Budget

It's Not about the Deficit

Flickr/401(K) 2012
“It’s not all I would have liked,” says Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, speaking of the deal on the fiscal cliff, “so on to the debt ceiling.” The battle over the fiscal cliff was only a prelude to the coming battle over raising the debt ceiling—a battle that will likely continue through early March, when the Treasury runs out of tricks to avoid a default on the nation’s debt. The White House’s and Democrats’ single biggest failure in the cliff negotiations was not getting Republicans’ agreement to raise the debt ceiling. The last time the debt ceiling had to be raised, in 2011, Republicans demanded major cuts in programs for the poor as well as Medicare and Social Security. They got some concessions from the White House but didn’t get what they wanted—which led us to the fiscal cliff. So we’ve come full circle. On it goes, battle after battle in what seems an unending war that began with the election of Tea Party Republicans in November, 2010. Don’t be fooled...

Retrench Warfare

AP Photo/Alex Brandon
AP Photo/Alex Brandon Senator Mike Johanns, a Republican from Nebraska, left, walks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell from Kentucky to the Senate floor for a vote on the fiscal cliff early this morning. The Senate vote just before dawn in favor of a permanent tax hike on the top one percent defers virtually all of the other budget battles. Assuming the House follows suit today, it is up to President Obama and the Democrats to radically change the conversation. In the deal that the Senate agreed to, with only eight senators voting against, the Democrats won big in two respects. They forced the Republicans to raise taxes on the rich, and they took all spending cuts including in Social Security off the table—for now. If Tea Party Republicans vote against the deal and it passes the House with the voters of nearly all Democrats and a few dozen renegade Republicans, it could cost John Boehner his Speakership. But automatic cuts of $120 billion this year and $1.2 trillion over a...

A Lousy Deal on the Edge of the Fiscal Cliff

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak President Barack Obama speaks about the fiscal cliff in the South Court Auditorium of the White House earlier today. The deal emerging from the Senate on the fiscal cliff is a lousy one. Let me count the ways: 1. Republicans haven’t conceded anything on the debt ceiling, so over the next two months—as the Treasury runs out of tricks to avoid a default—Republicans are likely to do exactly what they did before, which is to hold their votes on raising the debt ceiling hostage to major cuts in programs for the poor and in Medicare and Social Security. 2. The deal makes tax cuts for the rich permanent (extending the Bush tax cuts for incomes up to $400,000 if filing singly and $450,000 if jointly) while extending refundable tax credits for the poor (child tax credit, enlarged EITC, and tuition tax credit) for only five years. There’s absolutely no justification for this asymmetry. 3. It doesn’t get nearly enough revenue from the wealthiest 2 percent—only $600...

Don't Count Boehner Out Just Yet

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
AP Photo/John Duricka Representative John Boehner holds up a copy of the Constitution on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursday, May 7, 1992, as Senator Don Nickles looks on. T he side of John Boehner we understand most is the one that offers a distant sense of comfort—the one who'll pander to the conservative movement during these fiscal-cliff talks but understands a compromise must come through at the end. This is the John Boehner we dub the "dealmaker," the leader who must "stand up” to the Tea Party—and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, the rival who would do him in. His “dealmaker” persona stems from the assumption he isn’t a true believer or an aggressively ideological Republican, which is correct. But it's his other side, the deeply ambitious one, that clouds our ability to predict where the fiscal saga ends. This is the Boehner who clawed his way to the House Speakership for over 20 years, a position that his conference may force him out of if he "surrenders" to President Obama in...

It’s a Mad, Mad Michigan

Right-to-work legislation was only the beginning. State Republicans have an entire docket full of legislation set to limit rights.

(AP Photo/The Detroit News, Elizabeth Conley)
Sure, lame-duck legislatures are bound to be a bit mad. But the session that just closed in Michigan was one for the ages. Aflush with the flurry of bills sent to the desk of Governor Rick Snyder—not so much speaking to his opinion on their quality—a politics-loving friend of mine in Detroit exclaimed, “It’s like Christmas in … well, in December.” The swift passage of right-to-work in Michigan picked up national and international headlines last week. But that overhaul of labor law is only one piece of the expansive legislative plan for the state that now awaits Snyder’s go-ahead. The lame-duck session was the final and powerful display of influence by GOP and Tea Party lawmakers that had a total and triumphant win in the 2010 election. Even as Michigan’s reputation as a “swing state” is diminishing—it’s voted Democratic for president since 1992, and both its U.S. senators are Democrats—local politics remain fractious. Not only does the GOP dominate both chambers in the state...

Debating the Chained CPI

Flickr/The Survivor Woman/401(K)
Yesterday, I posted a piece that questioned the political and policy wisdom of President Obama’s latest offer for a budget deal. My qualms were vindicated when Speaker Boehner, rather than taking the widely leaked “progress” as a new common ground, went back to his starting point and offered his own “Plan B”. This left President Obama in just the position that he vowed that he’d be in again—“negotiating against himself.” In the piece, I also criticized the role of my friend Bob Greenstein in lending credence to backdoor cuts in Social Security. Bob is the much revered and tireless advocate for the poor who is the longtime president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. My piece questioned both his political logic in assuming that Social Security cuts have any place in this budget deal and his assumption that including them will somehow protect programs for the poor. My piece mistakenly described the annual cut as 3 percent rather than 0.3 percent, but it accurately pointed...

While You Weren’t Looking, Michigan Turned Into Texas

Flickr/CedarBendDrive
The Michigan legislature’s lame duck session is only three weeks long, but the state house didn't need more than 18 hours to move the state sharply to the right. During a marathon session Thursday and Friday, the state house passed a variety of very conservative bills on issues from abortion to gun control to taxes. You can’t say they’re not efficient. The state, which favored Obama by 9 points and has long been home to a moderate-progressive movement, may now have a set of laws that puts it on America’s more conservative end. Perhaps most shocking for pro-choice advocates was the effort to restrict abortion rights—or, as Mother Jones put it, “ the abortion mega-bill. ” Assuming the governor signs the bill into law, women in Michigan will now have to buy separate insurance policies to cover abortion. Otherwise, even in cases of rape or miscarriage, the abortion will not be covered. Clinics that provide more than 120 abortions a year will now face significantly more stringent licensing...

The Strange Republican Shift on Taxes

Flickr/401(K) 2012
There's been an odd change in Republican rhetoric in the last few weeks about taxes. As we all know, for a couple of decades now, particularly since George H.W. Bush went back on his "Read my lips" promise and agreed to a tax increase to bring down the deficit, Republicans have been uncompromising and dogmatic that taxes must never be raised in any form, ever. That's part of the pledge Grover Norquist has made nearly all of them sign—not just that rates should only ratchet down, but also that they will "oppose any net reduction or elimination of deductions and credits, unless matched dollar for dollar by further reducing tax rates." With the bitter taste of defeat still lingering in their mouths, many have realized that there is going to be some increase in the wealthy's taxes. But to hear them talk now, you'd think that they don't much care how much people pay in taxes, so long as the top marginal income rate doesn't go up. Here's Karl Rove writing in The Wall Street Journal ,...

Why Republicans Won't Get Specific

This squirrel sees right through you, McConnell. (Flickr/Californian Em)
A few years ago, somebody (forgive me for forgetting who it was) suggested that newspapers should have a daily feature called "Things That Are Still True," which would remind readers of important facts that are still important even if they haven't generated news in the sense of being new. In that spirit, during the current budgetary debate it's a good time to remember what I think is one of the three or four most enduring and important facts about American politics and public opinion. Almost half a century ago, Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril argued that Americans as a whole were ideologically conservative but operationally liberal, meaning that in broad terms they like "small government," but when one gets specific it turns out they like almost everything government does, and want it to do even more of it. This fact explains practically everything about how the Republican and Democratic parties set about appealing to voters. Republicans talk in broad, ideological terms about small...

Why Does Obama Want to Spend $8 Trillion on Defense?

United States Air Force
Washington is in a fiscal panic, yet surprisingly few people are asking an obvious question: Why in the world is the Obama administration proposing to spend $8 trillion on security over the next decade? Included in that giant sum is not just Pentagon spending, but also outlays for intelligence, homeland security, foreign aid, and diplomacy abroad. If the administration gets its way, security spending would account for a fifth of all government outlays over the next decade. Such spending would be roughly twice as great as all non-mandatory spending through 2022—a category that includes everything from NASA to Pell Grants and national parks. And—get this—around 40 cents of every dollar collected from individual income taxes over the next decade under the president's plan would go for security spending, according to White House estimates. That's a whole lot of defense for a country that, as of 2014 (when U.S. forces withdraw from Afghanistan), will be officially at peace and faces no...

Mitch McConnell Doesn't Understand What the Debt Ceiling Is

Flickr/Gage Skidmore
Now that Republicans have pretty much resigned themselves to the idea that there is going to be some kind of tax increase for the wealthy, they're comforting themselves with the idea that come early next year, they'll still be able to re-enact the lovely conflict we had over the debt ceiling in 2011 and hold the American economy hostage to their demands. President Obama has quite sensibly said that we ought to just get rid of the debt ceiling itself, since it serves no purpose and allows a party to engage in just this kind of economic blackmail if it's desperate and cynical enough. So Republicans are pushing back, none more so than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But in the process, McConnell has revealed that he has no idea how the debt ceiling actually works. What McConnell has been saying is that if we eliminate the debt ceiling, it will give the president all kinds of new powers, to spend money willy-nilly however he wants to, run up the debt, and generally become a kind...

What Raising the Medicare Eligibility Age Means

President Johnson signing Medicare into law in 1965.
After a campaign in which Republicans attempted to pillory Barack Obama for finding $716 billion in savings from Medicare (via cuts in payments to insurance companies and providers but not cuts to benefits), those same Republicans now seem to be demanding that Obama agree to cuts in Medicare benefits as the price of saving the country from the Austerity Trap, a.k.a. fiscal cliff. Oh, the irony! You'd almost think that they weren't really the stalwart defenders of Medicare they pretended to be. And there are some hints that the Obama administration is seriously considering agreeing to raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 as part of this deal. It's a dreadful idea, and as we discuss this possibility, there's one really important thing to keep in mind: Medicare is the least expensive way to insure these people. Or anybody, for that matter. In all this talk of the bloated entitlement system, you'd be forgiven for thinking Medicare was some kind of inefficient, overpriced big...

Republicans, Exposed

(Flickr/David Silver)
President Barack Obama’s persistence has managed to smoke out House Speaker John Boehner and the Republicans. Their just-announced plan for cutting the deficit is what we suspected: cuts in Medicare and Social Security; no higher tax rates on the rich; limits on tax deductions that would hit the middle class as well as the wealthy, but only raise half the revenue of Obama’s plan; and a lot of fudging with numbers. The Republicans might as well be parading around with a sign that reads “Kick Me.” None of this stuff solves the real problem of getting a recovery going. If you believe that deficit reduction is required, it doesn’t even solve that. And the plan cuts into social insurance programs that are hugely popular, while Obama defends them. Best of all, the corporate deficit hawks marching under the banner “Fix the Debt” are left out in the cold. Nobody is emphasizing austerity as an economic cure. Corporate Democrat Erskine Bowles is yesterday’s news (sit down, please), almost as...

It's Time to Kill the Debt Ceiling

(AP Photo/CBS News, Chris Usher)
There are a number of strange aspects to the negotiation/maneuvering/posturing now taking place between the White House and congressional Republicans about the Austerity Trap (a.k.a. fiscal cliff), but one that hasn't gotten much attention is the disagreement over the debt ceiling. As part of their initial offer, the White House included something I and other people have been advocating for some time: Just get rid of the debt ceiling altogether. The Republicans, particularly in the House, don't seem to be interested. But we should take a good look at how crazy their position on this issue is. In an ordinary negotiation, each side has things it wants, while it dislikes some or all of the things the other side wants. A union wants higher wages for its workers, while the company doesn't want to pay the higher wages. You'd rather have your partner do the laundry while you do the dishes, but your partner doesn't like doing the laundry either. The White House wants to increase taxes on the...

Explaining the Mortgage Interest Deduction

Biltmore House, where the mortgage is probably paid off by now. (Flickr/Steve and Sara Emry)
Something strange has happened in the past few days as we have approached the Austerity Trap (aka "fiscal cliff"). Suddenly, people are actually talking about the possibility of cutting back on the home interest deduction, a "gift," as Mitt Romney might call it, that dwarfs most others the federal government distributes (among tax expenditures, only the deduction for health insurance costs the government more). I continue to believe that there's just no way Congress is going to touch the MID, cherished as it is by so many. But I could be wrong, and this is a good time to brush up on where the deduction came from and what its consequences are. The mortgage interest deduction came about essentially by accident. When the Constitution was amended in 1913 to allow for an income tax, Congress made all interest payments deductible. Mortgage interest wasn't mentioned specifically, and there was no suggestion that this was something necessary to promote home ownership. But as more Americans...

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