Archive for the ‘US Congress’ Category

Rand Paul Shows What A Filibuster Should Look Like

Monday, March 11th, 2013

Last week, Rand Paul caught the imagination of people who pay attention to politics and in the process did himself some good on the Senate floor. Paul staged a 12 hour filibuster to protest the Obama Administration’s vacillation when asked whether drones could be used to attack American citizens in the United States.

I’m not overly concerned that drones are going to be dropped on my local coffee shop, but I did think that it was offensive that Obama’s team bobbed and weaved when asked about it. As Charles Pierce put it:

The question of whether or not the president can drop a couple of hellfires on an apartment block in Cincinnati, or a farmhouse outside Salinas, or a fucking brownstone in Brooklyn is a yes-or-no question. And, if your answer is “yes,” you need to explain yourself at considerable length.

But it wasn’t so much the issue as it was somebody finally having their Howard Beale moment on the national stage. Ironically, in addition to providing a badly needed shot in the arm to a demoralized Republican party, it also highlighted how broken the system is by showing what a filibuster used to look like, as well as what it should be. Paul’s 12 hour Mr. Smith Goes To Washington style soliloquy was a throwback to the days when people actually used to filibuster, not just declare their intent to filibuster and watch the other side fold.

This contrast wasn’t lost on liberals. As Gail Collins pointed out, you didn’t have to read your history to see the contrast. It was on display that very day in the US Senate.

Compare Paul’s behavior to that of Mitch McConnell, the minority leader. Earlier in the day, McConnell had staged a filibuster under the usual system: He blocked the nomination of Caitlin Halligan to the D.C. circuit court by filing a piece of paper.

Halligan’s nomination has been moldering for two years now. Her fate is an excellent example of everything people hate about the way Washington works. She’s completely qualified, a former solicitor general for New York State. Nobody questions her character. But she cannot get an up-or-down vote. McConnell’s opposition is partly partisan (the Republicans want to keep majority control of the powerful D.C. circuit) and partly a bow to the National Rifle Association, which has recently gotten into the business of vetting major judicial nominations.

Would any Republican have spent a night fending off hunger, thirst and the need for bathroom breaks to stop Halligan’s nomination? We’ll never know. All McConnell had to do was just say no. Harry Reid, the majority leader, needed 60 votes to proceed. End of story. End of Halligan.

Since Obama was elected, the Republicans have basically changed the rules of engagement that the Senate lived by, now making even the most basic questions subject to a 60 vote majority. To see how dramatic this change has been, take a look at this chart.

One of the most tepid filibuster reform proposals in the US Senate this year was to actually force people to do what Paul did last week if they want to stop majority rule. Amazingly and inexplicably, Harry Reid made caving on this principle as one of his first actions in this new term.

This is just outrageous. Even if you support the filibuster, shouldn’t it be a requirement that you actually filibuster, not just declare your intention to?

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Passes

Saturday, December 18th, 2010

Finally!

President Obama:

No longer will our nation be denied the service of thousands of patriotic Americans forced to leave the military, despite years of exemplary performance, because they happen to be gay….and no longer will many thousands more be asked to live a lie in order to serve the country they love.

  ”The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Poor Harry Reid

Saturday, December 18th, 2010

How would you like to have to work with these assholes?

The Death of Keynesianism?

Saturday, November 13th, 2010

Here’s Peter Beinart’s Post Election piece. Aside from the contentious bit about “American Exceptionalism,” (which is a separate topic worth returning to later),  the larger issue is where the economy has been and where we go from here. Beinart argues that the biggest casualty of this election is not Democrats, but Keynesianism, the economic theory that argues that when the economy is in recession, the government needs to pump money into the system in order to pick up the slack. While Keynesianism holds that the most effective way to do this is through government spending, temporary tax cuts are also considered stimulative. The idea here is that during times of recession, the private sector stops investing so even if the government lowers taxes, the additional income is likely to be saved or used to pay off debts, not invested into the economy.

Ironically, the discrediting of Keynesianism comes at a time when we have just seen its success. As much as the stimulus was maligned by the Republicans, independent experts such as John McCain’s top economic advisor have argued that it was an integral part of the successful government efforts to avert a Great Depression 2.0. Mark Zandy writes in a report earlier this year that without the massive government intervention by the Treasury Department, Congress and the Federal Reserve (AKA–Lower Interest Rates, TARP and the Stimulus–AKA everything the Tea Party was against), GDP in 2010 would have been 11.5% lower, there would have been 8.5 million less jobs and the country would have been experiencing deflation. While much of this change can be attributed to TARP and the Fed’s actions, Zandy estimates that in 2010 GDP is 3.5% higher, unemployment is 1.5% lower and there are 2.7 million more people employed due to the stimulus.

I’m not arguing that the stimulus was perfect, that there wasn’t waste, or that it couldn’t have been more effective if it was designed differently, but I am arguing that it was effective and that the Republican alternative of just tax cuts and monetary policy would have created the same giant deficit, and produced less economic growth, because despite the lowest US tax rates in 50 years, no one was creating jobs or expanding their busineses in 2009 and interest rates were already at close to zero.

Why Obama wasn’t waving this report around on the campaign trail is a mystery to me, but it is difficult to base a campaign on:  ”you think things are bad now, just think of how bad they would have been…” Also, while government intervention did prevent a Great Depression, job creation has stalled this year as private industry (which is actually doing quite well) has been content to sit on large cash reserves instead of hiring new employees or expanding their businesses.

It has become an article of faith among Republicans that Health Care Reform, Financial Reform and the prospect of capping carbon emissions has created a climate of uncertainty that has decreased investment. This argument probably has some merit, but I think it’s overblown. You can complain about a 2000 page Health Care Bill, but health care costs increased over 100% in the last decade. The heath care status quo was inherently uncertain and remains so. Similarly, we could have quibbles over how much regulation of the financial industry is necessary, but again, anyone who watched as Wall Street crashed this economy should have trouble arguing that reforming the banking industry wasn’t needed. In fact, it’s clear that Obama, Geithner and the Banking Committees in Congress engaged in a deliberate strategy of minimizing the impact of financial regulation on the existing system (yet another eggregious example of how much special interest control our government).  

A good case can be made that, while the stimulus and other government intervention succeeded in creating a floor for the economy, the current stall in the recovery highlights the fact that there should have been more incentives for private sector hiring. In retrospect, the stimulus should have included tax cuts that were specifially targeted to job creation, like a payroll tax, instead of the $500-$1000 tax cuts that were given to 98% of Americans. Those tax cuts fulfilled an Obama campaign promise, but probably did little to stimulate the economy.    

Republicans, for their part, were either incapable of telling the difference between short term stimulus and long term deficit spending, or they did a great job pretending that they couldn’t tell the difference (I honestly am not sure which). For their obstructionism and unwillingness to help rescue the economy in any way, they reaped the rewards in this election. Democrats also played right into their hands, by not making any credible moves to cut the deficit in the long term, and in fact, using Medicare cuts that should have been used to balance the budget, to fund Health Care Reform.

Just to give a sense of the hole we find ourselves in, here is a report on the jobs created in October. This number was a positive surprise, since 150,000 jobs created in the month was higher than expected and it comes on the heels of 4 months of net job loss (due to lost government jobs), but the increase was not enough to move the unemployment rate. The article points out that

even if the economy suddenly expands and starts adding 208,000 jobs a month — as it did in its best year this decade — it would still take 12 years to close the gap between the growing number of American workers and the total available jobs.

So Beinart’s frustration is not misplaced. Despite the money that was spent on the stimulus, our infrastructure is still in major need of upgrade and a targeted effort to invest in American infrastructure could stimulate significant private sector job growth.  As China and India industrialize and reorient their economy for the 21st Century with investments in green technology, our infrastructure is crumbling and our politicians are so immobilized by partisan politics that they can’t agree on a plan to decrease our dependence on foreign energy, despite the fact that everyone knows how important this is for the country. 

Republican control of the 2/5 of the Senate has stopped this kind of investment in America and the midterm election results make them even less likely. We have officially entered an era of retrenchment, where the question is not how should we stimulate the economy, but how should we balance the budget. While the economic pain continues for the country, all options to stimulate the economy (including tax cuts) have effectively been taken off the table. In the coming weeks, Democrats and Republicans will argue about whether to keep the Bush Tax Cuts or let them expire. But even this debate is only about whether to take the foot off the pedal, not a new strategy for how to accelerate.

But don’t worry Republicans. now that your guys are calling shots in Congress, I’m sure that the Democrats will give Boehner and the Republicans as long as they gave Obama to start creating jobs.

How does next week sound?

The Politics and Pragmatism of Extending Bush Tax Cuts

Tuesday, July 27th, 2010

Jonathan Chaitt has an interesting piece on the politics of extending the Bush Tax cuts in yesterday’s New Republic.

All of the Bush income tax cuts are scheduled to expire at the end of this year under current law and Barack Obama (along with most Democrats) support letting the taxes on the top 2% expire while leaving the cuts for 98% of Americans in place. Chaitt argues that, politically, this is a slam dunk for the Democrats since Americans overwhelmingly support increased taxes on the wealthy.

His article discussses the strategy proposed  by a number of Democrats, whereby the Senate would put extending the cuts for middle-class and the poor on the table and dare the Republican’s to filibuster it. If they can get Republicans to agree to middle class tax cuts, they’ll get their agenda. If not, tax cuts will expire for everyone and the Democrats can run  a campaign on how the Republican’s refused to allow the tax cuts to be voted upon because they wanted tax cuts for the rich. While Republicans would lament losing the tax cuts for the rich, neither party would particularly bemoan the loss of middle class tax cuts since neither one particularly wanted them, according to Chaitt. 

There are a number of problems here. First of all, it’s not a strategy without risk, because it assumes that the Democrats will be rewarded for Republican obstructionism instead of blamed for not being able to get anything done even though they have 59 votes in the Senate. Second of all, it’s not clear that the Democrats have the votes for this strategy and a number of their members have expressed doubts about allowing the tax cuts to expire during the largest recession since the Great Depression. Given that Harry Reid has not once in the past two years asked Republicans to actually fillibuster (Mr Smith Goes to Washingtn style) instead of just hold votes to close debate, it seems unlikely that he would force 4 or more Democrats to actually bring out the cots and spend the night on the floor defending tax cuts for the rich. However, nothing focuses the mind like a hanging and perhaps Harry will start acting like his career depends on showing some grit (since it does).

More important than these political issues are the economic and fiscal issues. As I’ve argued before, I think that pretty much all of these tax cuts are irresponsible given the budget deficits we face. However, I also believe that the economy is in a precarious position and needs the short-term stimulus. 

I would be okay with the following: leave all of the tax cuts in place for another year and set them to sunset at the end of 2011. According to CBO, this would cost about $110 billion for the year.  This insures that, if nothing is done, the cuts will expire, so no matter who controls Congress, there will be no chance that President Obama will be stuck with tax cuts for the rich if he doesn’t want them. By 2011, the Deficit Reduction Commission will have reported it’s recommendations, hopefully the recession will have eased slighltly and (again hopefully) the political debate will have shifted to a more serious discussion of the fiscal disaster looming. I may be overstating the impact of the deficit reduction panel, but I think it will be a game changer. I’m not positive that Obama will feel he has enough cover to abandon his pledge not to increase taxes on the middle class, but certainly this is a possibility.

Perhaps as part of a bargain for a temporary extention of the tax cuts and negotiations over the Estate Tax, the Administration can also get some of the additional stimulus programs that they have been pushing, including tax breaks for business and aid for teachers.

The worst outcome would, in my opinion, would be for the politicians to put these tax increases off indefinitely. This would send the unmistakable signal that, once again, the politicians are refusing to make the tough decisions to put our fiscal house in order in the long term.

The Irony of 2010

Monday, July 19th, 2010

Last week, Robert Gibbs set off a firestorm when he said what everyone already knows on Meet the Press: the Democrats could lose the House his year. This set off howls of protest from House members who feel that they have put their careers on the line for President Obama and that he has not shown the same level of commitment to them.

Meanwhile, prognosticators are reading the tea leaves for signs of how the electorate will respond in 2010 and whether this election will resemble the wave elections of 1994 and 1996 or the smaller, but significant, losses of the Reagan Republicans in 1982.

The irony of this all is that a favorable outcome for their respective Congressional parties may be a liability for the both President Obama and Republican presidential candidates in 2012.

Let’s stipulate up front that the loss of the House would be a clear setback for Obama and would put his agenda going forward in peril. Losing the House could also have long term implications for Democrats, since incumbency brings inherent advantages (such as a re-election rate that hovers in the 96% range) and having power in the present significantly increases a party’s chance of having power in the future.

For Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi’s House Democrats have been extremely helpful in pushing forward his agenda. Although he is not reaping the benefits in the polls, he has been remarkably successful at enacting policy. In less than two years, he has passed a budget that sets new priorities for the country, as well as the trifecta of a stimulus plan, health care reform and financial reform. A (much watered down) energy bill is on deck. The House of Representatives has been a key part of this effort, moving first on all four issues and providing a liberal push as counterweight to the slow moving, inherently conservative Senate. To lose control of the House would be a dramatic blow to Obama’s ability to enact new programs going forward.

On the Republican side, there is probably no one as reviled as Nancy Pelosi. The Republican faithful would like nothing more than to take Pelosi and Reid out of power and hand the Democrats a historic defeat.

But any careful observer can see that that taking or keeping control of the House may not in the best long term interests of Obama or of the Republican hopefuls in 2012.

For Obama, a Republican House would provide a useful foil for him in making his 2010 case for re-election, just as Newt Gingrich was for Bill Clinton. With the defeat of most moderate Republicans over the past five years, the party now consists of mostly hard line libertarians, extreme social conservatives and a gang of formerly independent statesmen who have been so cowed by the Tea Party that they act just like the Rand Paul wing of the party. In recent polling, only 32% of Americans believed that the Democrats in Congress could be trusted to make the right decisions. The only group who polled lower were the Republicans at 26%. The entire key to the 2010 elections (and by extension the 2012 elections) will be to make the contest a choice of two competing ideologies instead of a referendum on Obama, Pelosi and Reid.

For Republican presidential candidates, the situation is equally clear. Running in 2012 against Pelosi, Reid and Obama would be a much easier campaign to frame than one in which Republicans had any measure of control or claim to responsibility for the situation.

In addition, there is plenty of evidence that Congressional Republicans are not quite ready for prime time. Every other time John Boehner opens his mouth he says something that shows how out of touch he is. For the past two years, their policy has been based on one thing: saying no to everything proposed by Obama, Pelosi and Reid. They complain incessantly about Democratic proposals, but didn’t have anything particularly serious to offer on the major issues of the day (health care, financial regulation, energy). They regularly bemoan deficit projections, but the closest thing they have to a plan is conservative wunderkind Paul Ryan’s Roadmap, a serious plan to balance the budget to be sure, but one that relies on privatizing both Social Security and Medicare, as well as raising taxes on the middle class while slashing them for those with higher incomes (all policies that have found very little support among the American people) At last count, Ryan’s Roadmap was endorsed by nine Congressmen.

Perhaps the bigger issue is that, beginning next year, the focus of the country will most likely be on developing a long term deficit reduction plan. As discussed here before, the bi-partisan Simpson/Bowles Budget Deficit Reduction Commission will release its findings at the end of the year. In it will be a plan to cut deficits to $550 billion by 2015.  This plan should shift the conversation significantly. While their will be a debate on the specific plan, the report should make clear that the current path is unsustainable, that taxes and revenues need to increase and that budgets will need to be cut. This will be an opportunity for Obama to move to the center, provide a plan to decrease the projected long term deficits and refashion himself into the pragmatic candidate that he ran as in 2008.

If the Democrats do maintain control, it will be an opportunity for them to reclaim the mantle of fiscal responsibility that they have lost over the past two years and do it in a way that preserves Democratic priorities. But this process will be difficult to enact because of the fractious nature of the Democratic party, what will surely be smaller margins in the House and the complete lack of a credible partner in the Republicans.

On the other hand, if the Republicans take the House this year they will be forced to provide their own alternate plan to balance the budget. Given American’s historical aversion to sacrifice and the slim menu of choices available, this plan is likely to be unpopular and Obama can take advantage of the contrast to frame a choice between two competing visions of the country. If Republicans try to compromise and implement some real austerity programs with Obama’s support, this could be win-win for both parties, but it will make it much more difficult for Republicans to argue that Obama is a dangerous socialist. If, on the other hand, there is a long lasting standoff, Obama will be able to turn up the heat with the bully pulpit, returning to the stump to campaign against the vision of the party in power.

In the meantime, the fight for the House goes on and you can expect to see Obama and the Republican presidential hopefuls giving it their all.

But don’t be surprised if there are a few people in the White House (or in the Romney campaign) who don’t shed too many tears if their side loses.

A Glorious Mess

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

A great piece from Eugene Robinson on the importance of House Democrats standing up to the Tea Party and making history.