Kevin Drum

The Deficit Shell Game

| Wed Jan. 20, 2010 1:53 PM EST

The White House has cut a deal to create a shiny new "deficit commission" that will report back later this year on ways to get the federal budget under control. Unfortunately, there are lots of reasons to think that this is either worthless or the next best thing. Let's count the ways:

  1. Jon Chait points out that Republicans aren't on board: "A grand compromise to raise taxes and reduce spending would be a terrific thing. The Democrats are just delusional if they think this commission will produce it. Read the story again — it's an agreement between Obama and Congressional Democrats. There's just no way the GOP, which is calling for more tax cuts and demanding that Obama preserve even the waste in Medicare, will buy in." True. In fact, most conservatives still refuse even to accept the fact that our skyrocketing deficit is mostly the fault of GOP policies from the Bush years, and congressional Republicans are already under pressure not to support any commission that doesn't take tax hikes off the table up front. This is not a recipe for a reality-based recommendation.
  2. That 1982-83 Social Security commission that's the model for this one? Turns out it didn't work. Stan Collender glosses a New York Times account from Monday: "Former Social Security Commissioner Robert Ball, one of the Greenspan Commission's most prominent Democrats, has written in a yet-to-be-published memoir that the commission wasn't able to agree to anything.  Instead, Reagan and House Speaker Tip O'Neill, neither of who were members of the commission, privately agreed to a deal.  The Greenspan Commission was pushed to take credit for it so that it looked more bipartisan-partisan and less of a backroom deal that was really the case."
  3. Paul Krugman points out that even the agreement we did get from the Greenspan commission wasn't so hot.  To paraphrase: the 1984 deal raised payroll taxes (which are paid primarily by the middle class) and provided breathing room to maintain cuts to the income tax (which are paid primarily by the well off). The basic bargain was that this would be reversed in a few decades: starting around 2020 or so, income taxes would have to be raised in order to pay off the trust fund while keeping payroll taxes steady. Whether you like the deal or not (I don't, especially), that was the deal. More here. But as Krugman points out, Republicans have pressed ever since to abrogate it halfway through, pretending that the trust fund is just a "shell game." In other words, now that the middle class has spent three decades paying for their half of the deal, the wealthy want to be let off the hook for their half — and Republicans support them. They'd probably do the same with a deficit commission.
  4. It probably won't work anyway. The commission's recommendations are just....recommendations. The House and Senate still have to vote to approve them, and they're free to amend or filibuster them just like any other proposal. The politics of deficit reduction stay exactly the same, commission or no commission.

I'm probably missing some basic problems, but four is enough. I guess this is good fodder for Obama's upcoming State of the Union address, and probably also a good way to keep this stuff off the table until after the midterm elections, but that's about it. This is all about optics, not reality.

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TSA Nominee Calls it Quits

| Wed Jan. 20, 2010 12:59 PM EST

The fallout from being Coakleyed continues:

The Obama administration's choice to lead the struggling Transportation Security Administration withdrew his name from consideration Wednesday, just weeks after revelations that he had provided misleading information to Congress prompted several Republicans to suggest his nomination would not move forward without a fight.

....Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) had promised to rally votes to overcome those holds and force the nomination through as early as Wednesday. But such a battle would have added to the political distractions caused by the outcome of Tuesday's special election in Massachusetts, in which Republican Scott Brown won a surprise victory to capture the seat long held by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy — and deal a shocking blow to the Obama administration's domestic agenda by eroding the Democratic majority in the Senate.

The "misleading" information that Erroll Southers provided was (a) trivial and (b) concerned an incident 20 years ago. Republicans couldn't have cared less about that. They just wanted to pick a fight over the fact that Southers isn't a diehard opponent of TSA unionization.

And now Dems have caved. Tomorrow, of course, they'll go right back to wondering why the image persists that they're weak on national security issues.

Framing the Narrative

| Wed Jan. 20, 2010 12:42 PM EST

Matt Yglesias on Twitter this morning:

Congressional Dems on cable this AM looked like the French retreating from Russia

This is just one way in which Twitter is making my life worse. As long as I kept the TV off, I probably could have fooled myself for a while into thinking that maybe Dems weren't reacting quite as badly to Coakley's loss last night as I had thought. Ignorance is (relative) bliss. But no longer. Apparently they really are bound and determined to take a serious but limited loss and make sure that everyone reports it as a massive referendum against everything that liberals stand for. Good work.

Charging for the Times

| Wed Jan. 20, 2010 12:09 PM EST

It's official. The New York Times plans to start charging nonsubscribers to read its stories on the web:

Starting in early 2011, visitors to will get a certain number of articles free every month before being asked to pay a flat fee for unlimited access. Subscribers to the newspaper’s print edition will receive full access to the site.

But executives of The New York Times Company said they could not yet answer fundamental questions about the plan, like how much it would cost or what the limit would be on free reading. They stressed that the amount of free access could change with time, in response to economic conditions and reader demand.

This is sort of odd. Why wait until 2011? The technology for tracking visits isn't very hard to implement. And why announce this without answers to basic questions like "how many stories can I read for free?" Arthur Sulzberger says, "This announcement allows us to begin the thought process that’s going to answer so many of the questions that we all care about," but this thought process got started a long time ago. Weird. But the good news, I guess, is that 2011 is far enough way that maybe this gives them time to think twice and decide not to do this at all.

Generation E

| Wed Jan. 20, 2010 2:44 AM EST

The kids these days and their electronic toys:

Those ages 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day with such devices, compared with less than six and a half hours five years ago, when the study was last conducted. And that does not count the hour and a half that youths spend texting, or the half-hour they talk on their cellphones.

And because so many of them are multitasking — say, surfing the Internet while listening to music — they pack on average nearly 11 hours of media content into that seven and a half hours.

So not counting multitasking, they spend nine and a half hours per day using electronic devices. If you figure six hours of school, eight hours of sleep, and half an hour eating, that means they basically spend every free minute of their day using this stuff. That's pretty impressive. Full report here. Breakdown by race and ethnicity below.

Life After Coakley

| Wed Jan. 20, 2010 12:22 AM EST

I'm not really in the mood for writing yet another tedious postmortem on Scott Brown's victory in the Massachusetts Senate race tonight, so I won't. But I'll say this: it sure looks as though Democrats plan to make the worst of it.

On a broader note, though, it underscores how resistant the American public is to change. Aside from tax cuts, George Bush spent eight years in the White House and really wasn't able to advance the conservative agenda in any major way at all. Now it looks like Obama and congressional Dems aren't going to have much luck advancing a progressive agenda in any major way either. We complain a lot, but when all's said and done, apparently the status quo is still pretty popular. That's good news for Wall Street bankers and health insurers, not so good for the rest of us.

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Election Thread

| Tue Jan. 19, 2010 8:19 PM EST

So I hear there's an election in Massachusetts today. I think Coakley is going to win. How about you?

Can the Senate Get Any Slower?

| Tue Jan. 19, 2010 4:50 PM EST

Annie Lowrey writes today about the quagmire caused by abuse of Senate holds:

President Barack Obama's first year has brought an unusual number of holds, and on unusually prominent positions. One year into the Bush administration, there were 70 appointees awaiting confirmation. One year into the Obama administration, there are 177.

....The most absurd hold of 2009, perhaps, was on Miriam Sapiro, whom the Obama administration appointed to become a U.S. trade representative. Sen. Jim Bunning, a Republican from Kentucky, held up the respected Internet policy specialist's nomination over — really — candy-flavored cigarettes.

....[TSA nominee Erroll] Southers isn't on hold over concerns about his work performance, political leanings, or employment history. DeMint (one of Congress's most avid holders, by reputation at least) is blocking Southers over concerns over unionization.

....Then there's Lael Brainard, a former MIT economics professor and Brookings Institution fellow. The lauded economist was tapped to be the undersecretary for international affairs at the Treasury Department, spearheading U.S. economic policy relations with international governments and institutions such as the World Bank. But her approval was held up over muck-ups on her taxes.

What did I call this a few days ago? The institutionalization of personal pique? Something like that. But you know what? Unlike the filibuster, anonymous holds are just a tradition. They're basically a threat to the Senate leadership: if you don't respect my hold, I'll withhold unanimous consent and bring the business of the Senate to a grinding halt.

But this is worth another look. Maybe Norm Ornstein or Tom Mann or Stan Collender can fill us in. Given that Republicans have basically adopted a scorched earth policy of forcing Democrats to jump through every parliamentary hurdle on every bill already, how much more can they slow things down? And if the answer is "a lot," would it be worth the political heat? I imagine this is mostly an academic discussion, but it would still be interesting to find out. Just how much more can Republicans muck up the machinery of the Senate than they already have?

Will Obama Fight or Fold?

| Tue Jan. 19, 2010 3:36 PM EST

Will the real Obama administration please raise its hand? Steve Benen flags this passage from a Politico story today about the possibility of Dems losing their 60-seat supermajority if Scott Brown wins the Massachusetts Senate race:

The narrower majority will force more White House engagement with Republicans, which could actually help restore a bit of the post-partisan image that was a fundamental ingredient of his appeal to voters.

“Now everything that gets done in the Senate will have the imprimatur of bipartisanship,” another administration official said. “The benefits of that will accrue to the president and the Democratic Senate. It adds to the pressure on Republicans to participate in the process in a meaningful way, which so far they have refused to do.”

Steve is dumbfounded: "The only rational expectation is that the scorched-earth strategy of the last year will get worse — they'll be less interested in 'participating in the process in a meaningful way' when they smell blood in the water and have the votes to filibuster literally everything." I agree. But in fairness, the Politico piece is headlined "Obama plans combative turn," and it contains these quotes right up at the top of the piece:

“This is not a moment that causes the president or anybody who works for him to express any doubt,” a senior administration official said. “It more reinforces the conviction to fight hard.”

....“The response will not be to do incremental things and try to salvage a few seats in the fall,” a presidential adviser said. “The best political route also happens to be the boldest rhetorical route, which is to go out and fight and let the chips fall where they may. We can say, ‘At least we fought for these things, and the Republicans said no.’”

You can find someone to say just about anything if you make enough phone calls. But I doubt that many people in the White House think that Republicans are suddenly going to become more cooperative if Scott Brown wins tonight. Obama may genuinely be dedicated to giving bipartisanship a chance, but he's not an idiot. And whatever else you think of them, neither are guys like David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel. In fact, who knows? If a loss in Massachusetts is what it takes to finally wake Obama up and show some fight, maybe it will turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

Healthcare's Future

| Tue Jan. 19, 2010 2:40 PM EST

In an attempt to retain my sanity, I'm trying not to blog too much about the Massachusetts Senate race. There are just too many people to be angry at for contributing to a possible Scott Brown win, and I'm not looking forward to the feeding frenzy of recriminations that's likely to start tearing apart the liberal coalition if it happens. But on a related subject, what Josh Marshall says here is too important to ignore:

If Brown wins, I don't think it makes sense to continue the negotiations or trying to pass a bill through the senate prior to seating Brown. The House simply needs to pass the senate bill without revisions....For the House liberals, it was clear that only very limited revisions were going to be gained in the House-Senate negotiations. It's one thing if someone wasn't going to vote for the final bill at all. But if they were, the differences between the senate bill and whatever the negotiation was going to produce simply were not going to be big enough — not remotely — to justify voting against it.

For the conservative Dems, if they already voted for the more liberal House bill, it won't help them a wink to refuse to vote for the senate bill now — whether that means casting a no vote or just preventing it from coming up for a vote at all. This should be obvious to anyone who knows how 30 second TV ads work (or frankly, even how very reasonable political argument works). And the lesson of 1994 is clear: the folks who killed health care in 1994 didn't gain any benefit from it. They were the ones who got slaughtered in November.

Let me hazard a prediction. If the Dems push through this bill now, bank the accomplish and move on to selling it and working the jobs agenda, it'll be a bad but not terrible November. If they all run to ground after a Brown victory, it's really all bets are off. Why? Because this is about meta-politics. There are all sorts of reasons for the troubles the Dems are now having. They're overwhelmingly linked to the catastrophically bad economy — whether that's because of 10% unemployment, the spending that has been required to keep the economy from slipping into a Depression, the bailouts of the banks etc. But the key reason, the ones the Dems have some control over, is their ability to act and deliver on an agenda.

Obviously I have a dog in this fight: unlike a lot of progressives who have rebelled against the current state of healthcare reform, I think it's gone about as well as could be realistically expected. It brings down insurance rates, expands Medicaid, offers the prospect of moderately priced insurance to tens of millions of the uninsured, forces insurers to take you on even if you have a chronic pre-existing condition, mandates minimum levels of coverage, and takes several small but important steps toward reducing the future growth of healthcare costs. Passing it would be a historic progressive victory, something that conservatives are keenly aware of even if liberals aren't. That's why they've pulled out all the stops to defeat it. They know perfectly well that it will inevitably lead to further progressive victories on healthcare, and they're determined to stop that first step from ever happening.

What's more, on a purely tactical level, Josh is right. The differences between the Senate bill and the likely compromise bill are minuscule. Those differences may have been worth fighting for, but they're nowhere near important enough to sink the entire bill over. Not by light years. If Brown wins and House Dems vote down the Senate bill in a fit of pique anyway, Republicans will have a huge victory, the media will be writing "center right nation" narratives all the way through November, Obama will be badly weakened, and Dems will go into the midterms in total disarray.

If the only option open to the House is to pass the Senate bill, they need to buck up and do it. It's good policy and good politics. Any other path would throw out decades of effort and court a midterm blowout of epic proportions. I still hope Coakley wins in Massachusetts, but if she doesn't it's time for everyone to stand up and be counted. One way or another, pass the damn bill.