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Why The Debt Ceiling Debate Matters Now

If Congress doesn’t act soon, interest rates could spike–maybe for a long time. Then you’ll care.

The White House and Republican congressional leaders insist the debt ceiling will be raised well before the United States has to default, which would cause massive economic disruption. But a resolution seems less than assured. In the last few days, Republican presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlentyhave joined a growing conservative chorus loudly denouncing a deal, and antagonism among the various parties appears to be growing, not diminishing.

Still, nobody in Washington or on Wall Street seems very alarmed. The Treasury says it can hold out until Aug. 2. But a look at the current politics and the recent history of debt-ceiling showdowns suggests that alarm might soon become warranted.

There are two reasons why. The first has to do with how difficult it will be to settle on something that can get through Congress in time to stave off any damage. This struggle has been largely misportrayed and crudely simplified as a tug-of-war between Republicans set on spending cuts and Democrats who want tax increases to accompany them. It’s actually a three-way struggle, because Republicans themselves don’t agree on their ransom demands to permit a larger debt.

House Republicans want to cut $2 trillion without raising any taxes or closing any loopholes. They’re focused strictly on spending. But Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, wants any deal to include Medicare reform. He’s focused on politics. McConnell worries that the House Republican budget passed in April, which takes the deeply unpopular step of privatizing Medicare, presents a mortal threat to Republican candidates in next fall’s elections. A debt-limit deal on Medicare that drew the support of President Obama and Democrats would inoculate the GOP against this danger.

The trouble is, House Republicans don’t share McConnell’s concern, so an agreement among Republicans seems nearly as remote as one between Republicans and Democrats.

That gets to the second reason for alarm: the United States need not default on its debt in order to incur costly and potentially lasting damage. A February report by the Government Accountability Officeexamining the recent history of “debt-ceiling events” — none nearly so serious as the current one — showed that government borrowing costs began to rise well in advance of default. Call it a taxpayer premium for congressional squabbling: the disruption of Treasury auctions and the threatened loss of liquidity among Treasury notes and bills caused billions in additional borrowing costs in the form of higher interest rates.

One reason why the debt showdown isn’t causing more alarm is that interest rates have been falling. But that’s due mostly to declining economic forecasts in the United States and fear of a Greek default — currently more powerful influences, but also ones that would mask worries about a US default.

At some point, perhaps as soon as in a few weeks, the fight in Congress could eclipse those factors and drive interest rates higher. That’s been the historical pattern, and it is already causing worry about what might trigger such a rise. “The nervousness on our end is that the markets will misperceive what’s going on,” an aide to a conservative House Republican told me. “If something fails on the House floor, people might react as if all life is about to end — just like they did when the TARP vote failed.”

That could cost taxpayers dearly, even if a default is ultimately avoided. One reason why US borrowing costs are so low is the universal belief that the government will always make good on its debts in a timely manner. But if that faith is shaken — and a good scare could do the trick — investors might decide that government debt is a riskier investment than they had imagined and demand a better return.

That will hurt. The Office of Management and Budget determined that a mere 1 percent rise in interest rates would cost taxpayers $973 billion over the next decade [pdf, pg. 23]. So a fight purportedly about cutting the deficit could actually cause it to grow much larger. That’s worth worrying about now — especially as Republicans threaten a default and claim there’s no cause for alarm.


By: Joshua Green, Senior Editor, The Atlantic, June 30, 2011

June 30, 2011 Posted by | Class Warfare, Congress, Conservatives, Debt Ceiling, Debt Crisis, Economic Recovery, Economy, Federal Budget, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideologues, Ideology, Lawmakers, Medicare, Middle Class, Politics, Republicans, Right Wing, Taxes, Wall Street | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

To Fix The Budget Deficit, Raise Corporate Taxes

Washington is a town currently gripped by deficit hysteria. Various commissions and congressional “gangs” have formed (and broken up) with the goal of crafting a plan to bring the nation’s budget into balance. Even the media has been sucked into this vortex, dedicating far more of its time to covering the deficit than other economic issues, such as unemployment.

At the same time, both parties seem to agree that the nation’s corporate tax code needs to be reformed. President Obama and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan each dedicated a portion of their respective budget plans to overhauling the federal corporate income tax, which is high on paper, but so riddled with loopholes, deductions, and outright giveaways that few corporations pay the full statutory rate (and several corporations pay no corporate income tax at all).

This, then, should be an excellent opportunity to kill the proverbial two birds with one stone: cleaning up the corporate tax code, lowering the corporate tax rate, and still raising more revenue that can be put towards deficit reduction.

But no.

Despite all the hyperventilating over the deficit, both Republicans and Democrats have said that they want corporate tax reform to be revenue neutral, meaning no more or less revenue will be raised by the new system than was raised by the old. President Obama and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner have each extolled the virtues of deficit-neutral corporate tax reform. But if this is actually the road that’s taken, it will constitute a colossal missed opportunity.

At the moment, corporate tax revenue has plunged to historic lows. In 1960, the corporate income tax provided more than 23 percent of federal revenue; the Office of Management and Budget estimates that it will provide less than 10 percent this year.

During the 1960s, the United States consistently raised nearly 4 percent of GDP in corporate revenue. During the 1970s, the total was still above 2.5 percent of GDP. Now, the U.S. raises less than 1.5 percent of GDP from the corporate income tax. As the Congressional Research Service put it, “Despite concerns expressed about the size of the corporate tax rate, current corporate taxes are extremely low by historical standards.”

The United States effective corporate tax rate is also low by international standards (though the 35 percent statutory rate is the second highest in the world). There are plenty of reasons for this drop, but chief among them is the proliferation of loopholes and credits clogging up the corporate tax code (alongside the growing use of offshore tax havens and the ability of corporations to defer taxes on offshore profits indefinitely).

Huge corporations, such as ExxonMobil, have recently had years where they paid literally nothing to the U.S. Treasury, despite making huge profits. The New York Times made waves by finding that General Electric paid no federal income tax last year, instead pocketing hundreds of millions of dollars in tax benefits. Mega-manufacturer Boeing has done the same, paying no federal taxes in 2009 while collecting $132 million in tax benefits. Google last year had a 2.4 percent effective tax rate, while California-based Broadcom’s rate was just 1.4 percent, far below the rate that the average American pays.

The Treasury Department estimated in 2007 that corporate tax preferences cost $1.2 trillion in lost revenue over a decade. So there is ample room to remove credits and deductions (like those that benefit, amongst others, hugely profitable oil companies and agribusinesses), lower the statutory rate, while still bringing in more revenue. Some companies would see their taxes go up, but others would see their tax bills drop, and the corporate tax code would be more fair, efficient, and competitive, while ensuring that all corporations pay their fair share.

As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities put it, “corporate tax reform is a solid candidate to make a contribution to fiscal improvement … Taking a major revenue source off the table for deficit reduction at the outset would be ill-advised.” Indeed, with corporate profits skyrocketing—up 81 percent over a year ago—and corporations sitting on trillions in cash reserves, there is no reason that corporate tax reform should be done in a way that is deficit neutral, besides the fact that raising more revenue will be politically difficult, as corporations will likely throw their considerable lobbying weight against such a move. But in the end, failing to raise additional corporate tax revenue will simply shift more of the deficit reduction burden onto a middle-class already battered by the Great Recession.

By: Pat Garofalo, U. S. News and World Report, May 25, 2011

May 25, 2011 Posted by | Big Business, Budget, Class Warfare, Congress, Conservatives, Corporations, Deficits, Democrats, Economy, GOP, Government, Ideologues, Ideology, Income Gap, Lawmakers, Media, Middle Class, Politics, Press, Pundits, Regulations, Republicans, Tax Credits, Tax Evasion, Tax Loopholes, Taxes, Unemployed, Unemployment, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Republicans’ 2012 Slogan: It’s Anything But The Economy, Stupid

The GOP has turned one of the most effective slogans in American political history on its head. The Republican rallying cry for 2012 will be “Anything but the economy, stupid.” Let’s see how that works out for them next year.

Last year Republican leader John Boehner promised Americans that his party’s priority would be fixing the economy and creating jobs if voters gave the GOP control of the House of Representatives. Republican House candidates echoed their leader’s call to focus on the economy like a laser beam. This year, they have done almost everything but. Two of the first three bills introduced by House Republicans at the start of the 112th Congress in January were designed to take away a woman’s right to choose. One of them, H.R. 3, would have allowed abortion only in cases of “forcible” rape. Like there’s some other kind.

Then there was the battle in the first week of April that almost led to the shutdown of the U.S. government and the end of all programs to create jobs. What was the GOP hang-up on waiting till the last hour to avoid the debacle? Concern that the budget wasn’t doing enough to create jobs? No. The issue that the GOP pushed in the negotiations until the very end was defunding programs at Planned Parenthood designed to limit the number of abortions.

But that’s not all Republicans are doing to create jobs. Tuesday, Speaker Boehner hired a lawyer at $520 an hour to defend an unconstitutional law, the Defense of Marriage Act. The law passed in 1994 defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman. President Obama wisely decided not to waste any money defending the law because it’s clearly unconstitutional. The 10th Amendment reserves the power to regulate marriages to the states. So much for wasteful government spending and states’ rights. But at least the GOP has created one good paying job.

Meanwhile, the religious right is busy attacking a conservative potential GOP presidential candidate, Mitch Daniels. He is the governor of Indiana and former director of the Office of Management and Budget. Daniels angered religious conservatives because he had the nerve to say economic issues are more important than social issues. The religious right feels anyone like Daniels who short changes social issues is either a heretic, a lunatic, or both. Yes, the Taliban wing of the Republican Party believes that persecuting gays is more important than creating jobs.  Good luck trying to sell that message to the millions of Americans who are one paycheck away from bankruptcy. If they are lucky enough to have a paycheck.

When Republicans go down to ignominious defeat in 2012, they will have only themselves to blame.

By: Brad Bannon, U. S. News and Worl Report, April 21, 2011

April 22, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Congress, Conservatives, Deficits, Economy, Elections, GOP, Government Shut Down, Jobs, Planned Parenthood, Politics, President Obama, Republicans, Right Wing, Voters, Women, Womens Rights | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Junior High Theatrics And Our Cowardly Congress

This isn’t government we’re watching; this is junior high.

It’s unclear where the adults are, but they don’t seem to be in Washington. Beyond the malice of the threat to shut down the federal government, averted only at the last minute on Friday night, it’s painful how vapid the discourse is and how incompetent and cowardly our leaders have proved to be. A quick guide:

• Democrats excoriated Republicans for threatening to shut down the government, but this mess is a consequence of the Democrats’ own failure to ensure a full year’s funding last year when they controlled both houses of Congress.

That’s when the budget should have been passed, before the fiscal year began on Oct. 1. But the Democrats were terror-stricken at the thought of approving spending bills that Republicans would criticize. So in gross dereliction of duty, the Democrats punted.

• Republicans say they’re trying to curb government spending and rescue the economy — but they threatened to shut down the government, even though that would have been both expensive and damaging to our economy.

The shutdowns in late 1995 and early 1996 cost the federal government more than $1.4 billion, the Office of Management and Budget reported at the time. Much of that sum was for salaries repaid afterward for work that employees never did because they were on furlough. There were also lost fees at national parks and museums: tigers must be fed at the zoo, even if nobody is paying to see them.

It’s particularly reckless and callous to threaten a shutdown when the economy is already anemic. Among the federal workers and contractors potentially losing paychecks, some would miss payments on their homes, their credit cards or their children’s college tuition.

• Republicans are posturing against abortion in a way that would increase the number of abortions.

Conservatives have sought to bar federal funds from going directly to Planned Parenthood and the United Nations Population Fund. The money would not go for abortions, for federal law already blocks that, and the Population Fund doesn’t provide abortions. What the money would pay for is family planning.

In the United States, publicly financed family planning prevented 1.94 million unwanted pregnancies in 2006, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which studies reproductive health. The result of those averted pregnancies was 810,000 fewer abortions, the institute said.

Publicly financed contraception pays for itself, by reducing money spent through Medicaid on childbirth and child care. Guttmacher found that every $1 invested in family planning saved taxpayers $3.74.

As for international family planning, the Guttmacher Institute calculates that a 15 percent decline in spending there would mean 1.9 million more unwanted pregnancies, 800,000 more abortions and 5,000 more maternal deaths.

So when some lawmakers preen their anti-abortion feathers but take steps that would result in more abortions and more women dying in childbirth, that’s not governance, that’s hypocrisy.

• The House Republican budget initiative, prepared by Representative Paul Ryan, would slash spending and end Medicare and Medicaid as we know them — and it justifies all this as essential to confront soaring levels of government debt. Mr. Ryan is courageous to tackle entitlements so boldly, and he has a point: we do have a serious long-term debt problem, and Democrats haven’t had the guts to deal with it seriously.

Unfortunately, the new Republican initiative would worsen government debt problems, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The C.B.O. (whose numbers Republicans regularly use to attack Democrats) estimates that with current trends, debt will reach 67 percent of gross domestic product in 2022. But it finds that under the Republican plan, because of increased tax cuts, debt would reach 70 percent of G.D.P.

In other words, the Republican position is that America faces such a desperate debt crisis that we must throw millions under the bus — yet the result is more debt than if we do nothing.

What does all this mean? That we’re governed by self-absorbed, reckless children. Further evidence comes from a new study showing that American senators devote 27 percent of their press releases to “partisan taunts” rather than substance. “Partisan taunting seems to play a central role in the behavior of many senators,” declared the study, by Justin Grimmer of Stanford and Gary King of Harvard.

A bewildered Chinese friend asked me how the world’s leading democracy could be so mismanaged that it could shut down. I couldn’t explain. This budget war reflects inanity, incompetence and cowardice that are sadly inexplicable.

By: Nicholas Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, April 9, 2011

April 10, 2011 Posted by | Abortion, Congress, Conservatives, Democracy, Democrats, Economy, Federal Budget, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideology, Lawmakers, Planned Parenthood, Politics, Republicans, Right Wing | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

With Truants And Teabaggers In Congress, How Do We Stop The Next Shutdown Threat?

I began work as chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore on Nov. 13, 1995, one day before the first of two government shutdowns that year. I arrived to find a stack of furlough forms on my desk; I spent the day introducing myself to new colleagues . . . and laying them off. Throughout the building unease was palpable: People had bills to pay, and junior White House staffers had little cushion in their bank accounts.

Too many in government faced, and narrowly escaped, that same fate last week. The prospect of future shutdowns still looms, and the pain from a shutdown of any duration would be widespread. Effects of the 1995 shutdown included a halt in toxic cleanups at more than 600 sites; delays in deploying hundreds of new border agents and processing more than 200,000 passports; and closure of more than 300 parks, with losses to the tourism economy.

How did we get to the brink? And what lessons can we apply from the past to ensure this scenario doesn’t arise again?

There would be no political winners in a shutdown. Many Democrats recall the 1995 shutdown as a pivotal point in the Clinton presidency — the moment when his political comeback was cinched and the GOP began its slide to defeat in 1996. But the truth is more complicated. President Bill Clinton’s approval ratings fell during the shutdown and rose again only after the government reopened. The GOP’s political debacle stemmed in large part from Newt Gingrich’s comment that the shutdown was “payback” for a bad seat on Air Force One — a remark that former representative Tom DeLay later described as causing “the whole moral tone of the shutdown [to be] lost.” While Democrats emerged from this confrontation with a strong hand, there is no guarantee that a future crisis will end well. Undisciplined mistakes could foil their party as easily as the GOP.

Republicans would approach the next juncture in an even weaker position. Recent events showed that some learned from the severe political fallout from the 1995 shutdown, but others still believe the real mistake was compromising with Clinton to end the standoff. House Speaker John Boehner said last week that “there’s no daylight between the Tea Party and me,” just a day after Tea Party protesters chanted “shut it down, shut it down” near his office. And this deal didn’t make it less likely the speaker will reach one next time.

President Obama won this round, navigating difficult currents to take command of the situation and protecting nascent economic growth.

But this economy will continue to be far more fragile than the one Clinton managed during the confrontation in 1995, so simply putting this crisis behind us isn’t enough.

To lessen the odds of a repeat when the current year’s appropriations inevitably remain unfinished this fall, the president should do four things.

First, he has to continue to drive home — as he has in recent days — what the American people have at stake in a government shutdown. Obama must seize the moment, as Clinton did in 1996, to prepare for future confrontations; highlighting the Tea Party’s lusty cheering for a shutdown underscores both an ideological zeal that is indifferent to a shutdown’s real-world effects, and a contrast that can shape the governing and political dynamic for the final two years of his term.

Second, he should use this reprieve to direct his advisers to reexamine the basic legal framework for any future government shutdown: a January 1981 memo from outgoing Attorney General Ben Civiletti, and a subsequent directive from the Office of Management and Budget, that created the dichotomy that sends most federal workers home in a shutdown, except those whose activities are deemed “essential.” The attorney general could preemptively broaden the list of activities considered essential, substantially lessening the stakes in future standoffs. A 1990 amendment to the relevant federal statute narrowed room for creative interpretation of the law, but in the 1995 shutdown Clinton authorized 50,000 workers to return to their jobs, saying that their processing of Social Security and veterans benefit applications was “essential” to avoid a soaring backlog. A similar expansion of the definition of “essential activities” would minimize the portion of the government that could be held hostage in a future stalemate.

Third, he can explore the path employed to end the U.S. government shutdown in January 1996 — which ended not with a year-long agreement to fund the government (that didn’t come until April) but with a continuing resolution that included language categorizing all activities by federal workers as essential, allowing them to return to work even when funding expired. Putting such a measure in place now, in advance of the next crisis period, would ensure that workers remain on the job even when future battles over policy riders and spending levels rage.

Finally, the president should use the momentum gained in this confrontation to press for enactment of an automatic continuing resolution that would keep the entire federal government functioning at the prior year’s spending level when no other funding plan is in place. Congress has passed the regular appropriations bills on time in fewer than 10 of the past 60 years; the odds of success this year are remote. Tolerating unmanaged uncertainty about government funding is like walking around Washington in April without an umbrella: You will get wet; the only question is when.

President Obama averted disaster this time. But steps must be explored to prevent such near misses in the future.

By: Ron Klain, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, April 8, 2011

April 9, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Congress, Conservatives, Democrats, Elections, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideology, Politics, President Obama, Republicans, Right Wing, Teaparty, Voters | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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