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
“50th Time Is The Charm”: For House Republicans, The Affordable Care Act Is Not About Policy And Governing Isn’t Their Goal
Last week, after House Republicans announced an upcoming vote on undermining the Affordable Care Act, President Obama took some time to mock GOP lawmakers for their pointless hobby. “You know what they say: 50th time is the charm,” he joked at a DNC event. “Maybe when you hit your 50th repeal vote, you will win a prize. Maybe if you buy 50 repeal votes, you get one free. We get it. We understand. We get you don’t like it. I got it.”
But by all appearances, Republicans aren’t concerned about mockery. They’re proceeding today with their plan to go after the ACA’s individual mandate – again. By most counts, it will be the 50th time House Republicans have voted to gut some or all of the health care law since 2011, even though they fully realize their bill has no chance of being signed into law.
The House is set to vote Wednesday on a bill by Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS) to effectively delay the individual mandate for one year by reducing the penalty in 2014 for not buying insurance from $95 to $0.
The Republican-led chamber passed a similar bill last July, capturing 22 Democratic votes. Now that it’s an election year, it’s plausible that a significant number of Democrats will defect, given the unpopularity of the individual mandate and the likelihood that Senate Democrats will throw the bill in the garbage once it arrives.
House Republicans are under no illusions about the legislation’s prospects, but governing isn’t the goal. This is about an election-year stunt intended to help GOP lawmakers feel better, maybe motivate the base a bit, and create the basis for some new attack ads against Democrats.
Whether or not one approves of this waste of time, it remains a ridiculous display.
For one thing, the effort itself would be a substantive disaster if the bill actually became law. Clearly the GOP is in its post-policy phase, so real-world implications are no longer considered before bills receive votes, but the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities published an analysis yesterday and found that the House’s proposal would increase the number of Americans without insurance and lead to higher health care premiums in the individual market. How do Republican leaders respond to revelations like these? They don’t – this isn’t about policy, so the implications are deemed irrelevant.
For another, this is quite a bit of effort over a policy Republicans supported up until a few years ago – the mandate used to be a key feature of GOP health care plans.
House Republicans could be using their time wisely right now. Maybe they could work on real legislation; maybe they could present their “Obamacare” alternative they’ve been promising for years.
But that just doesn’t seem to interest them. Americans are instead stuck watching their House of Representatives spin its wheels, picking up self-satisfying “message” bills.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 5, 2014
There were no fireworks when John Boehner stood before Republican members at their retreat in rural Maryland and unveiled the House GOP’s “principles” for immigration reform. Even as the speaker outlined policies intolerable to hawkish conservatives, such as providing citizenship to undocumented children, there was, amazingly, no ugly dissent inside the Hyatt conference center.
There’s a simple reason why: Most members realized that Boehner was presenting broad ideas to be discussed, not specific proposals to be voted on.
“I thought the principles were vague enough that most people could agree with them,” Rep. Raul Labrador said after the retreat.
That was the idea.
At the beginning of the year, interviews with dozens of lawmakers and aides revealed a strategic dichotomy forming within the House GOP. Many conservatives craved a “bold” voting schedule in 2014 that would draw sharp policy contrasts on a host of issues. Republican leaders, on the other hand, saw such aggression as counterproductive in an election year and preferred to play it safe by pounding the issues of Obamacare, government oversight, the economy, and opportunity for middle-class Americans.
What has emerged is something of a safe middle ground. Boehner said Thursday that Republicans “will not shy away from” advancing major legislation this year. But the pace of that advance will be slow. Indeed, as GOP leadership carefully navigates an election year that appears promising for the party, Boehner is allowing conservative policy solutions to emerge from the conference—but they are meant to elicit positive headlines and score political points, not to expedite votes.
Take immigration. In the abstract, plenty of Republicans support legal status for undocumented immigrants (albeit only after several triggers, such as border security and employment verification, are in place.) Still, they say 2014 isn’t ripe for such an overhaul, citing election-year politics and a belief that President Obama is unwilling to enforce immigration laws. Boehner, knowing the reticence of his members yet understanding the necessity of appearing proactive on immigration, felt he had to act.
So the speaker released a nebulous outline of principles. Republicans rolled their eyes, sensing that significant legislative action was unlikely, but the media went crazy, splashing front-page headlines heralding the House GOP’s embrace of legalization for the undocumented. And one week later, after lawmakers lodged obligatory concerns and reporters wrote glowing reviews, Boehner dutifully acknowledged that immigration reform probably won’t happen this year.
“This is an important issue in our country,” Boehner said on Feb. 6. “It’s been kicked around forever, and it needs to be dealt with.”
The speaker was discussing immigration, but he could have been referencing any number of policies his GOP members want to bring to a vote—tax reform, health care, privacy, and welfare reform among them. Republicans want action, but it’s becoming clear that most of these will share immigration’s fate: Principles will be shared and a discussion will be had, but a vote will not.
Tax reform is the latest example. Rep. Dave Camp, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, made a splash last week by introducing a long-awaited overhaul of the tax code. Many conservatives have eagerly anticipated Camp’s proposal for three years, and are now agitating for a vote. “If this is a really powerful document that can rally a bunch of support in the party, then what’s to stop us from having a vote in the House?” Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina said of Camp’s tax plan.
Boehner’s response when asked about Camp’s plan on Wednesday: “Blah, blah, blah, blah.”
Leadership sees the details of this proposal, such as eliminating popular deductions, as politically perilous. But they also know how enthusiastic some members are about tax reform. So rather than rankle conservatives by suffocating the plan altogether, or irritate the business community by bringing a risky proposal to the House floor, Boehner’s team is content to have Camp to unveil his plan—allowing for a broad messaging campaign but not a specific vote.
This head-faking has provided GOP leadership with a blueprint for 2014. Now, with immigration and tax reform essentially taken off the table, and fewer than 75 legislative days left before midterm elections, Boehner’s team will have to grapple with but a few more potentially troublesome policy pushes.
Privacy legislation, if it’s a libertarian-backed bill with teeth, is unlikely to reach the floor.
Same goes for welfare reform. A group of conservatives, led by Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, have worked with the Heritage Foundation on a proposal to roll back welfare spending to pre-recession levels and add work requirements to the food-stamp program. But a vote on this plan is unlikely. Tinkering with the social safety net is always hazardous, and, as with other bold proposals, leadership won’t risk an election-year backlash by voting on something that stands no chance of clearing the Senate.
The one major issue that Boehner’s strategy won’t apply to is Obamacare. Conservatives have demanded action—and were promised votes—on an alternative to the Affordable Care Act. Majority Leader Eric Cantor earned applause in Cambridge when he guaranteed an Obamacare replacement plan, and is beginning to meet with colleagues to piece something together. Cantor is widely expected to deliver.
Still, as National Journal reported in January, the House Republican health care plan is likely to be a medley of poll-tested proposals slapped together— not one of the comprehensive alternative plans that conservatives have been boosting.
For conservatives who demanded an aggressive, wide-ranging legislative agenda in 2014, winding up with one vote on a watered-down health care bill might not suffice. “Instead of talking, we could actually act—and we could have a real impact,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, a frequent critic of leadership. “It’s easy to blame Harry Reid and the president for everything, but we’re missing a lot of opportunities. Standing back and waiting is not going to win elections.”
Still, after initially decrying a play-it-safe strategy, other conservatives now sound comfortable with the approach. “When you put a bill out there,” said Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana, “it has a lot of details that can detract from the overall concept.”
By: Tim Alberta, The National Journal, March 2, 2014
“When The Pot Calls The Kettle Lazy”: Thanks To Boehner’s ‘Leadership’, Capitol Hill Has Set New Benchmarks For Ineptitude
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) hosted a lively press conference with Capitol Hill reporters yesterday – the “boner” joke won’t be forgotten anytime soon – but there was something in his opening statement that was so audacious, I’m surprised it was largely ignored.
“You know, back in 2012 the president chose politics over governing. He took the year off, got little done, and this year I’m beginning to see the same pattern of behavior. We’ve seen more and more that the president has no interest in doing the big things that he got elected to do.”
Boehner added that President Obama intends to “pack it in for the year” and “just wait for the election.”
There’s hypocritical rhetoric. There’s breathtaking hypocritical rhetoric. Then there’s rhetoric so hypocritical that it ruptures the space-time continuum.
Reasonable people can debate the merits of competing proposals or policy strategies, but for Speaker Boehner to suggest President Obama is uninterested in governing, lacks ambition, and intends to do nothing for the rest of the 2014 is so head-spinning that it’s genuinely alarming Boehner was able to say the words out loud without laughing hysterically.
Let’s briefly review reality in case it still matters. John Boehner claimed the Speaker’s gavel three years ago, and since that time, he’s racked up zero major legislative accomplishments. While Obama has at times been desperate to get something, anything, done with this Congress, Boehner has tried and failed to lead House Republicans towards anything resembling governing.
The result has been the least productive Congress since clerks started keeping track several generations ago. Thanks to Boehner’s “leadership,” Capitol Hill is establishing new benchmarks for ineptitude, giving the “do-nothing Congress” phrase an updated definition to reflect levels of ineffectiveness few thought possible before 2011.
And yet the Speaker wants to complain that Obama “got little done” after Republicans took control of the House majority.
As for the president having “no interest” in doing “big things,” this is the exact opposite of our version of reality. Obama it appears is preoccupied with doing big things – the Speaker should have listened a little closer to the State of the Union address being delivered a few feet in front of him – while Boehner has said it’s time for Americans to start expecting less. Indeed, House Republicans leaders have been quite explicit on this point, saying the GOP does not like and does not want big policy breakthroughs.
Finally, the very idea that the president intends to coast through the rest of 2014 without doing any actual work buries the needle on the Irony-o-meter because it’s House Republicans who’ve already announced, more than once, that they intend to coast through the rest of 2014 without doing any actual work.
We’ve become all too familiar with the GOP’s reliance on the “I’m rubber, you’re glue” game, but this is ridiculous.
I have no idea whether Boehner actually believes what he said yesterday. But whether the rest of us should believe his comments is clear.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, February 28, 2014
“They’ll Never Rally Behind A Single Plan”: The GOP’s Push To Replace ObamaCare Is Cynical And Doomed
On Friday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is gathering key members of his caucus to work toward coming up with a single, official Republican alternative to the Democrats’ Affordable Care Act (ACA), or ObamaCare. Republican lawmakers have several competing bills to work with, and putting the party’s weight behind one plan or piece of legislation would be great for the country: Finally, America could have a real discussion about the best way to reform America’s health care insurance system.
But an official Republican health care plan would also be great for Democrats — which is reason No. 1 Republicans aren’t going to actually rally behind a single plan.
They will, of course, make a public effort. “GOP leaders have been clear that ahead of the 2014 elections, the conference wants to show what it is for, not simply what it is against,” says Daniel Newhauser at Roll Call. “Similarly, they want to show that they are not in favor of simply returning to the old health care system, which is viewed unfavorably by the electorate.” But any viable plan needs 218 votes from the fractured GOP caucus.
Cantor and his fellow House Republicans have at least three separate House bills to consider — from Reps. Tom Price (R-Ga.), Paul Broun (R-Ga.), and Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) — and a plan from Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) that was unveiled to much fanfare in January. There’s also a bill, from Rep. Todd Young (R-Ind.), that would raise ObamaCare’s definition of full-time employment to 40 hours a week, from 30. And a George W. Bush administration economist named Edward Lazear is pushing what he calls BushCare.
As they sort through these plans, what criteria will they use? If they can agree on one proposal, says Roll Call‘s Newhauser, it’s “likely to include poll-tested measures that have broad agreement in the GOP conference, including allowing the purchase of health insurance across state lines, allowing insurance portability between jobs, expanding access to health savings accounts, and limiting medical malpractice lawsuits.”
Another way of putting that: Republicans are looking for popular talking points that sound different enough from ObamaCare to win support from the more conservative factions of the GOP caucus. The problem, as The Washington Post notes, is that “there are only so many ways to preserve the patient protections that the ACA offers, which Republicans say they want to keep, while maintaining a private insurance market and assisting those who can’t afford coverage.”
Once Republicans hold up a specific plan, the Congressional Budget Office gets to issue its verdict and the public gets to weigh the proposals not just against ObamaCare but also the GOP’s attacks against ObamaCare.
The CBO analysis for Rep. Young’s bill to raise full-time employment to 40 hours, for example, found that the bill would raise the federal deficit by $74 billion while reducing the number of people getting employer-sponsored health insurance by about a million; about half of those people would go on Medicaid or other public programs, the other half would be uninsured.
It’s not clear the other Republican proposals would be popular in practice, either. Some of them, as the Washington Post editors note, would be better than ObamaCare at holding down health care costs and incentivizing people to buy private health insurance. But they are more disruptive to the status quo — especially post-ObamaCare — and almost all of them would be ripe for articles about sick people losing coverage or watching their health insurance costs skyrocket.
All of the GOP alternative plans, in other words, have their own drawbacks. Some people will lose, and some people will win. They would reduce the role of the federal government in most cases, but increase the power of insurance companies. Many of the policies are really interesting. Here are some examples of the big ideas from the GOP plans:
Cap or end employer tax breaks for providing health insurance: The idea here is that the insurance market is distorted by the tax incentives for employers to offering their workers insurance. It’s a fair point. But capping the tax breaks, as Coburn-Burr-Hatch does, or eliminating them would almost certainly cause employers to drop their plans. Almost 60 percent of Americans get their health insurance through work.
Provide tax breaks for individuals to buy their own insurance: With no employer-offered health plans, individuals and families would buy their own insurance on the open market. The Coburn-Burr-Hatch plan, for example, offers age-adjusted tax credits to people at up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line: Individuals 18 to 34 would get $1,560 a year, while those 50 to 64 would get $3,720 a year (families would get more than double those figures). Lazear’s BushCare would give all Americans with any type of health insurance $7,500 a year in tax breaks, or $15,000 for families; if people opted to buy low-cost, low-coverage insurance, they’d pocket the difference.
Allow insurance to be sold across state lines: This is a perennial GOP proposal to lower health insurance costs. The idea is that if insurers could sell the same policies to any state, regardless of that state’s own insurance regulations, it would increase market competition and drive down prices. A 2005 CBO report estimated those savings to consumers at about 5 percent overall, with the savings skewed toward the young and healthy; the old and sick would pay more. Enacting this option would require scrapping the minimum standards required for all plans under ObamaCare — a selling point for conservatives who argue we use too much health care, anyway.
“The fact that Republicans are coalescing around healthcare reform plans of their own could be very bad news for ObamaCare,” says Sally C. Pipes at Forbes. “Once voters see that the Republican alternative adds up to sensible and affordable health care, ObamaCare’s days will be numbered.”
But the opposite is almost certainly true. And House Republicans know that.
The GOP has gotten a lot of mileage out of its push to repeal ObamaCare — with a big assist, since October, from the Obama administration — but now the law is signing up real people (four million and counting) for real insurance policies. Republicans have to do better than provide plausible-sounding alternatives. They have to come up with a plan that Americans will think is much better than ObamaCare, and worth the disruption of overhauling the health care system again.
Here’s the bottom line: If reforming America’s health care system to provide near-universal affordable coverage were easy, it would have been done 60 years ago — or at any point since. Several Democratic presidents had tried and failed before President Obama. If Republicans had wanted to take their own bite at the apple, they had plenty of chances, too.
This isn’t spitballing. If Republicans want to be relevant voices in the health care debate, they have to come up with something. They should come up with a plan they can try to sell to America.
“One of the unseemly aspects of the last four-plus months is watching some on the right root for ObamaCare to fail,” says Forbes‘ Avik Roy, one of ObamaCare’s wonkiest critics. Among some conservatives, “there has been a kind of intellectual laziness, a belief that there’s no need for critics to come up with better reforms, because Obamacare will ‘collapse under its own weight,’ relieving them of that responsibility.” But it’s clear now that’s not going to happen, he adds. “And that makes the development of a credible, market-oriented health-reform agenda more urgent than ever.”
Well, don’t hold your breath.
The Affordable Care Act was written and enacted by Democrats — with a few exceptions — and that’s one of its main weaknesses: If Republicans had helped shape and pass the law, they probably wouldn’t have spent the last four years attacking and undermining it. They now have at least 10 months left to criticize the law without having to take any serious action to replace it. Don’t expect them to squander the opportunity.
By: Peter Weber, The Week, February 26, 2014