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“A Program Conservatives Should Love”: One That Even Paul Ryan Should Be Able To Embrace

We are at a point at which we will soon have vicious ideological debates over motherhood and apple pie.

Don’t laugh. If we can agree on anything across our philosophical divides, surely we can support efforts to promote voluntary service by our fellow citizens and to strengthen our nation’s extraordinary network of civic and religious charities.

This shared set of commitments led to one of the few bipartisan initiatives of President Obama’s time in office. On April 21, it will be five years since the president signed the Serve America Act, the final product of one of Congress’s most creative odd couples. Again and again, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts found ways to legislate together. The law aimed at authorizing 250,000 service slots by 2017 was the unlikely duo’s capstone project before Kennedy’s death.

At a very modest cost to government — those who serve essentially get living expenses and some scholarship assistance later — AmeriCorps gives mostly young Americans a chance to spend a year helping communities and those in need while nurturing thousands of organizations across the country. Senior Corps provides Americans 55 or older a chance to serve, too.

AmeriCorps sent out its first volunteers 20 years ago this fall. Since then, more than 800,000 Americans have participated in the program. By giving life to this great venture in generosity, our government did something that taxpayers, regardless of party, can be proud of.

One politician who speaks often about the importance of civil society groups is Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Ryan rightly talks about the “vast middle ground between government and the individual,” and of empowering “community organizations to improve people’s lives.”

Yet Ryan’s new budget comes out against apple pie. It zeroes out AmeriCorps. Poof. Gone.

Rather than denouncing Ryan for this, I urge him instead to take a second look on the basis of his own principles and realize the opportunity he has. The best move for someone who loves the activities of the nonprofits as much as Ryan says he does is to try to trump the president.

Obama’s budget proposes $1.05 billion, a slight increase that would allow AmeriCorps, including Senior Corps, to expand to more than 100,000 positions . It’s good that Obama and Senate Democrats have worked to keep the program funded in the face of House Republican resistance. But even the number Obama proposes amounts to slightly more than half of the 200,000 spots for 2014 that Hatch and Kennedy envisioned in their original bill.

It’s not as if young people don’t want to serve. AmeriCorps had 580,000 applications for 80,000 openings; Teach for America had 55,000 applications for 6,000 slots . Alan Khazei, co-chair of the Franklin Project at the Aspen Institute, which promotes national service, points to the 16 percent unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds. Service, he argues, is a gateway. It can lead to “employment opportunities and help young Americans develop important job skills for their future careers.”

If Ryan isn’t convinced yet, he should talk to Wendy Spencer, the chief executive of the Corporation for National and Community Service. He’d have a lot in common politically with Spencer, a Republican. She worked in the private sector, for a local Chamber of Commerce and a United Way, and held positions in former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s administration in Florida. She headed the state’s Commission on Volunteerism for the last three Republican governors.

Spencer has been inventive at a time of tough budgets. At the end of March, she announced a partnership with Citi Foundation and the Points of Light Institute involving $10 million in private financing to engage 25,000 low-income young Americans to lead volunteer service projects even as they get mentoring and training from Citi employees.

Encouraged by Obama, federal agencies are using AmeriCorps volunteers in new ways. The Federal Emergency Management Agency Corps, for example, can deploy 1,600 volunteers in disaster relief emergencies while the School Turnaround corps has used hundreds of volunteers in repairing troubled schools.

Spencer views the federal service programs as a “trifecta.” The organizations receiving AmeriCorps and Senior Corps members see their capacity enhanced as full-time volunteers leverage the work of thousands more. And, of course, the participants themselves benefit, as do the people they serve.

If you wish, Mr. Ryan, you can let the president get all the credit for saving this worthy endeavor and for fostering innovation. Or you can go him one better by expanding it. You could use AmeriCorps as a model for a practical, locally oriented, conservative approach to government. Because that’s exactly what it is.


By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, April 13, 2014

April 14, 2014 Posted by | AmeriCorps, Ryan Budget Plan, Serve America Act | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Not Much Of A Deal”: The Trouble With The Minimum-Wage “Compromise”

Senate Democrats had originally planned to move forward this week on legislation to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10, but it was delayed in part so the chamber could tackle extended unemployment benefits, which may pass later today.

The delay, however, also carried an unintended consequence: the prospect of a “compromise” on the issue, spearheaded by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

Democratic leaders so far are sticking to the $10.10-an-hour wage they’re proposing, while many Republicans, including more moderate lawmakers, say they are likely to filibuster the bill.

But the moderate Maine Republican says she’s leading a bipartisan group of senators hoping to strike a deal.

Collins hasn’t released the details of her proposal, which makes sense given that the talks are still ongoing, but Roll Call’s piece suggests she’s open to a minimum-wage increase, so long as it’s smaller. By some accounts, the Maine Republican is eyeing a $9/hour minimum wage, up from the current $7.25/hour, which would be phased in slowly over three years.

But Collins also hopes to trade this modest minimum-wage increase for a partial rollback of the employer mandate in the Affordable Care Act and some small business tax cuts.

The senator is calling her plan “a work in progress.”

One might also call it “something that won’t happen.”

Greg Sargent had a good piece on this yesterday, noting that Dems don’t seem to have much of an incentive to drop their target minimum-wage threshold.

For one thing, Democratic aides point out, the idea of such a compromise may be fanciful. Even if it were possible to win over a few Republicans for a lower raise, you’d probably risk losing at least a few Democrats on the left, putting 60 out of reach (Republicans would still filibuster the proposal).

Indeed, the office of Senator Tom Harkin – the chief proponent of a hike to $10.10 – tells me he’ll oppose any hike short of that…. Labor is already putting Dems on notice that supporting a smaller hike is unacceptable.

Even the balance of the so-called “compromise” is off. As Collins sees it, Republicans would get quite a bit in exchange for Democrats making important concessions on their popular, election-year idea.

That’s not much of a “deal.”

Complicating matters, even if Dems went along with Collins’ offer, there’s no reason to believe House Republicans would accept any proposal to increase the minimum wage by any amount.

It sets Senate Democrats up with a choice: fight for the $10.10 minimum-wage increase they want (and watch Senate Republicans kill it) or pursue a $9 minimum-wage increase they don’t want (and watch House Republicans kill it).

Don’t be too surprised if the party sees this as an easy call.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, April 3, 2014

April 7, 2014 Posted by | Congress, Minimum Wage | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Aligned Agenda’s”: The Tea Party and Wall Street Might Not Be Best Friends Forever, But They Are For Now

“Our problem today was not caused by a lack of business and banking regulations,” argued Ron Paul in his 2009 manifesto End the Fed, which outlined a theory of the financial crisis that only implicated government policy and the Federal Reserve, while mocking the idea that Wall Street’s financial engineering and derivatives played any role. “The only regulations lacking were the ones that should have been placed on the government officials who ran roughshod over the people and the Constitution.”

There seems to be some confusion about the relationship between the Tea Party and Wall Street. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait says the two “are friends after all,” while the Washington Examiner‘s Tim Carney insists that the Tea Party has loosened the business lobby’s “grip on the GOP.” So let’s make this clear: The Tea Party agenda is currently aligned with the Wall Street agenda.

The Tea Party’s theory of the financial crisis has absolved Wall Street completely. Instead, the crisis is interpreted according to two pillars of reactionary thought: that the government is a fundamentally corrupt enterprise trying to give undeserving people free stuff, and that hard money should rule the day. This will have major consequences for the future of reform, should the GOP take the Senate this fall.

On the Hill, it’s hard to find where the Tea Party and Wall Street disagree. Tea Party senators like Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz, plus conservative senators like David Vitter, have rallied around a one-line bill repealing the entirety of Dodd-Frank and replacing it with nothing. In the House, Republicans are attacking new derivatives regulations, all the activities of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the existence of the Volcker Rule, and the ability of the FDIC to wind down a major financial institution, while relentlessly attacking strong regulators and cutting regulatory funding. This is Wall Street’s wet dream of a policy agenda.

Note the lack of any Republican counter-proposal or framework. The few that have been suggested, such as David Camp’s bank tax or Vitter’s higher capital requirements have gotten no additional support from the right. House Republicans attacked Camp’s plan publicly, and Vitter’s bill lost one of its only two other Republican supporters immediately after it was announced. So why is there a lack of an agenda? Because the Tea Party thinks that Wall Street has done nothing wrong.

The story of the crisis, according to the right, goes like this: The Community Reinvestment Act and other government regulations forced banks into making subprime loans, and the “affordability goals” of government-sponsored enterprises made the rest of the subprime that crashed the economy. The Federal Reserve pumped a credit bubble, as it always does when it tries to push against recessions. In other words, the financial crisis in 2008 was entirely a government creation, and could have been solved by just putting all the financial firms into bankruptcy. There’s no such problem as “shadow banking,” and to whatever extent Wall Street misbehaved, it was only the result of the moral hazard created by the assumption that there would be bailouts. Or as Senator Marco Rubio said in his 2013 State of the Union response, we suffered “a housing crisis created by reckless government policies.”

This narrative is an easy one to believe for people who distrust government, but it’s far from the facts. The CRA didn’t even cover the fly-by-night institutions making the vast majority of subprime loans. The GSEs lost market share during the housing bubble and subprime loans account for less than 5 percent of their losses. Low interest rates likely account for only a quarter of housing price shifts, and even then, low interest rates likely offset capital coming into the country from abroad.

The mainstream account of the crisis, as Dean Starkman pointed out in The New Republic, is that we’re all to blame—or, as Georgetown law professor Adam Levitin wrote in his recent survey of the crisis, that it was a “perfect storm.” Starkman argues that the Everyone-Is-To-Blame narrative is partially responsible for the lack of serious homeowner help in the Home Affordable Modification Program. As he demonstrates in his piece, “there’s a big and growing body of documentation about what happened as the financial system became incentivized to sell as many loans as possible on the most burdensome possible terms.”

The lack of any Republican policy on financial reform is the result of several factors. Mitt Romney thought it would be a liability to put forward his own agenda in 2012. By voting nearly unanimously against Dodd-Frank, Republicans were able to make this moderate, lukewarm response to the crisis look like a partisan takeover of finance (financial reform is hard and may not work, so all the better to have Democrats own the issue so they can be clubbed with it later). Rather than wage total war against Dodd-Frank through partisan outfits, the smartest minds on the right are weakening the law through law firms and K Street. And the conservative infrastructure has been solely focused on privatizing the GSEs completely.

This lack of policy has allowed the far right and Austrian School acolytes to occupy the intellectual space in the party. It’s the minority party for now, but all it takes is a few Senate seats changing hands before the Tea Party narrative becomes the prevailing one on the Hill—and nothing would delight Wall Street more.


By: Mike Konczal, The New Republic, March 21, 2014

March 24, 2014 Posted by | Tea Party, Wall Street | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“When The Dog Catches The Car”: Why Taking Over The Senate May Not Do Republicans Much Good

There’s an old story about a freshman member of the House who is getting shown around by a senior member on his first day, and the freshman asks about the other party. “I want to meet the enemy,” he says. “No, son,” says the old bull, “they’re the opposition. The Senate is the enemy.” I thought about that today as the prospect of a Republican takeover of the Senate becomes more of a possibility. If the GOP controlled both houses, would Republicans be able to present a united front against President Obama, one that might actually accomplish any practical goals? There are some clues in the maneuvering that’s going on right now over health care as Republicans look forward to this fall’s elections.

To begin with, we should acknowledge that a Republican takeover of the upper house is anything but a sure thing. The midterms are still seven and a half months away, and a lot could happen between now and then. There could be an economic crisis, or months of solid job growth, or an alien invasion, or who knows what. But barring anything dramatic, we know it is going to be very, very close. The map is just horrible for Democrats — not only are they defending 21 seats while Republicans are defending only 15, many of those Democratic seats are in conservative states such as  Alaska, Arkansas and South Dakota, where any Democrat is going to be at a disadvantage. Combine that with the fact that the president’s party almost always loses seats in the sixth year of his presidency and with  Obama’s relatively low approval ratings (43.3 percent in the latest Huffington Post/Pollster average), and it’s going to be a nail-biter. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball  predicts the Senate on Election Day as 48 Democrats, 49 Republicans and three toss-ups.

If the Republicans do take the Senate, they won’t have a lot of time to savor the victory, because two years later they’re going to be the ones defending more seats (see Sean Trende’s analysis for more details). That makes it entirely possible, maybe even likely, that Republicans will have control of both houses for only two years, and after 2016 we’ll go back to the way things are now. So can they legislate during that time?

To a certain degree, the question is moot as long as Obama is president. Anything big and consequential on the Republican agenda would get vetoed. But you can accomplish a lot by thinking relatively small. The question is whether Republicans — or to be more specific, House Republicans — are capable of doing that.

I’ll point you to two articles written in the last couple of days. The first, by Dylan Scott in Talking Points Memo, discusses some of the ways Senate Republicans and the insurance industry are thinking about the possibility of a GOP Senate takeover. There’s a lot of discussion about some of the features of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that might be trimmed back. Could you cut or eliminate a tax on insurance policies? What about restoring cuts to Medicare Advantage? Might you introduce a lower-level “copper” plan to be sold on the exchanges, which would be less comprehensive than the gold, silver and bronze plans?

Now let’s turn to the House. Last night, The Post’s Robert Costa reported that House Republican leaders are coalescing around an alternative to the ACA that would do some of the things Republicans have been advocating for years: repeal the ACA,  institute medical malpractice reform, let people buy insurance across state lines and a few other things.

See the difference? The senators accept that the ACA is law and are thinking about how they’d like to change it. The House members are coming up with another way to make a futile, symbolic shaking of their fists in the general direction of the White House. And this may offer a clue to how legislating would proceed in a Republican Congress. The House, still dominated by extremely conservative Republicans for whom any hint of compromise is considered the highest treason, could continue to pass one doomed bill after another, while the Senate tries to write bills that have at least some chance of ever becoming law.

And that would be just fine with Barack Obama. If he’s faced with both houses controlled by the opposition, there’s nothing he’d rather see than them fighting with each other and passing only unrealistic bills that he can veto without worrying about any backlash from the public.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; Published at The Plum Line, The Washington Post, March 17, 2014

March 19, 2014 Posted by | Election 2014, Senate | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“It’s Worth Taking Seriously”: Washington Is Ignoring Obama’s Budget. You Shouldn’t

Mere hours after the White House released President Obama’s budget, Washington had reached a consensus about it: It’s “irrelevant.”

As this argument goes, the House and Senate have already agreed on a fiscal policy plan—the agreement from House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan and Senate Budget Chairman Patty Murray that Congress passed in the fall. Ryan-Murray lays out the basic parameters of what the government will take in and spend, not just for 2014 but also for 2015. Neither party wants to revisit that pact. And to the extent Obama is proposing new ideas for the long term, like pouring money into early childhood education, the Republicans simply aren’t interested in passing them. That would seem to render Obama’s new budget an exercise in pure political symbolism, and maybe empty symbolism at that.

I take a different view—and not simply because I’m nerdy enough to think of reading 200-plus pages of figures and charts as an opportunity, rather than a burden. For one thing, some of Obama’s budget proposals could still become legislation—not as sweeping initiatives, for sure, but as scaled-down pilots or add-ons to other pieces of legislation. It’s already happened once, in the Ryan-Murray spending agreement. Mostly that pact was about restoring some of the funding that various federal agencies had lost, because of budget sequestration. But the Administration and its Capitol Hill allies managed to squeeze out a little extra funding for early childhood programs. One reason: Obama’s call for a massive, $75 billion investment in the previous year’s budget put the issue onto the agenda.

The Administration may have another chance to scrounge up new funding for early childhood this year, now that leaders in both parties have expressed interest in reauthorizing and improving the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which is the federal government’s biggest program for financing day care. And that’s not the only pending legislation that could give the Administration and its allies a chance to fight for funds. Congress could take up a major highway bill, since the existing federal law expires in September. That’s an opportunity to drum up support for infrastructure projects, which include ports that need dredging as well as roads that need building.

“We can’t simply throw up our hands and not pass a highway bill,” one senior administration official said on Tuesday. And while this particular Congress has shown an unusual proclivity for doing nothing, thanks mostly to Republican intransigence, the two parties seem to have some of the same topics on their minds. Both Ryan and Senator Marco Rubio has expressed interest in expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, so that childless adults can get benefits closer to the ones that families already receive. Obama’s budget calls for the same thing. House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp has talked about closing corporate tax loopholes, bolstering tax breaks for the working poor, and even throwing a little funding at infrastructure. Obama’s budget includes versions of all of these.

The parties are still far apart—very, very far apart—on the specifics. Republicans and Democrats have fundamental disagreements about how to fund highway creation and maintenance, with one side supporting new taxes and the other favoring tax cuts. (You can guess who wants what.) The Republican EITC proposals would give more money to childless adults by giving less money to families; Obama’s proposal would increase funding across the board. But particularly when it comes to some of the provisions of Camp’s tax plan, a senior administration official said on Tuesday, “there’s basis for a serious conversation.”

Of course, Camp isn’t the problem. It’s the House Republican leaders, who are in no rush to put his plan—or anybody else’s plan—on the agenda if they can avoid it. That’s partly because an election is coming up. Republicans figure they will pick up seats in the midterms, giving them more leverage over any fiscal negotiations taking place. But a budget unlikely to generate legislation can still have meaning, as a statement of priorities. In this case, the Obama budget is a preview of the agenda Democrats will adopt whenever full-scale fiscal negotiations start up again—which, as Bob Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, is likely to happen sometime in 2015:

2014 likely won’t be a year of significant budgetary action beyond the appropriations bills. But 2015 may well be. Policymakers likely will seek to negotiate another budget deal to ease the scheduled sequestration budget cuts for 2016 and beyond and also may consider tax reform and other measures.  Both the new Obama budget and the budget proposal that House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan will unveil in a few weeks will offer dueling frameworks for a year-long debate on where fiscal and program policy should go, in advance of larger decisions next year.

That’s precisely the sort of information voters should have in November, when they decide which parties control the two houses of Congress.

The stakes in the fall may not be nearly as big as they were in 2008, when Obama was promising to reform health care and stop climate change—or in 2010, when Republicans were vowing to roll back Obama’s accomplishments and, then, roll back parts of the Great Society and New Deal. But those were unusually grandiose times. The difference between Democratic and Republican visions of government are still large—and in 2015, when the current spending agreement runs out, lawmakers will have to reconcile them. Obama’s budget is one vision for how to do that, which makes it worth taking seriously.


By: Jonathan Cohn, The New Republic, March 4, 2014

March 6, 2014 Posted by | Congress, Federal Budget, Fiscal Policy | , , , , , , | 1 Comment


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