Kevin Drum

Obama Has Really Gotten Inside the GOP's Head

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 9:50 AM EST

Jeremy Peters writes in the New York Times today that the tea party has morphed from an enraged bunch of economic populists to an enraged bunch of anti-immigration zealots. And by cracky, they want Republicans to crush the tyrant Obama for his immigration insolence and they want them to do it now:

Satisfying the conservative base will be difficult. Tea Party activists are not likely to sit patiently while a lawsuit works its way through the courts. And many have already expressed skepticism about the Republican leadership’s willingness to see through a fight over appropriations.

....“Yes, there’s a risk to overreacting, but there’s a risk to underreacting as well,” said Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review. “And I fear that’s the way the congressional leadership is leaning.” Mr. Lowry suggested one way Congress could react. “If I were John Boehner,” he said, referring to the House speaker, “I’d say to the president: ‘Send us your State of the Union in writing. You’re not welcome in our chamber.’ ”

Oh man, I can't tell you how much I wish they'd actually take Lowry up on his suggestion. Can you imagine anything that would strike middle America as pettier and more pointlessly vindictive than this? Anything that would seem feebler and more futile? Anything that could possibly be more evocative of a five-year-old throwing a tantrum?

I guess you could if you put your mind to it. But it would be hard. Obama is really inside their heads, isn't he?

(Via Steve Benen.)

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GOP Takes Revenge Over Immigration Order in Tax Bill. Obama Tells Them to Pound Sand.

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 11:59 PM EST

Danny Vinik describes the tax extender package currently wending its way through Congress:

Imagine somebody asked you to imagine the worst possible deal on taxes. It'd probably have the following qualities:

It would be bad for the environment.

It would be bad for the deficit.

It would give short shrift to the working poor.

And it would be a bonanza for corporations.

Unfortunately, you don’t have to conjure up such a package. Congressional Republicans already have. And for some unfathomable reason, Senate Democrats including Harry Reid seem inclined to go along—although the White House has vowed to veto such a deal if Congress goes ahead and passes it.

Actually, there's nothing all that unfathomable about what's going on. The tax extender bill may be a dog's breakfast of legitimate tax provisions running interference for a long laundry list of indefensible giveaways and corporate welfare, but it's always been supported by both parties and it would have passed long ago if not for an outbreak of routine sniping over amendments and 60-vote thresholds last spring. That aside, the whole thing is a perfect bipartisan lovefest. Republicans and Democrats alike want to make sure that corporations continue to get all their favorite tax breaks.

In fact, the only thing that's really new here is the nature of Obama's veto threat. He's made the threat before, but primarily because the extenders weren't being paid for and would add to the deficit. The fact that middle-class tax breaks might not also be extended was sort of an afterthought. Now, however, that's front and center:

The emerging tax legislation would make permanent 10 provisions, including an expanded research and development tax credit....a measure allowing small businesses to deduct virtually any investment; the deduction for state and local sales taxes....tax breaks for car-racing tracks....benefits for racehorse owners.

....Left off were the two tax breaks valued most by liberal Democrats: a permanently expanded earned-income credit and a child tax credit for the working poor. Friday night, Republican negotiators announced they would exclude those measures as payback for the president’s executive order on immigration, saying a surge of newly legalized workers would claim the credit, tax aides from both parties said.

So there you have it. This bill is the first victim of Republican frothing over Obama's immigration order. As revenge, they left out Democratic tax priorities, and Obama is having none of it.

This is all part of the new Obama we've seen since the midterm election, which seems to have had an oddly liberating effect on him. Over the course of just a few weeks he's been throwing sand in Republican faces will gleeful abandon: cutting climate change deals with the Chinese; demanding full net neutrality regulations from the FCC; issuing an executive order on immigration; and now threatening to veto a Republican-crafted bill unless they include expanded EITC and child tax credits. It's as though he's tired of their endless threats to go nuclear over every little thing and just doesn't care anymore. Go ahead, he's telling them. Make my day.

A Nuclear Deal With Iran Probably Won't Happen

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 5:56 PM EST

Over at Foreign Affairs, Aaron David Miller and Jason Brodsky run through four reasons that we failed to reach a nuclear deal with Iran by this weekend's deadline. This is the key one:

An internal IAEA document that was prepared in 2009 detailed an April 1984 high-level meeting at the presidential palace in Tehran in which Khamenei — then president of Iran — championed a decision by then-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to launch a nuclear weapons program. According to the account, Khamenei said that "this was the only way to secure the very essence of the Islamic Revolution from the schemes of its enemies, especially the United States and Israel."

....The fact is that Iran knows what it wants: to preserve as much of its nuclear weapons capacity as possible and free itself from as much of the sanctions regime as it can. The mullahs see Iran’s status as a nuclear weapons state as a hedge against regime change and as consistent with its regional status as a great power. That is what it still wants. And that’s why it isn’t prepared — yet — to settle just for what it needs to do a deal. Ditto for America. And it’s hard to believe that another six months is going to somehow fix that problem.

This is why I'm skeptical that a deal can be reached. Iran wants to have nuclear weapons capability. The United States wants Iran to verifiably abandon its nuclear ambitions. Everything else is just fluff, and it's hard to see a middle ground here.

This doesn't mean an agreement is impossible. Maybe there really is some halfway point that both sides can live with. It sure isn't easy to see it, though. The disagreement here is just too fundamental and too definitive. One side wants to be able to build a bomb, and the other side wants exactly the opposite. How do you split that baby?

Is Obama Trolling Republicans Over Immigration?

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 12:07 PM EST

Jonah Goldberg is unhappy with President Obama's immigration order, but he's not steaming mad about it. And I think this allows him to see some things a little more clearly than his fellow conservatives:

Maybe President Obama is just trolling?

....As Robert Litan of the Brookings Institution notes, Obama "could've done all this quietly, without making any announcement whatsoever." After all, Obama has unilaterally reinterpreted and rewritten the law without nationally televised addresses before. But doing that wouldn't let him pander to Latinos and, more important, that wouldn't achieve his real goal: enraging Republicans.

As policy, King Obama's edict is a mess, which may explain why Latinos are underwhelmed by it, according to the polls. But that's not the yardstick Obama cares about most. The real goal is twofold: Cement Latinos into the Democratic coalition and force Republicans to overreact. He can't achieve the first if he doesn't succeed with the second. It remains to be seen if the Republicans will let themselves be trolled into helping him.

Don't get me wrong. I'm pretty certain that Obama did what he did because he really believes it's the right thing to do. Goldberg just isn't able to acknowledge that and retain his conservative cred. Still, somewhere in the Oval Office there was someone writing down pros and cons on a napkin, and I'll bet that enraging the GOP caucus and wrecking their legislative agenda made it onto the list of pros. So far, it looks like it's probably working. But if Republicans are smart, they'll figure out some way to follow Goldberg's advice and rein in their worst impulses. If they go nuts, they're just playing into Obama's hands.

Economic Growth Starting to Show Real Signs of Life

| Tue Nov. 25, 2014 10:48 AM EST

The latest numbers from the Commerce Department show that GDP increased faster than we thought in the third quarter of 2014. Growth clocked in at 3.9 percent, an increase from the original estimate of 3.5 percent. "The economy expanded at its fastest pace in more than a decade," says the Wall Street Journal. "The combined growth rate in the second and third quarters was 4.25%, the best six-month reading since 2003."

This is true, but a bit misleading since both quarters were making up for a dismal first quarter in which GDP fell by 2.1 percent. Still, even if you look at things in a more defensible way, economic growth is unquestionably picking up. The chart on the right uses a 5-quarter moving average to smooth out individual quarters that might be unusually high or low, and the trajectory of the economy is clearly on the rise. You still can't really say that things are booming, and it continues to be true that the labor market is loose and wages are pretty stagnant. Nonetheless, since 2011 growth has increased from about 1.8 percent annually to about 2.8 percent annually. Things are picking up.

If Europe can ever manage to get its act together, we might finally start really digging ourselves out of the Great Recession. I'm not sure I see any signs of that happening soon, though.

More Patents Does Not Equal More Innovation

| Mon Nov. 24, 2014 11:18 PM EST

Via James Pethokoukis, here's a chart from a new CBO report on federal policies and innovation. Needless to say, you can't read too much into it. It shows the growth since 1963 of total factor productivity (roughly speaking, the share of productivity growth due to technology improvements), and there are lots of possible reasons that TFP hasn't changed much over the past five decades. At a minimum, though, the fact that patent activity has skyrocketed since 1983 with no associated growth in TFP suggests, as the CBO report says dryly, "that the large increase in patenting activity since 1983 may have made little contribution to innovation."

The CBO report identifies several possible innovation-killing aspects of the US patent system, among them a "proliferation of low-quality patents"; increased patent litigation; and the growth of patent trolls who impose a substantial burden on startup firms. The report also challenges the value of software patents:

The contribution of patents to innovation in software or business methods is often questioned because the costs of developing such new products and processes may be modest. One possible change to patent law that could reduce the cost and frequency of litigation would be to limit patent protections for inventions that were relatively inexpensive to develop. For example, patents on software and business methods could expire sooner than is the case today (which, with renewals, is after 20 years), reducing the incentive to obtain those patents. Another change that could address patent quality, the processing burden on the USPTO, and the cost and frequency of litigation would be to limit the ability to obtain a patent on certain inventions.

Personally, I'd be in favor of limiting software and business method patents to a term of zero years. But if that's not feasible, even a reduction to, say, five years or so, would be helpful. In the software industry, that's an eternity.

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Are Term Limits a Good Idea?

| Mon Nov. 24, 2014 1:44 PM EST

Jim Newton, a longtime local politics reporter in Los Angeles, wrote his final column for the LA Times today. In it, he offered up "a handful of changes that might make a big difference," and the one that resonates with me is his suggestion that both LA and California do away with term limits:

Elected officials who were popular with their constituents once held their seats for decades, building up experience and knowledge; now, with term limits in place, they're barely seated before they start searching for the next office. That's brought new faces but at great cost. Power has shifted from those we elect to those we don't, to the permanent bureaucracy and to lobbyists. Problems get kicked down the road in favor of attention-grabbing short-term initiatives that may have long-term consequences.

Case in point: Why do so many public employees enjoy budget-breaking pensions? Because term-limited officials realize it is easier to promise a future benefit than to give raises now. The reckoning comes later; by then they're gone.

Term limits locally were the work of Richard Riordan, who bankrolled the initiative and later became mayor. I asked him recently about them, and he startled me with his response: It was, he said, “the worst mistake of my life.”

Term limits always sound good. The problem with the idea is that being a council member or a legislator is like any other job: you get better with experience. If your legislature is populated solely by people with, at most, a term or two of experience, it's inevitable that (a) they'll have an almost pathologically short-term focus, and (b) more and more power will flow to lobbyists and bureaucrats who stay around forever and understand the levers of power better.

For what it's worth, I'd recommend a middle ground. I understand the problem people have with politicians who win office and essentially occupy sinecures for the rest of their lives. It's often a recipe for becoming insulated and out of touch with the real-world needs of constituents. But short term limits don't solve the problem of unaccountable power, they simply shift the power to other places. The answer, I think, is moderate term limits. Something between, say, ten and twenty years. That's long enough to build up genuine expertise and a genuine power base, while still preventing an office from becoming a lifetime of guaranteed employment.

Obama's Immigration Order: Lots of Sound and Fury, But Not Much Precedent

| Mon Nov. 24, 2014 12:28 PM EST

In the New Republic this weekend, Eric Posner warns that President Obama's recent executive action on immigration may come back to haunt liberals. Obama's order was perfectly legal, he says, but "it may modify political norms that control what the president can do." And since most of the regulatory apparatus of the government is fundamentally liberal in nature, a political norm that allows presidents to suspend enforcement of rules they don't like benefits conservatives a lot more than it does liberals.

This is not something to be taken lightly, and Posner makes his point pretty reasonably—unlike a lot of conservatives who have been busily writing gleeful, half-witted columns about suspending the estate tax or dismantling the EPA. Political norms matter, as Republicans know very well, since they've smashed so many of them in recent years. Still, there are a couple of reasons that there's probably less here than meets the eye, and Posner acknowledges them himself.

First, although the core of Obama's authority to modify immigration law lies in his inherent power to practice prosecutorial discretion—which is rooted in the Constitution—the specific actions he took are justified by statutory language and congressional budgeting priorities that are unique to immigration law. As conservative lawyer Margaret Stock reminds us, "The Immigration and Nationality Act and other laws are chock-full of huge grants of statutory authority to the president." And Posner himself agrees. "The president’s authority over this arena is even greater than his authority over other areas of the law." He reiterates this in his TNR piece, explaining that immigration law "falls uniquely under executive authority, as a matter of history and tradition."

So Obama's actions may be unusually broad, but that's largely because immigration law is written to give the president considerable latitude. That's much less the case for things like the tax code or the Clean Air Act. So even though it's true, as Posner says, that most regulatory statutes "contain pockets of vagueness," there's less precedent here than it seems, and less breaking of political norms than Posner imagines.

But there's a second reason that Obama isn't seriously breaking any political norms: they were already broken years ago. Posner himself tells the story:

In 1981, Ronald Reagan entered the presidency vowing to deregulate the economy. But because the House was controlled by Democrats, Reagan could not persuade Congress to repeal as many regulatory statutes as he wanted to.

So Reagan sought to undermine the regulatory system itself. He forced agencies to show proposed regulations to the Office of Management and Budget, a White House agency, and empowered the OMB to block or delay regulations that did not satisfy a cost-benefit test. Although OMB was told to obey the law, liberals howled that the effect of the cost-benefit test was to undercut regulation since no such test existed in the statutes under which agencies issued regulations. And when the Reagan administration could not change or repeal the rules, it cut back on enforcement. The Justice Department famously reduced enforcement of the antitrust and civil rights laws. More howls ensued.

But the Reagan administration exhausted itself fighting against political distrust of an imperial executive and overreached by trying to deregulate in areas—like the environment—that people cared about. Republican successors—the two Bushes—did not pursue deregulation through non-enforcement with such zeal. Obama’s deferral actions, by further normalizing non-enforcement, may reinvigorate the Reagan-era push for deregulation through the executive branch.

It's become traditional that when a new president takes office he immediately suspends any of his predecessor's executive actions that have been recently implemented. At the same time, his own team begins beavering away on regulatory changes that are part of his campaign agenda. At a different level, orders are written that make it either easier or harder for agencies to implement new rules and enforce old ones. And while Reagan may not have gotten all the deregulation he wanted, the OMB has become a permanent part of the regulatory landscape, which is yet another avenue for presidents to affect the enforcement of rules. It may not get a lot of attention, but when you fiddle with the cost-benefit parameters that OMB uses, the ripple effect can be surprisingly extensive.

In other words, agency regulations and executive orders are already major battlegrounds of public policy that are aggressively managed by the White House, regardless of which party is in power. Has Obama expanded this battleground? Perhaps. But I don't think the change is nearly as great as some people are making it out to be. Immigration law is fairly unique in its grant of power to the executive, so we don't really have to worry about President Rand Paul rewriting the tax code from the Oval Office. We do need to worry about all the other executive actions he might take, but for the most part, I don't think that's changed much. The kinds of things he can do are about the same now as they were a week ago.

Finland Starting to Think Hard About Joining NATO

| Mon Nov. 24, 2014 11:05 AM EST

Behold the results of Vladimir Putin's brilliant strategy of scaring the hell out of every single country within bomber range of Russia:

As Russian-backed separatists have eviscerated another non-NATO neighbor this year — Ukraine — Finnish leaders have watched with growing alarm. They are increasingly questioning whether the nonaligned path they navigated through the Cold War can keep them safe as Europe heads toward another period of dangerous standoffs between West and East.

....The palpable anxiety in this country that many in the West consider a model of progressive and stable democratic governance reflects how unsettled Europe has become since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March. Many in Helsinki are convinced that Russia will not remain deterred for long and say Finland needs to fundamentally rethink elements of its security policy that have been bedrock principles for decades.

....“It’s going in a terrifying direction,” said Elisabeth Rehn, a former Finnish defense minister who favors NATO membership. “It’s only been 100 years since we gained our independence from Russia. Crimea was a part of Russia, too. Will they try to take back what belonged to them 100 years ago?”

Rehn said she doubts Russia would go that far but said the fear of Russian military aggression is real.

Will Finland join NATO? Probably not anytime soon. But just think about what Putin has accomplished here. Finland stayed out of NATO for the entire four decades of the Cold War, but is now so unnerved by Russia's actions that it's seriously thinking about joining up. If Putin is truly afraid of Russia being fully surrounded by the West, his worst fears are about to come true thanks to his own actions. No one wants to be the next eastern Ukraine, and right now NATO membership is probably looking mighty appealing to a lot of people who were OK with the status quo a few years ago.

Putin's bellicose nationalism may play well at home, but it sure isn't doing him any favors anywhere else.

One Man Should Not Dictate Immigration Policy

| Sun Nov. 23, 2014 3:31 PM EST

You know, the more I mull over the Republican complaint about how immigration reform is being implemented, the more I sympathize with them. Public policy, especially on big, hot button issues like immigration, shouldn't be made by one person. One person doesn't represent the will of the people, no matter what position he holds. Congress does, and the will of Congress should be paramount in policymaking.

Now don't get me wrong. I haven't changed my mind about the legality of all this. The Constitution is clear that each house of Congress makes its own rules. The rules of the House of Representatives are clear and well-established. And past speakers of the House have all used their legislative authority to prevent votes on bills they don't wish to consider. Both the law and past precedent are clear: John Boehner is well within his legal rights to refuse to allow the House to vote on the immigration bill passed by the Senate in 2013.

Still, his expansion of that authority makes me uneasy. After all, this is a case where poll after poll shows that large majorities of the country favor comprehensive immigration reform. The Senate passed a bipartisan bill over a year ago by a wide margin. And there's little question that the Senate bill has majority support in the House too. So not only is the will of Congress clear, but the president has also made it clear that he'd sign the bill if Congress passed it. The only thing stopping it is one man.

That should make us all a bit troubled. John Boehner may be acting legally. But is he acting properly?