Budget

Shocking Moment of Sanity Occurs in Congress

A much prettier ceiling. (Flickr/Richard Carter)
If you aren't a political junkie, you may have missed the rather remarkable thing that occurred yesterday in Congress, when the House of Representatives—home of nutbars and nincompoops, extremists, and obstructors—actually passed an increase in the debt ceiling. And it was clean as a whistle, without any spending cuts or other provisions inserted to soothe the savage Tea Party beast. After debt ceiling crises in 2011 and 2013, we now have over a year before we have to tempt fate and default again. How could such a thing have happened? The simplest explanation is that John Boehner put a clean increase up for a vote, and it passed, with mostly Democratic votes (even Boehner himself voted against it, as did the entire Republican leadership). This is something he could have done in the prior crises, but chose not to. The more complete explanation is that Boehner finally felt secure enough to anger some of his caucus's most conservative members, if that was the price of saving his party...

Republicans Are Really, Really Bad at Hostage Negotiations

For some time, I've been arguing that we should not just extend the debt ceiling but get rid of it altogether. It's a weird historical anomaly that serves no practical purpose other than allowing the opposition party, should it be sufficiently reckless, to threaten global economic catastrophe if it doesn't get its way. I assumed that your average Washington Democrat would share this view, but now I'm beginning to think that if you're someone like Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama, the debt ceiling is actually quite helpful, and you'd be sorry to see it go. Because here's what keeps happening: The debt ceiling approaches. Republicans begin making threats to torpedo the country's economy by not raising it, and thereby sending the United States government into default, if their demands aren't met. We then have a couple of weeks of debate, disagreement, and hand-wringing. Republican infighting grows more intense, and their reputation as a bunch of radicals who are willing to burn down the...

Defense Spending Is the Most Expensive Way to Create Jobs

Th F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin).
When you're a defense contractor beginning a big new program, one of your key challenges once you've gotten the contract is to make sure the contract never goes away. One way to do that is to bring in the weapons system on time and under budget and win the thanks of a grateful nation. But since big weapons systems almost always come in late and over budget—and being over budget means bigger profits—the better way is to make sure a critical mass of congresspeople have a particular interest in keeping the taxpayer money flowing to your weapon. Which is why subcontracts on things like fighter jets and bombers are spread far and wide throughout the land, as though Lockheed Martin were a Johnny Appleseed of employment. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for instance, involves 1,300 subcontractors spread across 45 states. Which means that almost every senator and a few hundred members of the House would never think of killing it or scaling it back, no matter how many problems it encounters. But...

A Dubious Budget Deal

The years of Republican obstructionism and the corporate campaign for deficit reduction have taken such a toll that merely the fact of getting a budget deal at all looks like a great achievement. This one is better than continued impasse, but the deal itself is a stinker. Representative Raul Grijanva, co-chair of the House progressive caucus, put it well: “I feel like punching myself in the face, but I’ll vote yes.” The deal does override the automatic sequester for this year. It will restore some $31.5 billion in sequester cut over the next two years in domestic spending, and a like amount in military spending. But those increases are against a backdrop of more than a trillion dollars of cuts over a decade. The deal nominally is deficit-neutral, because it adds new budget cuts in Medicare in 2022 and 2023. Even worse, the deal did not even include an extension of expiring extended unemployment insurance, at a time when the share long-term unemployed is stubbornly stuck. That...

Conservative Anger Over Budget Deal Now Purely to Save Face

Paul Ryan, still a conservative in good standing. (Flickr/House GOP)
Have we finally reached a point where the perpetual anger of Washington conservatives is no longer a threat to the republic? The budget deal announced yesterday suggests that it may well be, at least for the moment. It isn't that conservatives aren't raising a stink about it—they're displeased that it doesn't repeal the Affordable Care Act, slash Social Security and Medicare, and do more to punish food-stamp recipients, among other things—because they certainly are. Indeed, they were decrying it even before it was announced, which tells you how concerned they are about the details. But they seem to be just going through the motions. Send the press releases, say you'll vote against it, tell Fox News why it doesn't get to the real problems ... and then we'll all move on. The budget will pass, mostly because it averts the possibility of a government shutdown (at least over the budget, though not over the debt ceiling) for two more years. And even the most conservative Republican knows...

Robbing Illinois's Public Employees

I n the span of a few hours on December 3, two Midwestern states changed America’s relationship to its public employees, perhaps irrevocably. If courts approve plans for bankruptcy in Detroit and a new law in Illinois, retirees who worked their careers as sanitation engineers and teachers, firefighters and police officers, public defenders and city clerks, under a promise of pension benefits protected by state constitutions, will not receive their promised share. “This is a bipartisan collection of politicians who essentially don’t respect democracy,” says Steve Kreisberg, director of Research and Collective Bargaining for the public-employee union AFSCME. “They authorized a violation of their own state constitutions.” The implications for the future of public pensions are grave. Michigan and Illinois are two of just seven states with clauses in their state constitutions prohibiting cuts to public pensions. If they can nevertheless slash benefits, cities, and states with less...

The Vindictiveness of the Vitter Amendment

W ith poverty stuck at a decades-high rate of 15 percent, food stamps have proven to be one of the best ways to stop low-income Americans from slipping deeper into poverty. So it’s under attack, of course. Last week, majority leader John Boehner warned that a deal on the farm bill, through which the food-stamp program is authorized and funded, was not coming together. The House and Senate have passed dramatically different bills and now leaders in both chambers are scrambling to come up with a compromise bill that can pass both chambers and be signed by the president before the current legislation expires at the end of this year. With the House scheduled to adjourn this Friday, time is running out. The biggest fight is over how crop subsidies are calculated and which crops they go to, but there is also disagreement on cutting food stamps. The question isn’t whether food stamps will be cut, but by how much. Food stamps are an entitlement, which means the program grows according to need...

The Democrats' Original Food-Stamp Sin

AP Images/J. Scott Applewhite
“Today, 47 million Americans struggling to put food on the table will have to make do with less,” began the emailed press release from House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office. The statement lamented the $5 billion cut to food-stamp benefits that took effect November 1, rolling back a 13.6 percent expansion to the program that was part of the 2009 stimulus package. The cuts leave “participants with just $1.40 to spend per meal,” the press release continued, adding that House Republicans want to subject food stamps to more cuts in the future. But before Democrats completely rewrite the history of this body blow to the poor, a review of the facts would be in order. The seeds of this current food-stamp cut were sown by multiple deals made when Democrats held both chambers of Congress and the White House. They used money from the food-stamp program to pay for other priorities like education, health care and the school lunch program, all the while assuring that they would eventually...

Why Are Police Shootings of Innocents on the Rise?

AP Photo/Jessica Hill
AP Photo/The Chronicle-Tribune, Jeff Morehead In New York City, police mistakes get played out on a big stage. In September, the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) performance was caught on camera in crowded Times Square when two officers shot at an unarmed suspect, missed him, and hit two bystanders instead. The man had been lurching in and out of traffic, ignoring police commands to stop, and at one point pulled his hand out of his pants as if he had a gun, according to a report in The New York Times . It was the latest in the department’s two-year run of an unusually high number of unintentional shootings of innocents. Last August, police wounded nine bystanders while unloading 16 rounds at a suspect who’d just shot a co-worker on the street near the Empire State Building. In separate cases last year, cops wounded four other bystanders. Gun battles and shoot-don’t-shoot decisions can be appallingly hard for even experienced cops to handle well. Low light, suspects in motion, and...

Instead of a Grand Bargain, Let's Have a Little Bargain

Flickr/Julia Taylor
As part of the agreement to reopen the government, a House/Senate conference committee was formed to negotiate a new budget. The last time we tried this, with the "Supercommittee," the two sides couldn't agree, and that failure triggered sequestration, which was supposed to be so terrible for both sides (defense cuts that Republicans don't like, domestic spending cuts Democrats don't like) that it would force them to do anything to avoid it. But it now seems that Republicans don't have too much of a problem with sequestration. They're moving toward the position that undoing sequestration isn't something everyone agrees should happen, but instead is a concession Republicans would be making to Democrats, for which they'd have to be repaid with something they want, like cuts to Social Security and Medicare.* Sound familiar? It's not that different from when they said they didn't want the government to shut down, but not shutting the government down was a concession for which they'd need...

How Conservatives Reacted to the Shutdown/Default Deal

The despair that comes from knowing poor people are going to get health insurance. (Flickr/Jerry Furguson Photography)
Yesterday, John Boehner told a Cincinnati radio station, "We fought the good fight. We just didn't win." That's one way to look at what happened; another is that frightened Republicans allowed their most unhinged members to pull them into a political disaster that any rational person could have foreseen (and many certainly did). That Republicans would never get what they wanted—the destruction of the Affordable Care Act—was obvious. That they'd come out of it with almost nothing at all was nearly as predictable. So now that the battle is over, how are conservatives reacting? Let's take a look around. First, we've got some people who are seething with rage at their party for not hanging tough until they destroyed Obamacare: "I was trying to think earlier today if ever in my life I could remember any major political party being so irrelevant … I've never seen a major political party simply occupy placeholders, as the Republican party is doing." — Rush Limbaugh "Republican leadership has...

How Liberals Should Feel about the Shutdown/Default Agreement

Don't go too wild with the celebrations. (Flickr/Susana Fernandez)
We have a deal. At this writing no votes have been taken, but by the time you read this, the agreement brokered between Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell may well have passed one or both houses. So how should liberals feel about it? Let's break it down. 1. The government is funded through January 15th at sequestration levels. Even though sequestration was supposed to be painful for both sides, it turned out that Republicans were quite happy about it. Democrats would have preferred to reverse sequestration and have a less arbitrarily slashed budget, but this isn't the end of the world. Conclusion: Meh. 2. The debt limit is raised until February 7. When details were first coming out about the agreement, one report I read in Politico implied that henceforth, debt-ceiling increases were going to proceed on what is known as the McConnell Plan, since Mitch McConnell once proposed it (before changing his mind). Under that plan, Congress could pass a bill refusing to increase the ceiling, but...

Eight Things about the Shutdown/Default Crisis that Are Still True

AP Photo/Chuck Burton
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite A s we approach default, it seems like every hour brings a new development in our crisis, and you'll be forgiven if you aren't able (or can't bear) to follow every new proposal, abortive vote, and angry denunciation. So it's a good time to remind ourselves of some things that were true yesterday and last week, and are still true today. These are the things we need to keep in mind as this horrid affair tumbles forward. 1. We all know how this ends. We've almost forgotten this, but if John Boehner brought a bill to the House floor today funding the government and raising the debt ceiling without any idiotic anti-Obamacare provisions, it would pass, and the crisis would be over. I repeat: it would pass, and the crisis would be over. And yes, Tea Partiers would be mad at him. They might even try to stage a coup and install one of their own as Speaker. But they'd probably fail. And Boehner would not only be saving the country any more misery, he'd be saving his...

The GOP Craziness You Missed over the Weekend

It's only a flesh wound!
We're at kind of a weird point in the shutdown/default crisis. Everyone knows Republicans have lost; it's just a matter of working out the details of how we get out of this mess. The sane ones are trying to come up with some sort of agreement that will end the crisis before any further damage is done to their party while providing something they can call a concession from the Democrats, thereby allowing them to save face, to the extent that John Boehner can hold the damn vote and claim that it isn't an abject failure. But alas, sanity seems to be in short supply on the right side of the aisle, even at this late hour. Over the weekend, National Review reporter Robert Costa, who seems more plugged in to the House Republicans than any other journalist in Washington, tweeted the details of an emerging GOP proposal: To decode that for you: House Republicans are proposing to allow a six-week extension of the debt ceiling, and what they want in exchange is, first, the Vitter amendment, which...

John Boehner Is Adrift

Flickr/Donkey Hotey
At this point, I'm starting to get the feeling that John Boehner spends a good portion of each day sitting around in his office with a bunch of aides as they all stare at the ceiling. "Anybody got any ideas yet?" he says periodically. "No?" Heavy sigh. Every couple of days they come up with something, float it to reporters, and find that it only serves to confuse things, to the point that nobody knows what they're demanding anymore. First they'd only open the government and raise the debt ceiling if the Affordable Care Act were defunded. When that didn't fly, they suggested they'd release the hostages if the ACA were delayed for a year. No go on that, so they suggested that they'd accept some kind of "grand bargain" as long as it included "entitlement reform," which is Republican code for cutting Social Security and Medicare. Nope. Then they said they'd take some package of unnamed budget cuts and tax cuts. They aren't getting that either, and now it seems they've finally come to...

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