I hate to interrupt fulminations about President Obama’s three incredible shrinking scandals with something as prosaic as concern about the GOP’s threatening to sabotage the economy, but a couple of bits of real news emerged yesterday regarding the debt ceiling (yes that, again).
It’s actually a perfect juxtaposition: On the same day that an interview with Standard & Poor’s top U.S. credit rating analyst warned of tinkering with the debt ceiling, House Republicans huddled up to brainstorm about what their price should be for not deliberately tanking the economy.
On the one hand you’ve got an interview National Journal did with Nikola Swann, “Standard & Poor’s top analyst for the U.S. credit rating.” You will recall that Standard & Poor’s downgraded its rating of U.S. debt in 2011 after the last debt ceiling showdown. And you will recall that that showdown was engineered by the GOP as a political hostage-taking situation: Virtually everyone (or virtually everyone who is responsible) acknowledges that raising the debt ceiling is necessary to avoid the U.S. government defaulting on its obligations, which would be financially cataclysmic, but the Republicans threatened to force that exact scenario if they didn’t get spending cuts.
Now the debt-ceiling-fight countdown clock is ticking once again (the Treasury started its “extraordinary measures” to avoid default at noon today), with the moment of crisis expected to hit some time between August and year’s end. Does the prognosis look any better? “We have not seen any strong evidence that the political system as a whole is more effective, more stable, or more predictable than we thought it was in 2011,” Swann told National Journal’s Stacy Kaper. “There does seem to be, especially in recent years, an overall trend in the U.S. to effectively make major policy decisions at the last moment in a crisis setting. We don’t see that as credit-positive.”
That’s delightful understatement. He goes on to say that in order to avoid another credit downgrade, the U.S. should extend the debt ceiling for five years and bring the debt-to-GDP ratio under control with a plan that is actually credible. House Republicans passed a bill (which stands zero chance of becoming law) which would allow the Treasury to prioritize government payments (which would still leave the government in a position of not paying its bills … it would just be not paying for goods and services while making sure that its debt holders are taken care of). “This does not sound like a very comfortable scenario,” he says in another bit of understatement.
The final point in the interview is the most instructive:
S&P rates over 120 sovereign governments, including all of the wealthy developed ones. Of those, there are very few that have anything similar to the U.S. debt ceiling. Of those countries that do have some kind of legislated limit on the amount of debt, that limit is set as part of the budget-setting process. It almost never is divided the way it is in the U.S. We don’t think it is helpful to credit quality.
The very idea of a debt ceiling that doesn’t rise with authorized spending is, in other words, both uniquely American and uniquely stupid. Why? Because it lends itself to the kind of irresponsible hostage taking the Republicans are gearing up to engage in yet again.
And it’s a political terrorism scheme that is increasingly disengaged from reality (to which its connection was tenuous at best anyway). To wit: The last time around the GOP objection to the debt ceiling was grounded in rising deficits; this didn’t make their threats less irresponsible but at least established a plausible-sounding connection between their threat and their demand. But the budget deficit is, as my bloleague Pat Garofalo wrote earlier this week, the incredible shrinking issue. As a percentage of the economy, it is now roughly half of what it was when President Obama took office.
But Republicans know they’ve got a hostage so they’re bound and determined to extract a ransom. Hence the brainstorming session they held yesterday where 39 different members of the House GOP conference arose to offer their idea of what policy they should demand in return for not intentionally tanking the global economy. The ideas, according to various reports, ranged from approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to doing something about partial-birth abortion.
My personal favorite item comes from Jonathan Strong’s account at National Review Online:
The Ryan budget passed by the House assumes repeal of Obamacare. So if House Republicans were to press for enactment of the Ryan budget in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, that would entail repealing Obamacare – which is why there are pangs of doubt within the GOP leadership about whether that strategy is realistic.
So GOP leadership thinks demanding that the president sign onto the radical Ryan budget is unrealistic because it would necessarily involve repealing Obamacare? As if the Ryan budget’s dramatic cuts to discretionary spending and gutting of Medicare and Medicaid would be evenly remotely acceptable were Obamacare not involved? The whole scenario yesterday has the air of fantasy – like my wife and I arguing over what we’ll do when we win the Powerball tomorrow night (she looks oddly askance at my plan to commute via jet pack).
By: Robert Schlesinger, U. S. News and World Report, May 17, 2013
“The Incredible Shrinking Issue”: Lack Of Jobs, Not The Deficit, Is The Actual Scandal That Congress Should Be Trying To Grapple
Republicans gleeful over the recent slew of scandals afflicting the Obama administration – some imagined and some worthy of the name – should be thanking their lucky stars that they have new issues to wield as political cudgels. After all, their favorite of the last few years, the federal deficit, is getting smaller and smaller and smaller.
The Congressional Budget Office – Washington’s nonpartisan number crunchers – released new projections Tuesday showing that the deficit will fall to $642 billion this fiscal year, a 24 percent drop in its projection from just a few months ago. The improvement is primarily due to increasing revenue and fewer expected outlays to government-backed mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
If this holds, it will be the smallest the deficit has been since President Barack Obama took office. As a percentage of the economy, the deficit will have been cut by more than half over Obama’s first five years, from 10.1 percent in 2009 to 4 percent in 2013.
And the incredible shrinking deficit doesn’t stop there, falling to 2.1 percent of gross domestic product by 2015, which, as the New York Times David Leonhardt noted, is “a level many economists consider healthy.” (For comparison’s sake, the much-ballyhooed Simpson-Bowles budget plan called for a deficit in 2015 of 2.3 percent of GDP.) It’s also worth noting that the CBO assumes perpetual levels of both war spending in Afghanistan and aid for Hurricane Sandy victims, so the projections for future years will certainly be lower than they appear now.
This report is one more piece of evidence showing that the economic discussion that has gripped Washington recently is absurdly backwards. The short-term deficit is barely a problem, while the long-term issue for the nation’s finances remains, as everyone has known for years, spiraling health care costs (but there’s reason to believe they are also coming down).
What the dropping deficit has not done is spark the sort of economic growth or job creation that will bring down America’s still-too-high unemployment rate; lack of jobs, not the deficit, is the actual crisis with which Congress should be trying to grapple. In fact, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ Jared Bernstein notes, the deficit is coming down too fast considering the country’s current economic doldrums:
The deficit is falling quickly when it shouldn’t be and rising later when it shouldn’t be.
Certainly, if facts drove the day, this update would be a fire hose for the hair-on-fire austerity crowd re: the near-term deficit. The patient is checking out of the hospital while Drs Cantor, Ryan, and McConnell are still preparing for major surgery.
Considering that Republicans on the House Budget Committee claim that the CBO report “provided a fresh reminder of Washington’s out-of-control spending,” chances seem slim that those pushing austerity will change their tune anytime soon. So perhaps the silver lining in lawmakers focusing on what they see as today’s hottest “scandal-gate” is that it will distract them from doing any more to undermine the economic recovery or to cut a deficit that doesn’t need to be cut anymore.
By: Pat Garofalo, U. S. News and World Report, May 14, 2013
“The Bystander Speaker”: If John Boehner Were A Woman, They’d Be Calling Him The Weakest Speaker In History
Watching House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) make strange comments this morning about the IRS controversy reminded me of something House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told Chris Hayes the other day about the Speaker: “If he were a woman, they’d be calling him the weakest speaker in history.” Asked why, Pelosi added, “Because nothing’s getting done.”
That’s true. We’ve talked on several occasions in recent years about a straightforward thesis: Speaker Boehner is bad at his job. In recent weeks, however, a related-but-different thesis has come into focus: Speaker Boehner is no longer really trying to do his job.
Ask Speaker John Boehner a question on a key issue these days, and you’re likely to get a variation of the same response: Talk to someone else.
The Speaker has maintained a lower-key presence in recent months, largely avoiding the spotlight and abandoning the deal-making ambitions of his first two years in office. Whether the matter is immigration, guns, budget talks or online sales taxes, Boehner (R-Ohio) routinely defers or deflects questions to committee leaders.
I’d add one addendum to that last part: ask Boehner about nearly any issue, and if he doesn’t refer questions to committee chairs, he’ll refer questions to the Senate.
I suppose, in fairness, it’s worth emphasizing that it’s not necessary to draw a value judgment here. Boehner seems to have deliberately abandoned any hope of leading, legislating, or even influencing the policymaking process, but that’s his right. Maybe he likes “leading from behind.” Perhaps he’s trying out a new model for the Speaker’s office — one in which the leader becomes the bystander, and the Speaker just waits to see how events unfold around him.
Regardless, “worried Republicans” told BuzzFeed last week that Boehner “seems to be missing in action from messaging and legislative battles.”
That’s partly due to Boehner’s inability to lead, and partly due to the fact that House Republicans are deeply divided among themselves. But whatever the cause, Pelosi’s assessment seems more than fair.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 15, 2013
House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) receives quite a bit of attention for his unique role on Capitol Hill. In short, he’s the guy whose job it is to create political controversies for the Obama White House, whether they have merit or not.
So, when House Republicans investigated Solyndra’s loan guarantees, it was Issa leading the hearings. When House Republicans tried to turn “Fast and Furious” into a scandal, it was Issa yelling at Justice Department officials. And when House Republicans decided to turn last September’s attacks in Benghazi into a political story, it was Issa who adopted the role of Grand Inquisitor.
But every time I see the California Republican, I think of this Ryan Lizza piece in the New Yorker from a couple of years ago, detailing Issa’s rather remarkable background, and his rise to wealth and power despite several “troubles.”
“Many politicians have committed indiscretions in earlier years: maybe they had an affair or hired an illegal immigrant as a nanny. Issa, it turned out, had, among other things, been indicted for stealing a car, arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, and accused by former associates of burning down a building.”
As we discussed last year, Lizza wasn’t being hyperbolic. Issa really has spent a fair amount of his adult life as a suspected criminal.
Lizza’s report highlighted Issa having one run-in with the law after another, including arrests and indictments. There are also many suspected crimes — he’s accused of deliberately burning down a building and threatening a former employee with a gun — which did not lead to formal charges, but which nevertheless cast the congressman in a less-than-flattering light.
The New Yorker report also noted an incident in which Issa was in a car accident with a woman who needed to be hospitalized. He drove away before the police could arrive because, as he told the person he hit, he didn’t have time to wait. Issa didn’t face charges, but he was sued over the matter, and agreed to an out-of-court settlement.
And in case that weren’t quite enough, the same article also noted instances in which Issa appears to have lied about his background.
The congressman, for example, claimed to receive the “highest possible” ratings during his Army career, despite the fact that at one point he “received unsatisfactory conduct and efficiency ratings and was transferred to a supply depot.” Issa also claimed to have provided security for President Nixon in 1971, which wasn’t true, and said he won a national Entrepreneur of the Year award, but didn’t.
As a rule, people with this kind of background do not run for Congress. If they do and manage to get elected, they’re not generally tasked with leading investigations into others’ suspected wrongdoing.
By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blow, May 13, 2013
This week, House Republicans are rolling out a plan they hope will boost the party’s appeal among working families, by giving private sector workers the option of converting overtime pay to paid time off. Pushing the bill, which is expected to get a vote this week, is House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who made it a key item in his big February speech pitching the GOP to working families. The speech was meant to kick off the GOP’s new, softer agenda, but if the party is looking for fresh ideas after their defeat in the 2012 election, this isn’t one.
Republicans introduced the same idea in 1996, 1997 and 2003, even making it one of the first 10 bills they moved in the Newt Gingrich-era. The talking points haven’t changed much. “To many working men and women, time with their family is just as valuable as extra money,” current House Speaker Boehner said in March of 1997. “In fact, many would prefer to have time rather than money,” then-Rep. Judy Biggert said in 2003. “Time is more precious to [a working father] than the cash payments,” Rep. Martha Roby told the National Review last month.
But that’s typical Washington, where old ideas get repackaged every year. What labor advocates are more concerned about is that the bill supposedly aimed at helping working families might actually hurt them by undermining the 40-hour work week and “increasing overtime hours for those who don’t want them and cutting pay for those who do,” as Center for Economic and Policy Research economist Eileen Appelbaum wrote. The National Partnership for Women and Families said the “mis-named Working Families Flexibility Act will mean a pay cut for workers without any guaranteed flexibility or time off.”
The bill didn’t pass Congress in previous years for this very reason. When GOP leaders were courting New York Rep. Peter King to vote for the measure in 1997, he asked if they had spoken with labor groups about the measure. “It was as if I had said, Have you met with somebody from Mars?’” King told the Newsday on March 25 of that year. He voted against the bill.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the business lobby of the country’s largest corporations, supports the bill.
In Cantor’s “Making Life Work” speech in February, he explained that, “In 1985, Congress passed a law that gave state and municipal employees this flexibility, but today still denies that same privilege to the entire private sector. That’s not right.” But that move was to cut costs for government, not provide workers with more freedom, Judith Lichtman of the National Partnership for Women And Families told the AP. And government employees generally have the protection of both a union and civil service laws.
And as Ezra Klein noted, if the problem is that working parents don’t have enough free time with their kids, then why not give them more by guaranteeing paid vacation days to employees? The U.S. is the only developed country that doesn’t have a law ensuring all workers get vacations, thanks to fervent opposition from Republicans and corporate interests. “Instead, Cantor is saying that the way to solve the problem of working parents not having enough time with their kids is to give them an incentive to work more overtime,” Klein wrote.
Almost any bill can be touted as a freedom issue, but it’s telling when the people don’t want the freedom they’re supposedly getting.
By: Alex Seitz-Wald, Salon, May 6, 2013