out there.
  2. Total Cave-In: Give the interest groups everything they could dream of in an effort buy their active and enthusiastic support.
  3. Centrist Wankerism: Buy off the big interest groups just enough to ensure that they wouldn't actively sabotage reform — at least, not sabotage it too hard, anyway — but nothing more.

Option #1 was obviously impossible. Option #2 was probably never in the cards, and in any case would have been so horrific that public revulsion would have killed it. So Obama chose Option #3. But what that means is that industry groups were pretty much indifferent. They didn't spend a lot of time and energy fighting the bill, but neither did they spend a lot of time and energy trying to persuade their favorite Republican senators to support it. This doesn't mean that industry groups have lost their influence over Republicans (or Democrats) or that their power is so awesome that they get everything they want with barely an effort.

Obviously you can question whether Obama and Senate Dems made the right deal. Could they have pushed a little harder and still kept the big industry groups neutral? Could they have given in on a few small things and earned enough support to have passed the bill months ago with a few Republican votes? Beats me. But from where I sit three thousand miles away, it looks to me like Obama played the game pretty well. There wasn't a lot of wiggle room on either side.

Spring Has Sprung

| Sat Mar. 20, 2010 1:32 PM EDT

Hooray! 

Friday Cat Blogging - 19 March 2010

| Fri Mar. 19, 2010 2:55 PM EDT

I asked Inkblot to do something interesting this morning so I could take a picture of him, but he just yawned at me. And then fell back asleep. Meanwhile, Domino headed out to the backyard to snooze among the spring flowers.

Speaking of which, spring starts tomorrow. And then on Sunday, the first full day of spring, we should get ourselves a shiny new healthcare reform bill. Nice symbolism, I think.

And now I'm off to lunch, followed by another session of Windows 7 troubleshooting. The upgrade basically went OK, and I'm now working through the list of annoying things that don't work quite right. Like the color balance on my monitor and the fact that I can't get VNC to work. (This is highly detrimental to my maternal tech support duties.) Top of the list, however, is my printer. It doesn't work. Plug it in and nothing happens. Just the little USB thunk sound effect and that's it. No error message, no searching for drivers, no nothing. My computer just sits there, providing no clue about what's wrong. And yet, the USB port works fine with other devices, the printer works fine on a different computer, and I don't think there are any conflicts since everything I own worked fine together on the old computer. Very strange.

Sprawl Revisited

| Fri Mar. 19, 2010 2:45 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias responds to yesterday's post about sprawl:

It’s true that the problem of overly restrictive land-use rules is in large part a problem of voter-preference. But it’s not a problem of voter-preference for sprawl per se. It’s a general problem of homeowner eagerness to exclude outsiders.

I know it's wildly unfair to do this, but I didn't get much sleep last night and my brain isn't working. So I'll just say that I think he's wrong. Or, to be a little more precise, I think he's mostly wrong. Sure, exclusion is part of the dynamic here, but by far the bigger part of it is that lots and lots of people actively like living in non-dense developments. Seriously: they really do. It's not a trick. So they vote with their feet and move to the suburbs and then vote with their ballots to keep big-city living at bay. Given an ideal world, of course, they'd love to have a nice 3,000 square foot house with a big yard right in the middle of Manhattan, but one way or another, they want that house.

Obviously not everyone likes living this way, but an awful lot of people do. You can say they like a big house with a big yard, or you can say they like sprawl. It's pretty much the same thing.