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Republican Paradox: The Party That Can’t Say Yes

For days, the White House has infuriated its Democratic allies in Congress by offering House Republicans more and more in exchange for a deal to raise the debt ceiling and prevent default. But it was never enough, and, on Friday evening, it became clear that it may never be enough. Speaker John Boehner again walked away from the “grand bargain” he had been negotiating with President Obama, leaving the country teetering on the brink of another economic collapse.

At the White House podium a few minutes later, the president radiated a righteous fury he rarely displays in public, finally placing the blame for this wholly unnecessary crisis squarely where it belongs: on Republicans who will do anything to upend his presidency and dismantle every social program they can find. “Can they say yes to anything?” he asked, noting the paradox of Republicans, who claim that financial responsibility and debt reduction are their biggest priorities, rejecting yet another deal that would have cut that debt by at least $3 trillion.

Mr. Obama, in fact, had already gone much too far in trying to make his deal palatable to House Republicans, offering to cut spending even further than the deficit plan proposed this week by the bipartisan “Gang of Six,” which includes some of the Senate’s most conservative members. The White House was willing to cut $1 trillion in domestic and defense spending and another $650 billion from Medicare, Medicaid and even Social Security.

Much of that savings would have come from raising the eligibility age for Medicare benefits and reducing the cost-of-living increases that elderly people depend on when receiving their health and pension benefits. It could have caused significant damage to some of the nation’s most vulnerable people.

The “bargain” would require that alongside these cuts, tax revenues would go up by $1.2 trillion, largely through a rewrite of the tax code to eliminate many deductions and loopholes. That’s substantially less in revenue than the $2 trillion in the “Gang of Six” plan. The problem is that while much of the cutting would start right away, most of the revenue increases would be put off, in part because a tax-code revision would take months, and in part to allow House Republicans to say they did not agree to any specific tax revenue increases.

Democratic lawmakers were rightly furious when they heard about these details this week, calling the plan wholly unbalanced. But, in the end, it was Mr. Boehner who torpedoed the talks. He said Friday evening that he and the president had come close to agreeing on $800 billion of the revenue increases (the equivalent of letting the upper-income Bush tax cuts expire as scheduled next year — not much of a heavy lift) but could not stomach another $400 billion the White House wanted to raise through ending tax loopholes and deductions.

So, on the eve of economic calamity, the Republicans killed an overly generous deal largely over a paltry $400 billion in deductions. Mr. Obama was willing to take considerable heat from his liberal critics over the deal, and the Republicans were not willing to do a thing to anger their Tea Party base. As the president forcefully said, there is no evidence that House Republicans are capable of making those tough decisions. If last-ditch talks beginning Saturday fail, they will have to take responsibility if the unimaginable — a government default — happens in 10 days and the checks stop going out.

By: The New York Times, Editorial, July 22, 2011

July 24, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Conservatives, Consumers, Debt Ceiling, Debt Crisis, Deficits, Democracy, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, Federal Budget, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideologues, Ideology, Lawmakers, Medicare, Middle Class, Politics, President Obama, Public, Public Opinion, Republicans, Right Wing, Tax Credits, Tax Increases, Tax Loopholes, Taxes, Teaparty | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Conspicuous Pattern: The GOP Is Really Not Interested In Governing

At his press conference the other day, President Obama noted the recommendations of the bipartisan deficit-reduction commission (which, by the way, failed to reach an agreement). He mentioned in passing that his White House set up the structure for the commission: “As you will recall, this was originally bipartisan legislation that some of the Republican supporters of decided to vote against when I said I supported it — that seems to be a pattern that I’m still puzzled by.”

It is, to be sure, quite a pattern. For two-and-a-half years, Obama has run into congressional Republicans who not only refuse to take “yes” for an answer, but routinely oppose their own ideas when the president is willing to accept them.

This seems especially relevant in the context of the current debt-reduction talks. At a certain level, it’s almost comical — here we have a Democratic president agreeing with a conservative Republican House Speaker on a massive deal that would lower the debt by over $4 trillion over the next decade. It would tilt heavily in the GOP’s direction, and address the problem Republicans pretend to care about most. Obama is even willing to consider significant entitlement “reforms,” which should be music to the ears of the right.

And yet, in the latest example that “puzzles” the president, Republicans aren’t interested.

Now, part of this is obviously the result of Republicans adopting a faith-based approach to revenue, which happens to be wildly disconnected to reality. But that’s not the only angle that matters. Matt Yglesias had a good item the other day that raised a point that’s often lost in the shuffle.

[H]ere we get to the problem that’s recurred throughout Obama’s time in office. If members of Congress think like partisans who want to capture the White House, then the smart strategy for them is to refuse to do whatever it is the president wants. The content of the president’s desire is irrelevant. But the more ambitious his desire is, the more important it is to turn him down.

After all, if the President wants a big bipartisan deal on the deficit, then a big bipartisan deal on the deficit is “a win for President Obama,” which means a loss for the anti-Obama side. When Obama didn’t want to embrace Bowles-Simpson, then failure to embrace Bowles-Simpson was a valid critique of him. But had Obama embraced Bowles-Simpson, then it would have been necessary for his opponents to reject it.

For weeks, many have marveled at the priorities of the Republican policy wish-list — given a choice between the larger debt-reduction plan in American history and preserving some tax breaks for the wealthy, GOP officials at nearly every level strongly prefer the latter. Indeed, for nearly all Republicans, it’s such a no-brainer, this question is almost silly.

But there’s a separate challenge — Republicans have a choice between advancing policies they ostensibly agree with and Obama scoring a legislative victory. And as it turns out, that’s a no-brainer, too, since GOP lawmakers don’t really care about governing so much as they care about denying the president political victories. It might make them appear ridiculous — why would anyone reject their own ideas? — but looking foolish isn’t a major concern for congressional Republicans.

Obviously, this makes compromise literally impossible, and all but guarantees the least productive legislative session in many years. But it also suggests the president needs to adapt to an awkward set of circumstances: given Republican beliefs, Obama must realize his support for a legislative idea necessarily means it’s less likely to happen.

By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Political Animal, Washington Monthly, July 17, 2011

July 18, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Congress, Conservatives, Debt Ceiling, Deficits, Democracy, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideologues, Ideology, Lawmakers, Medicare, Politics, President Obama, Republicans, Right Wing, Tax Loopholes, Taxes, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Politics Of Austerity: It’s Not Too Late To Change Priorities

In a statement this morning, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus blamed rising unemployment on “ out-of-control spending.”

Perhaps now would be a good time for reasonable political observers to call this what it is: dangerously stupid.

The latest jobs report is truly awful, and comes just a month after a May jobs report that was nearly as bad. Overall, it’s the worst back-to-back trend in nine months, and in the private sector, the worst two-month stretch since May/June of last year.

The question is what policymakers are prepared to do about it.

When the jobs reports were looking quite good in the early spring, Republican leaders were eager to take credit for the positive numbers they had nothing to do with. Needless to say, GOP officials are no longer claiming responsibility, and are in fact now eager to point fingers everywhere else. It’s a nice little scam Republicans have put together: when more jobs are being created, it’s proof they’re right; when fewer jobs are being created, it’s proof Obama’s wrong. Heads they win; tails Dems lose.

To put it mildly, GOP whining is misguided — whether they want to admit it or not, the economy is advancing exactly as they want it to. The private sector is being left to its own devices; the public sector is shedding jobs quickly; and the only permitted topic of conversation is about debt-reduction.

This is the script the GOP wrote. When it’s followed to the letter, Republican complaints are absurd.

Indeed, the great irony of the 2010 midterms is that voters were angry and frustrated by the weak economy, so they elected a lot of Republicans who are almost desperate to make matters worse.

At this point, the GOP agenda breaks down into two broad categories:

* Ignore the problem: Republicans have invested considerable time and energy into measures related to abortion, health care, NPR, and calling the loyalty of Muslim Americans into question. To date, Republicans have held exactly zero votes on bills related to job creation.

* Make the problem worse: When they’re not fighting a culture war, Republicans are fighting tooth and nail to take money out of the economy, against tax cuts they used to support, and against public investments proven to create jobs, all while threatening to send the economy into a tailspin through voluntarily default. By some measures, the GOP may even be trying to sabotage the economy as part of an election strategy.

We know austerity doesn’t make things better, in large part because it’s not supposed to. That’s the point on austerity — to impose pain and sacrifice, not to grow and flourish. We can already see the results at the state and local level, where officials are forced to cut spending and laying off thousands of public-sector workers. These were preventable job losses, but the congressional GOP refuses to consider state and local aid. Worse, they intend to duplicate the results at the federal level.

It’s not too late. We can boost public investments. The Federal Reserve can stop worrying about inflation that doesn’t exist. We can stop pretending spending cuts can create jobs.

If the politics won’t allow for measures to make things better — if, in other words, Republicans refuse to consider steps to create jobs — then it’s probably time for the public to change the politics.


By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly-Political Animal, July 8, 2011


July 9, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Class Warfare, Congress, Conservatives, Consumers, Corporations, Debt Ceiling, Deficits, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, Elections, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideologues, Ideology, Jobs, Lawmakers, Middle Class, Politics, Republicans, Right Wing, States, Taxes, Unemployment | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lucy, Charlie Brown And Football: The Politics Of Personal Grievance

Congressional Republicans all but dared President Obama to engage in a fiscal debate on their terms, demanding to know whether and how he’d tackle long-term debt reduction. The president agreed and presented a credible, realistic plan to cut $4 trillion from the debt over 12 years.

GOP officials obviously weren’t going to like his vision, but I’m a little surprised they’re still whining that Obama was mean to them.

The three Republican congressmen saw it as a rare ray of sunshine in Washington’s stormy budget battle: an invitation from the White House to hear President Obama lay out his ideas for taming the national debt.

They expected a peace offering, a gesture of goodwill aimed at smoothing a path toward compromise. But soon after taking their seats at George Washington University on Wednesday, they found themselves under fire for plotting “a fundamentally different America” from the one most Americans know and love.

“What came to my mind was: Why did he invite us?” Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said in an interview Thursday. “It’s just a wasted opportunity.”

Paul Ryan was reportedly “furious” and complained that the speech “was extremely political, very partisan.”

It’s worth fleshing this out, because there are some important angles to keep in mind.

First, the Republicans’ politics of personal grievance is based solely on their hurt feelings. They’re not saying the president lied or that his numbers don’t add up, but rather, they’re outraged that Obama was a big meanie. That’s kind of pathetic, and it reinforces fears that the House GOP majority is dominated by right-wing lawmakers with temperament of children.

Second, exactly what kind of reaction did Republicans seriously expect? Their fraudulent and callous budget plan, approved yesterday despite bipartisan opposition, eliminates Medicare. It punishes the elderly, the disabled, and low-income families, and rewards millionaires and billionaires. It calls for devastating cuts that would do widespread damage to the middle class and the economy. Were Republicans seriously waiting for Obama to politely pat them on the head and say, “It’s OK, you tried your best. I’ll give you an A for effort”?

Third, why is it Republicans expect one-sided graciousness? They expected a “peace offering” after pushing their own plan that was “deliberately constructed to be as offensive to Democrats as it’s possible to be,” and didn’t even bother with insincere “nods in the direction of bipartisanship.” I’ll never understand why Obama is expected to be conciliatory with those who refuse to do the same.

And finally, having a debate pitting two competing visions isn’t a bad development. Greg Sargent’s take on this rings true.

Throughout the first two years of Obama’s presidency, leading Republicans have regularly claimed that Obama is taking America towards socialism. Yet when a Democratic president stands up and aggressively defends his vision and worldview, and contrasts it sharply with that of his foes, something’s wrong. That’s not supposed to happen.

Obama’s characterization of the GOP vision was harsh. But so what? Politics is supposed to be an impassioned argument over what we all think the country should be. Is it possible to cross lines? Sure, but Obama didn’t cross any lines — in fairness, neither has Ryan — and no one was blindsided. No one was the victim of any sneak attack. We should want politicians who think their opponents’ worldviews are deeply wrongheaded to be free to say so in very vivid terms. Otherwise, what’s the point of it all?

I’d add just one last point. For two years, Obama pleaded with Republicans to play a constructive role, work in good faith, and compromise. They refused. Lucy doesn’t get to complain when Charlie Brown doesn’t want to run at a football that’s going to be pulled away anyway.

By: Steve Benen, Washington Monthly, Political Animal, April 16, 2011

April 17, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Congress, Conservatives, Deficits, Democracy, Democrats, Economy, Government, Ideologues, Ideology, Lawmakers, Medicaid, Medicare, Politics, President Obama, Rep Paul Ryan, Republicans, Right Wing, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s Not Just Entitlements, The Real Issue: Controlling All Health Care Costs

The current cry to reduce Federal deficits and debt growth by reducing Medicare and Medicaid entitlements is totally missing the key issue: the need to moderate all health care inflation. This should be the time for a national debate on how to best tackle the underlying cost problem, for the sake of our future, the economy, and access to health care.

The June 13-19, 2009 Economist editorialized: “America has the most wasteful [health] system on the planet. Its fiscal future would be transformed if Congress passed reforms that emphasized control of costs as much as the expansion of coverage that Barack Obama rightly wants.”

Health reform failed to get an adequate handle on all health care costs. Now there are constant calls by various expert commissions and many in Congress for entitlement spending reductions.  Such cuts will create enormous new problems by failing to address the underlying, real problem of health costs and inflation.

Cutting just Medicare and Medicaid without addressing the whole problem is like squeezing a balloon—the balloon starts looking very strange very fast. While it is difficult to tell how much cost-shifting may occur and it will vary from market-to-market, some Medicare and Medicaid cuts probably get passed through in higher costs to the private sector—hardly a helpful action. (Congressional Budget Office, December 2008, Key Issues in Analyzing Major Health Insurance Proposals, p. 116) Cuts that are too deep in Medicare will also end up causing providers to be reluctant to see seniors and people with disabilities—as happens all too often today in Medicaid. In time, quality may be threatened.

And Medicare and Medicaid are not particularly driving the problem of soaring health care costs. As various studies have shown, over the long haul, Medicare has probably inflated slightly less rapidly for a comparable package of services than the private sector has. Recent reports by the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPAC) show that high quality, efficient hospitals have made a little money on Medicare, while private insurers have often failed to control costs, and have paid less effective hospitals 132 percent of the costs of running an efficient hospital. (See, for example, MedPAC’s March 2009 Report to Congress, Section 2A.)

A Comprehensive Approach To Health Care Cost Containment  

It is past time for a comprehensive solution to ensure the affordability of a fundamental need: access to health care. We should say that access to reasonably affordable health care is a basic national need, like access to clean water and air, and treat it like a regulated utility—like your water–where cost growth is kept within a reasonable range and where a reasonable quality service is widely available (but if you want to go buy Perrier, you can).

Instead of squeezing one part of the health care cost balloon (Medicare and Medicaid), we need an “all saver” system. Under this system, any provider in the health care sector which inflates its billings faster than the growth in the CPI plus, say, one percent (adjusted for changes in population, new technologies, increased productivity, and changes in the severity of the cases that provider treats) would owe a rebate of the excess amount to its customers—both private and public. If the rebate were not provided, that excess income would face a 100 percent tax. The Federal government could do this under the Commerce clause, or, to enable providers and patients to opt out, could require participation by those accepting payment from Medicare, Medicaid, and payers claiming tax-deductible medical expenses.

How would the plan work? Complicated? Yes, but soon very doable with today’s health information technology systems and the coding systems developed by Medicare and others. It would take several years to set the system up, but it would work like this. Let’s say a hospital in a base year of 2013 had $100 million worth of billings. If consumer inflation were 4 percent and if the system allowed another 1 percent (just because we do highly value health care and some extra growth is a reasonable choice), then in 2014, the hospital could bill $105 million. (Let’s assume that an expensive new technology is available that costs an extra $1 million, but let’s also assume that increase is coincidentally offset by a national increase in productivity of 1 percent that saves about $1 million.)

If the hospital bills its customers $110 million in 2014, yet those customers are no sicker or more complicated to treat than in 2013 (as proven by the audited billing codes or adjusted for coding creep), the hospital will owe its customers $5 million in rebates. If Medicare paid 40 percent of the bills ($44 million), it would receive back 40 percent of the $5 million excessive inflation ($2 million). If a large employer’s health plan paid 20 percent of the provider’s bills, it would get $1 million back, and so forth.

If a provider did not want to participate, they could insist on only after-tax cash customers, and individuals would be free to use such doctors and hospitals.

Changing The Debate

Instead of focusing on Medicare/Medicaid cuts, Congress should be debating ideas of how to moderate all health care spending while minimizing interference in the practice of medicine. The plan I’ve described is just one option, and of course it would have to be adjusted to deal with many complexities. For example:

  • How could the plan be made fair to new doctors and facilities with one-time extra start-up costs and no history of billings?
  • How could the plan use quarterly payments or rolling averages to avoid many providers shutting down in December?
  • How could society encourage further innovation, perhaps by offering more inflation for drugs certified as breakthroughs by the Food and Drug Administration?
  • What cosmetic-type services could or should be exempt?
  • What MedPAC-like advice and constitutional governance would be best?

Of course, if over the next decade reforms such as electronic medical records, comparative effectiveness research, and new bundling of the way we pay for services sufficiently ‘bends’ the spending curve downward, this system could be suspended. But it is doubtful those changes will do enough, and it is time to act on a comprehensive solution.

Incidentally, slowing all health care inflation would not only save enormous amounts in Medicare and Medicaid; over time it should achieve huge extra CBO/Joint Tax scorable savings, because the private sector and individuals will claim less in tax-deductible expenses for health care.

Budget reform that gets a handle on all health care inflation will solve most—or at least the toughest–of the ‘entitlement and future debt problems facing the nation. The entitlement problem is overwhelmingly a Medicare problem, driven not so much by more seniors or an aging population as by constantly soaring per capita costs of care. If we try to solve the entitlement problem just by cutting Medicare and Medicaid, we will destroy those programs. We need a total solution, because soaring health care costs are distorting the economy and our future as a successful nation.

Now is the time for this debate.

By: William Vaughan, Health Affairs Blog, Originally published March 3, 2011

March 9, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Health Care Costs, Health Reform, Individual Mandate, Politics | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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