Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Case for Partisanship

Today, when unveiling the Administration's new plan for opening hunderds of miles of coastline for oil drilling, President Obama justified the new policy by saying:

So the answer is not drilling everywhere all the time. But the answer is not, also, for us to ignore the fact that we are going to need vital energy sources to maintain our economic growth and our security. Ultimately, we need to move beyond the tired debates of the left and the right, between business leaders and environmentalists, between those who would claim drilling is a cure all and those who would claim it has no place. Because this issue is just too important to allow our progress to languish while we fight the same old battles over and over again.
This is a common tactic for Obama, and one that he's used during his entire time on the national scene. He describes a position on the "left" (drilling "has no place"), a position on the "right" ("drilling is a cure all"), and emphasizes that his position falls somewhere in the middle. His approach, he says, is the pragmatic, centrist approach that rejects the extremes of both sides. By following a cross-ideological, if not bipartisan approach, Obama hopes to convince people that he's found the real solutions to our problems.

This tactic (some call it "Hippie-punching", where Obama attacks a strawman caracture of a traditionally liberal position) pops up in many of the President's policy addresses:’s absolutely true this is a middle-of-the-road bill. This isn’t single-payer, which some people wanted. It’s also not what the Republicans were looking for, which was basically to deregulate the insurance industry, arguing that somehow this would cut down costs -- something that defies the experience of everybody who’s dealt with an insurance company out there.
Even back in 2004, during his epic DNC speech, Obama was echoing this theme:

Go into the collar counties around Chicago, and people will tell you: They don't want their tax money wasted by a welfare agency or by the Pentagon.
The message here being that conservatives would like to waste your tax money on the Pentagon, while liberals would like to waste it on welfare. The correct approach--Obama's approach--is to do neither; He will instead make a conscious decision to always use tax dollars responsibly.

One positive aspect this rhetorical tactic has is that Obama, as the de facto leader of the Democratic Party, paints the entire party in this flattering light. While individual policy proposals, such as single-payer, may be thrown overboard, the entire party is spoken of as pragmatists, not partisans. It's no wonder that the Democrats still have a large advantage in party ID and their ideological coalition spans the spectrum from progressive to center-right, from Russ Feingold to Ben Nelson:

Fortunately, the Democrats are now pursuing an active, if not progressive agenda in Congress and have many accomplishments to their name. From the Lilly Ledbetter Act to the Affordable Care Act, the Democrats in Washington have gotten plenty done over the past 14 months. Many of these achievements have been with centrist ideas that would have gained vast bipartisan support if the Republicans in Congress were intellectually honest and weren't paid to vote otherwise.

In a way, I'm glad that the Republicans in Congress have rejected the "pragmatic" approach of Obama and have voted as a block against nearly everything supported by the President. It's very healthy for our democratic republic to have clear and understandable differences between our political parties.

Take, for example, the issue of Civil Rights in the 1960 Presidential election. On the one hand, John F. Kennedy, a junior Senator with few legislative accomplishments, was running for President alongside Lyndon Johnson, the Senate Majority Leader who passed the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, which had the goals of protecting voting rights in the southern states. On the Republican ticket, there was Richard Nixon, who had previously met with civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. at the White House and was the Vice President to Ike Eisenhower, who enthusiastically supported Brown v. Board and used federal troops in Little Rock to integrate public schools.

On a national level, there was little difference between the two parties when it came to civil rights matters. MLK himself refused to endorse either candidate, at least until the Kennedys, late in the campaign, became personally involved in trying to free him from jail. While there were large differences between the liberals and conservatives in the country over civil rights matters, there was no way to vote on a national level on that issue. Civil rights advocates around the country couldn't vote on their signature issue. Due to the fact that both parties contained liberal and conservative wings, it was impossible to distinguish between the two. Kennedy and Nixon, on this issue as well as many others, were almost identical, in both their records and their accomplishments.

The more the two parties have in common, the harder it is for low-information voters to make a decision in an election. Shortcuts, such as party ID or a candidate's personal background, help voters decide which candidate would best represent their interests. This increases their chances of choosing correctly. But if we don't want people using those shortcuts, then we must have clear divides between the two parties.

Partisanship also helps with accountability. If one party is in charge and can unabashedly push through their legislative agenda, then the voters know exactly who to reward or punish come the next election. When you have muddled legislation with a hundred parents from both parties, it's next to impossible for the voting public to decide who gets the credit and who gets the blame. While this may be a feature for members of Congress, it certainly does no favor for our democracy.

Today, Obama and the Democrats in Congress are passing legislation that they repeatedly claim takes ideas from both parties, from both sides of the ideological divide. If the Republicans were to actually support their own proposals, the Federal Government would be made up of one giant governing coalition where all legislators would be able to take credit when things go well and deflect blame when they fail. When there is no difference between the parties, people can't be expected to make intelligent choices at the ballot box, and therefore there can be no accountability.

I suppose we should thank the Republicans. By holding their breath and stomping their feet, they are the true guardians of democracy.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Tea Party and Fiscal Fauxhawks

I've heard defenders of the "Tea Party" movement argue that a handful of racist or homophobic comments shouldn't tar the entire group. There are people with legitimate concerns that go to those rallies who are outraged at government spending, regardless of who is in power.

And I don't doubt that. I'm sure there are plenty of folks out there who thought Medicare Part D was just as wasteful as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The main issue is that those people are very easily drowned out by louder voices.

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an excellent piece on this topic last week:

I hear GOP folks and Tea Partiers bemoaning the fact that media and Democrats are using the extremes of their movement for ratings and to score points. This is like Drew Brees complaining that Dwight Freeney keeps trying to sack him. If that were Martin Luther King's response to media coverage, the South might still be segregated. I exaggerate, but my point is that the whining reflects a basic misunderstanding of the rules of protest. When you lead a protest you lead it, you own it, and your opponents, and the media, will hold you responsible for whatever happens in the course of that protest. This isn't left-wing bias, it's the nature of the threat.

The main issue I have with people complaining about people complaining about the Tea Party Protests (whew!) is that the "Tea Party" has no set beliefs. It has no platform. It has no founding document. It's a collection of people who range from small-government libertarians to borrow-and-spend Republicans. You have people at the protests demanding that the government be cut in half, and people demanding that there be no cuts to Medicare. You have policy folks and you have people screaming "Where's the birth certificate?!" People who loved Bush's unfunded programs, but hate Obama's deficit neutral proposals...and people who hate both.

The fact that these protests didn't exist (or, if they did, they were much, much smaller) when Bush and the Republicans in Congress were spending untold billions on Iraq, tax cuts, and Medicare Part D puts the entire Tea Party movement in a deep credibility hole from the start.

Heck, I'm not even arguing that the government necessarily should move to a balanced budget; I think it's a worthy target, and getting health care costs under control is a very important first step, but it shouldn't be the country's number one priority right now. But it is economically doable--politically difficult, but entirely possible.

Nor am I ragging on the Republicans for spending money on medicine for seniors. While I can think of a dozen better uses for most of the money Bush squandered, and there are some improvements that could have been made to the policy, I understand the importance of Bush addressing one of the top issues from the 2000 campaign. I just can't take people seriously when they flip-flop on their political beliefs depending on who is in power. These Fiscal Fauxhawks who loved Bush's tax cuts, war, and social spending but rag on Obama have no credibility. And unfortunately, these people are by-and-large the leaders of the Republican party and the faces of the Tea Party movement.

I'm sure there are some credible Tea Party folks--the kind who go on Larry King and stun him when they earnestly say that they want to eliminate Social Security--but they just don't get the most screen time.

TNC is right that the crazies tend to attract attention. I remember anti-war rallies where tens of thousands of people would show up, but the 20 year old anarchists would get the media attention. Or the folks with giant puppets. Nothing kills a message faster than a few outlandish people unintentionally subverting the message.

Perhaps the fact that the Tea Party folks are not emulating the more successful protests from history (Gandhi and MLK for starters) shows us that they, too, are not very serious about succeeding. But I doubt the "movement" could even agree on what "success" looks like.


Monday, March 29, 2010

The Budget is Going to be Okay

Paul Krugman of the New York Times writes:
I get a lot of worried mail along the lines of “how on earth will we ever be able to pay off our debt”? Look, there are real worries — but the math per se isn’t very hard.

The Obama administration’s budget (pdf) predicts that by 2020 we’ll have net federal debt of around 70% of GDP and a budget deficit of around 4 percent of GDP. Now, you don’t have to go to a zero budget deficit to make headway on the debt — a budget deficit of 2-3 percent of GDP would imply a steadily declining debt/GDP ratio. So if you believe the administration’s budget estimates, we’ll need to find another 1-2 percent of GDP in revenue or cost savings.


That’s not, in economic terms, a huge number. We could raise taxes that much and still be one of the lowest-tax nations in the advanced world. Or we could save a significant share of that total by not being totally prepared for the day when Soviet tanks sweep across the North German plain.

The only reason to doubt our ability to get things under control a decade from now is politics: if we’re still deadlocked, if sane Republicans are cowed by the Tea Party, then sure, we can have a fiscal crisis. And longer term, we’ll be in a mess unless we get health care costs under control — which is exactly what we’re trying to do, in the face of cries about death panels.

Politics complicates the budgeting process because so many people simply don't know how much the country spends on its many priorities. People often over-estimate how much is spent on foreign aid and domestic programs (education, transportation, housing, etc), while they underestimate how much is spent on entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, etc). Numbers are changed around the margins, but roughly speaking, how much as a percentage we spend on each item has largely remained the same.

Getting the public to understand the budget is also complicated by lying politicians. One of my biggest pet-peeves is politicians who misrepresent our spending priorities to sell the story that hundreds of billions of dollars are spent every year on waste, fraud, and abuse. We hear stories from ignorant pols who rail against "millions" spent on frivolous things like a middle-of-nowhere museum in Montana or a study on bear mating patterns. (Never mind that $2 million spent on a scientific study breaks down to less than a penny per person.)

(click for larger)

And here is the breakdown for the $481 billion in discretionary domestic spending:

(click for larger)

If this budget proposal were enacted unchanged, it would increase the overall deficit by $1.2 trillion--that's how much the Administration predicts we'll be short in FY2011. Due to the inevitable economic recovery, the Administration is predicting that the annual budget deficit will level-off in the $700-800 billion range over the next few years. As Krugman says, it's okay to not have a balanced budget. Due to increasing GDP, we can make headway on the debt by simply keeping the deficit low.

A balanced budget is doable, however. All it would take is some modest tax increases and modest budget cuts. It's widely known that the area of the budget that receives the least amount of scrutiny is the Defense budget. Obama insisted on a partial spending freeze, meaning that domestic discretionary spending will not increase from FY10 to FY11. The least the government can do is apply the same standard to the bloated Defense budget.

The biggest budgetary scare is the ballooning costs of health services. That's why you might hear of doomsday stories about the debt being out-of-control within ten years. To me, the biggest selling point of the Affordable Care Act was the CBO reporting that it would lessen the burden on the budget of government-provided health care (Medicare and Medicaid).

So policies are now in place to try to skyrocketing medical costs down. Any problems that arise from Social Security can be dealt with by utilizing modest tax increases or small cuts in benefits. The annual budget deficit is very manageable. Once it's taken care of, we can start paying down the national debt and stop throwing away $250 billion every year.

All in all, as long as the adults remain in charge, things are going to be okay!


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Nelson '64

Matt Yglesias says:

In ‘64, the GOP establishment felt that Goldwater was too radical. They said that nominating a hard-rightist like Goldwater would be counterproductive. But conservative activists worked hard, and they did it. Goldwater got the nod. And, just as the establishment predicted, Goldwater got crushed. And just as the established predicted, it proved to be counterproductive. The 1964 landslide led directly to Medicare, Medicaid, Title I education spending, and the “war on poverty.” In the 45 years since that fateful campaign, the conservative movement managed to gain total control over the Republican Party and to sporadically govern the country. But it’s only very partially rolled back one aspect of the Johnson administration’s domestic policy.

Which is just to say that the conservative movement from 1964-2009 was a giant failure. By nominating Goldwater, it invited a massive progressive win that all the subsequent conservative wins were unable to undue. But the orthodox conservative tradition of ‘64 is that it was a great success that laid the groundwork for the triumphs to come.

The basis of the conservative movement has always been to keep the power-centers of society in the same place. Those who have power today should keep it--sometimes add to it, but never lose it. Wall Street traders, titans of industry, heirs to fortunes, and media moguls should never be set back by societal demands that they pay more in taxes. They should never be burdened by more government regulations that make it more difficult for them to make and keep their money.

It's no surprise that these folks are, generally speaking, the monied base of the Republican party. Whoever benefits most from the status quo has a vested interest in not changing anything. When wages stagnate, social programs are cut, and profit margins increase, the monied conservatives in this country win. It's no surprise that they largely consider the past 30 years of free trade, welfare reform, and deregulation to be one big, fat "W".

The biggest problem with this governing coalition is that while it has the money, it lacks the numbers. While money can have a very large effect on elections, a majority of people in this country side against the wealthy conservative interests in this country. When the majority of people are able to vote in a progressive government, we get new programs and better wealth distribution that are ridiculously difficult to repeal.

Yglesias is right that the conservative movement can be seen as a failure as it has never even come close to repealing the biggest progressive reforms and programs put into place by LBJ. However, if the wealthy conservatives in this country are a minority, it's inevitable that progress will be made towards a more equitable society. The conservative movement isn't a failure because 2010 doesn't look like 1963. It's a success because progress has been slower than it otherwise would have been if the Republican party leadership had remained in the hands of the liberal/moderate faction.

If Nelson Rockefeller were seen as the Godfather of the modern Republican party, we would have seen political power in Washington flipping between the moderate Republican party and the liberal Democratic party. That would have been objectively worse for conservatives than the current right-wing/centrist two-party system we have today.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Fewer Political Appointees, More Bureaucrats Please

Today, President Obama made fifteen "recess appointments", largely to help fill administrative spots that have been vacant since he was inaugurated. Even though these nominees had majority support in Congress and many of them passed through the appropriate committees with ease, Republicans placed "holds" on them which prevented them from being voted on.

While this does speak to the need for Senate reform to allow majority votes on all things not required by the Constitution to be super-majority votes, it also shines a light on another problem.

Look at where these nominees are going:
Rafael Borras: Nominee for Under Secretary for Management , Department of Homeland Security

P. David Lopez: Nominee for General Counsel, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Francisco "Frank" J. Sánchez: Nominee for Under Secretary for International Trade, Department of Commerce

Eric L. Hirschhorn: Nominee for Under Secretary of Commerce for Export Administration and head of the Bureau of Industry and Security, Department of Commerce
There are currently 77 of Obama nominees pending on the floor, being held up by Republican procedural tactics. There have been hundreds of nominees that have moved through the Senate over the past 14 months.

Why are so many of these offices filled by Presidential appointment, rather than by career civil servants? In each Department (Defense, Treasury, HUD, etc) we have the Secretary and many Deputy Secretaries, Assistant Secretaries, and Under Secretaries. Not to mention many more Deputy Assistant Secretaries, Deputy Under Secretaries, General Counsels, Administrators, Deputy Administrators...

All these positions must be filled for each division within each executive department. And many of these divisions have oversight and review boards that are also filled with Presidential appointees.

It is important for the President to be able to execute the laws in the manner he sees fit. For example, the Justice Department under a Republican President focuses more on restricting access to the ballot box (strictly enforcing laws against voter fraud), while Democratic Presidents focus on increasing access (loosely enforcing those same laws). I think the President should have the power to appoint people who can enforce those overarching directives.

But with over 2 million people in the civil service I find it hard to believe that so many lower-level leadership positions can only be filled by Presidential appointments. Congress should look into converting 25% of these political-apppointee positions into civil servant jobs. By filling more slots with permanent civil servants, the government would operate more smoothly during an Administration turn-over and prevent small divisions from being leaderless while Congressional obstruction keeps the top position from being filled.

Is Sen. Corker Afraid of Spurring Filibuster Reform?

According to Republican leaders, the best course of action for stopping the Democratic agenda and regaining power for themselves is to "just say no" to whatever the Democrats propose. Don't negotiate, don't bargain, don't contribute--just stand in the way and always vote "no".

Given that the Democrats had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate when they passed Health Care Reform, however, there was nothing the Republicans could do to stop the bill. But as conservative David Frum said earlier this week, the Republicans could have negotiated with the Democrats during their darkest hour--right after Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts--and gotten at least half a loaf out of a bill that was probably going to pass anyway. If legislation is going to become law no matter what you do, why not get everything you can out of it, even if you are the minority party? The Rahm Emmanuels of the world would have jumped at the chance to push through a much smaller reform package if they could get Republican support. If the Republicans cared at all about policy (and--given that the issue seems to be becoming electoral winner for the Dems--politics), they could have stopped the CommieNazi legislation by replacing it with something so minuscule that even Tom Coburn could vote for.

Fortunately for the nation, the Republicans dropped the ball. Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats were able to push through comprehensive Health Care Reform.

Now the Senate is considering comprehensive Financial Services Reform. Hopeful that the Republicans would abandon their failed "Just Say No" approach to governing, Banking Committee Chair Chris Dodd reached out to Ranking Member Richard Shelby and then Senator Bob Corker in the hopes that they could work together to create a piece of legislation that would get the approval of both Democrats and a majority of Republicans.

The negotiations fell apart. For all their on-screen comity, Dodd and Shelby rarely see eye-to-eye. First-term Senator Corker, however, was eager to negotiate with Dodd, but he was unable to guarantee Dodd the votes of any other Republican members of Congress--a prerequisite for Dodd to give up key pieces of the legislation.

The Senate Banking Committee this week passed Dodd's Financial Reform bill on a 13-10 party-line vote. The bill will be hitting the Senate floor next week. And Bob Corker is sounding the alarm.

He isn't going on about socialism, tyranny, or liberty. He isn't warning the majority party that they are overreaching and will feel the wrath of the voters. For a change, he is warning the Republicans that they better get in line:

"I find it very difficult to see a scenario where financial regulation doesn't pass the Senate," Corker told reporters after a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"This is so unlike the health care debate," said Corker, noting that some of his Republican colleagues have made misjudgments on that point over the last month. "I don't think people realize that this is an issue that almost every American wants to see passed. There'll be a lot of pressure on every senator and every House member to pass financial regulation."

Corker is worried that if the 41 Senate Republicans hang together and vote against cloture, they will hear from their constituents who will not be happy to see their Representatives siding with Wall Street and the Bankers, against the Democrats and the folks of Main Street. According to Pew:

59% of voters felt Congress and the administration should support financial reform now, over other priorities.

This is the perfect time for the Dems to press their advantage. This is an issue where they have a clear opinion advantage. They are coming off a great victory in Health Care Reform. They can explain this issue in easy-to-understand language (ie: "The Bankers caused the financial crisis, now we need more regulation to keep them in line"). If the Republicans filibuster this reform package, the Dems should go on an all-out offensive and go to the mat for this bill.

And that's exactly what Corker is afraid of. He's worried that the Republican leadership doesn't see this coming. Chris Dodd said of the Republican leadership:

"They decided they wanted to say 'No' again," Dodd said. "So we went ahead ... If you don't even want to offer yours, I couldn't -- if anyone wanted to offer amendments, I would have been there. They made a decision not to. That was their call. Not mine. And listen, I understand why they wanted to do it."

But could Corker also be worried that this issue may lead to the death of the filibuster?

The top three Senators in the Democratic Leadership--Harry Reid, Dick Durbin, and Chuck Schumer--all favor filibuster reform. The odds are good that the first order of business in the 112th Congress will be to eliminate the filibuster. But Financial Services Reform could be to the Democrats was Bush's Judges were to the Republicans; it could be a great reason to bring out the "Nuclear Option" and threaten to do away with the filibuster for good.

I believe that is what Bob Corker is really afraid of. He's not afraid of damaging the Republican image--after all, it's nearly impossible for the Republicans in Congress to be seen is a worse light. Instead, he could be afraid of the Democrats pushing the advantage and taking away the Republicans' favorite procedural roadblock.

On the one hand, I would like to see Financial Services Reform pass without a problem. On the other, it would be nice to see all 41 Republicans filibuster such a popular piece of legislation and hand the Democrats the perfect excuse for nuking the filibuster once and for all.