Wednesday, July 27, 2011

More on House Leadership*

Steve Benen is all over Speaker Boehner for selling his debt limit/deficit plan to his conference based on the argument that "Barack Obama hates it, Harry Reid hates it, Nancy Pelosi hates it." Benen's fun point is about hypocrisy : Boehner has been claiming that it's the Republicans who have bipartisan support while the Democrats do not, something that is not at all consistent with pushing a plan that he claims Democratic leaders hate.

But the bigger point, which he also gets at, is far more important. The truth is that Boehner's plan is a totally legitimate, if many months late, opening offer. But if he's presenting it to his conference as a done deal -- if he's arguing that if only they vote for this, the Democrats are sure to fold and accept it -- then he's just not telling them the truth. I'm not sure I agree with those who say that Boehner's plan is very similar to Harry Reid's proposal, but I do agree that it's not hard at all to picture a compromise between them. However, it's just not true that the Senate will vote for Boehner; indeed, as of now it looks as if Boehner won't get a single Senate Democrat while losing four or more Senate Republicans. Reid might have 50 votes for his own plan, but probably doesn't have 60. So the two plans, after the votes are taken, are headed for another round of deal-making. Which, of course, is how this stuff is supposed to go.

If Boehner is selling his plan as a way to avoid compromise...well, then we're basically not much closer to getting this done than we were when Boehner and Barack Obama were throwing big numbers at each other that had no chance to pass the House. It will, to be sure, be a step back to reality if House Republicans actually vote for (and pass) a debt limit increase, regardless of the conditions. But if they're being told this is the farthest they'll have to go, then they aren't quite to reality yet.

*Apologies for boring item titles today. Stupid 19 inning game....


  1. Taking a symbolic vote now is as ridiculous as no replay in baseball. (I think umpires should not even be on the field but watching from booths. Guess I don't respect tradition.) Anyway, Boehner is taking up time that could be used to forge a compromise but he's running out the clock (At least I don't believe in a clock in baseball.) Where is the compromise anyway? GOP could have countered Reid's with modification as soon as he made it. Thanks to this belabored House vote, we're pretty much getting to the moment where the sane GOP minority will be left with choice to take Reid's plan as is (and it's basically same as McConnell-Reid though McConnell is railing against it) or head towards a downgrade and hope Obama gets blamed (what many Republicans outright want). Even setting aside their bad policies, dishonesty and crazy reckless tactics, their strategy is thoughtless. If only the Democrats could figure out better messaging, this could be even uglier for the GOP than it already is.

  2. It's almost as if the GOP doesn't want a debt limit increase deal.... as if they would rather tank the economy because it would hurt Obama's re-election chances... I seem to recall somebody saying something about that being the GOP's #1 priority almost a year ago. It appears that was correct.

  3. For what it's worth, Jon Chait has a different analysis. He says this isn't just "a" step toward reality for the House radicals, but "the key step," which will make all the remaining much easier:

    I don't move in radical right circles so I don't know which view is more accurate, but I guess for everyone's sake I hope it's Chait.

  4. "I'm not sure I agree with those who say that Boehner's plan is very similar to Harry Reid's proposal"

    I assume this comes from having not read either plan, because with the exception of scoring some items scheduled to happen anyway and the timing of the provision of the debt limit increase, they are exactly, precisely, the same.

  5. Recently, respected economists Linda Bilrnes and Joseph Stiglitz published a cost estimate of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: total cost = $4-$6 trillion, with $1 trillion or so for ongoing health care.

    WWII, which was a small mid-century skirmish, cost $3.4 trillion in 2008 dollars. The Marshall Plan, a pretty significant investment? $127 billion, again in 2008 dollars.

    The above two paragraphs paint a picture of insanity. The (greater than WWII) cost of Iraq/Afghanistan is mostly "off-balance sheet financing", costs we'll incur and are bound to pay but aren't really found in any concrete budgets, only in fearful projections.

    I think I sympathize with Tea Partiers' motivations. You can't deny care to the vastly larger number of surviving wounded veterans of Iraq/Afghanistan (vs. Vietnam or Korea), but you also can't deny that's going to be expensive as hell. So will the sure-to-be-larger-than-forecast baby boomer old folks surge. Et cetera. Et cetera. Et cetera.

    So sure, the $14 Trillion debt ceiling is a dangerous, and irrational, place for the Tea Partiers to draw a line in the sand. From their perspective, what other option do they have? You can certainly lay the staggering cost of Iraq at the feet of Republican Bush, but from the Tea Party perspective, irrespective of blame there's an immense amount of unaccounted-for spending coming down the road -

    - I do sympathize with the desire to stop the flood before it overwhelms us. Don't agree with the tactics, but they do have somewhat of a point, IMHO.

  6. Just to clarify a bit on the last: Ryan's voucher plan fiasco showed us that you can't practically limit access to health care for seniors. The overwhelming cost of long-term health care for veterans pulled alive from the battlefields of Afghanistan/Iraq (who would have died in Vietnam or Korea) again can't be avoided. If boomers survive much longer than forecast, you can't punish them by making them eat cat food. And on and on and on.

    There's no easy way to manage the debt balloon fiasco to come, since each line item in future budgets will have an important constituent or beneficiary whose need is a special exception that must be met.

    If it were doable, a balanced budget amendment might be a way to manage this challenge. Lacking that, playing hardball with the debt ceiling is a potential Plan B. Idea being: add a $14 T of debt cap to the long list of urgent needs competing for funds. And figure it out, politicians, cause that's what you're paid for.

    It won't work, and it will unleash too many problems for any limited upside, but I can kind of see their point.

  7. But CSH, here you had a Democratic president suggesting (much to the consternation of his own base) $4 trillion in tax cuts combined with just a few hundred billion in new revenues, mostly from closing loopholes and so on. And the Tea Partiers acted like he was proposing to lace their tea with arsenic. You see why it's a little hard for some of to believe that what they really care about is deficits?

  8. To clarify: I think the Tea Party / GOP right has at least three higher priorities than reducing deficits and debt:

    > Making sure the Kenyan Crypto-Muslim Socialist Usurper gets no political credit for anything

    > Eliminating taxes on the wealthy (society's allegedly "productive" classes)

    > Proving they're not dealmaking sellot RINOs, like all previous GOP office-holders have been (including even Reagan if they faced facts)

    I didn't number these goals in order because I think different ones rise in prominence in their thinking on different days. But they all outrank any worry about government financing, especially if by that we mean paying for the care of veterans and baby boomers.

  9. Incidentally, that's a terrible misuse of the Stiglitz calculation on Iraq and Afghanistan vs. WW2 and the Marshall Plan. Not even "apples and oranges", more like "apples and mammals," if not quite "apples and concepts."

  10. It sounded as of last night that the Speaker's new plan was indeed "Boehner's Merkle" - in that he wasn't going to get it out of the House, much less any of the much harder dominoes that needed to fall into place before it would be law.

    The key is that there's 60 members of the Tea Party caucus, and at a peak there were 90 GOP house members refusing to raise the debt limit under any circumstances. And the part I figured was silliest about the plan was that it would require those House members to vote to raise the debt ceiling TWICE.

    If Boehner can actually get a bill passed to raise the ceiling without Dem votes, it leaves an opening that a deal can be made, somehow. Although since it won't be that exact deal, you still are going to need Dems to pass the final deal. No way the TeePees vote to raise the debt ceiling twice in less than a week. But I think enough of the non-Tea Partiers will then have the cover to make the final vote.

  11. What the anti-Tea Party argument misses, and, in fairness, what the Tea Party doesn't elucidate well, is the great danger of the Era of Endless (Budgetary) Exceptionalism. IMHO, the Era of Endless Exceptionalism has been coming for years, while the great weakness of Dubya kicked it into overdrive. Unfortunately, Obama hasn't much stood athwart it.

    So. Consider first the after-battle care of veterans, which is an example of exceptionalism that everyone supports. Maybe it will be $1 T. But we've never been down this road before of so many wounded, surviving vets. Will it be $2 T? Or $3? Could be. How will we know? All we know is that we all support spending whatever it takes.

    Then there's Medicare. If you believe Ryan's voucher proposal, we don't quite all support spending whatever it takes for elderly health care like veterans, but then if you consider the significant pushback against Ryan, obviously enough of a constituency supports (poorly) limited Medicare that Ryan's idea died a miserable death.

    So: veterans health care, check. Elderly health care, check. We'll try cutting SS for a while, but then you'll have a major media outbreak about old folks eating cat food, and pretty soon SS will join the Exceptionalism brigade. Fill in the blank for the next thing, in the post-Dubya era it will be something. It will be many things.

    If you concede that this Era of Endless Budgetary Exceptionalism motivates the Tea Partiers, how do conventional anti-Tea Partier arguments hold up? There's the "6% deficits are normal" argument (Good luck with that!). There's the Keynesian, anti-cyclical spending argument (Exceptionalism has little to do with business cycles). There's the $4T budget cuts argument (Infinity - $4T ~ Infinity). Past budget deals were binding on subsequent Congresses (this is a different time).

    No, if the Tea Party loses the balanced budget, all they have left is a hard cap on the debt. As irrational as it is, I kind of sympathize with it in the post-Dubya era. Exceptionalism is a plague on the Washington spending landscape. The debt cap is not a great way to control it, but it is, arguably, the best of many bad choices to force Congress to make choices they've become very adept at not making.

  12. The debt cap is not a great way to control it, but it is, arguably, the best of many bad choices to force Congress to make choices they've become very adept at not making.

    Except it doesn't force Congress to do anything. We could slash the federal budget by 50% overnight and still, if the debt limit isn't raised, we'd be facing default and economic catastrophe. And economic catastrophe means plummeting revenues, which ruins any chance to balance the budget.

  13. Andrew,

    Yep, as an 11th hour, 59th minute tactic, enforcing opposition to raising the debt cap is pretty wretched for the reasons you suggest. In fact, the negative externalities you mention are a big part of the irrationality I was referring to at the end of my prior post.

    OTOH, suppose you believe that appeal to "unique circumstances" will be an endless excuse for future Congresses/Presidents, motivated in reality by great weakness, to allow powerful, sympathy-evoking constituents to sink the national budget. If so, you might perceive these as the birth pangs of a new era of discipline, which has always been threatened, but never previously acted upon.

    Don't think I could endorse this view...but it isn't as transparently wolf-face crazy as Tea Party opponents often characterize it.


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