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Month: November 2011

Gridlock in Washington is Voter-Induced

Gridlock in Washington is Voter-Induced

It’s mind-boggling to me how the public and media continue to delude themselves over the principal cause of the governmental policy paralysis that grips Washington.  

The latest example of gridlock is the failure of the so-called super committee, born of the debt-ceiling fight during the summer, and comprised equally of Democrats and Republicans to reach agreement on $1.2 trillion of deficit reduction. 

Yet the failure of the deficit reducing committee and the current governmental dysfunction was perfectly predictable and, indeed, unavoidable thanks to the electoral choices the country made in the fall 2010 mid-term elections. Americans, in short, seem to be in denial over the simple truism that elections matter.

In 2010 for example, a grumpy electorate focused on Democrats as the scapegoats for the continued struggles of the economy, the housing crisis and the high unemployment rate. Never mind that it was GOP’s deregulatory zeal that had created the conditions for the financial collapse that, in turn, precipitated the crisis in the first place. Never mind also that Democrats had passed a stimulus bill which, when combined with the TARP passed under the previous administration, had almost certainly prevented the Great Recession from becoming a second Great Depression. And never mind also that the 111th Congress had been extraordinarily productive, passing legislation that curbed credit card company abuses, reformed the banking industry to avoid future financial meltdowns, enacted much needed reforms to food safety and student loans and, as the crowning achievement, overhauled the health care system to expand coverage to most of the uninsured while curbing the worst abuses of the health insurance industry.  All of these laws benefitted ordinary working Americans, almost always over the strenuous objections of powerful industries and the GOP.

Yet because Democrats, despite worthy efforts, failed to fix in two years an economy that most now recognize will take up to a decade or more to repair, the country booted them from power in the House of Representatives and reduced their Senate majority in favor of a Tea-Party- dominated GOP whose principal characteristic is an unwillingness or inability to listen to reason. Hence the ridiculous brinkmanship over raising the debt ceiling and almost fanatical refusal to consider tax increases on America’s wealthy to address the deficit.

Of course it’s much easier to blame “government” than to acknowledge our own culpability for the mess we created in the 2010 mid-terms. I mean, what were we expecting exactly? Peace, harmony and bipartisanship? 

In 2012 the stakes are much higher. All I ask is that we make a clear choice between two contrasting visions of what sort of society America will be in the future. And that whatever we decide, we do not blame a faceless, amorphous government, that we voters played the pivotal role in shaping, for what follows. 

Happy Evacuation Day from Sarah Vowell and Jon Stewart

Happy Evacuation Day from Sarah Vowell and Jon Stewart

After you’ve finished battling stampeding, pepper spraying Black Friday shoppers in search of the best shopping deals you can find, take some time out to celebrate Evacuation Day. Here’s Sarah Vowell on The Daily Show to give you the details of this post-Thanksgiving holiday.

Friday Night Videos – Howlin’ Wolf, Captain Beefheart, and Tom Waits

Friday Night Videos – Howlin’ Wolf, Captain Beefheart, and Tom Waits

I could write something about the police cracking down on Occupy Wall Street (but Mr. Fish says it all – see below), or Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich or some more about the “Super Committee,” but you could probably guess what I have to say, so instead I will just put up these videos and hope that you’ll watch them, ’cause they are all way, way great.

The Congressional Super Committee Must Fail

The Congressional Super Committee Must Fail

Yes it’s true. In order for our country to solve its unemployment and long-term debt problems, the Super Committee must become the Inept Committee.

As I write this, the Washington Post’s countdown-to-deadline clock reads “5 days 15 hours 40 minutes 47 seconds.”

The committee was formed as part of the solution to last summer’s debt-ceiling debacle. It’s made up of six Republicans, all of whom signed the Norquist anti-tax pledge, and six Democrats, all of whom are supportive of Obama’s plan to reduce the federal deficit with a mixture of spending cuts and tax increases.

A couple of weeks ago there was some movement by the Right towards the middle spurred by a bipartisan letter from 100 House Representatives that asked the Super Committee to consider all options including revenue increases. I wrote at the time that maybe they were influenced just a wee bit by the Occupy Wall Street, “We are the 99%” movement, but apparently not.  E. J. Dionne explains:

Finally, the Republicans decided they needed to look slightly flexible. So they came up with $300 billion in supposed revenue from a promised tax reform in a plan that also included a proposal to slash tax rates for the rich.

Surprisingly the Democrats did not capitulate and accept their ridiculous offer – yet.

If the committee doesn’t reach a deal, then automatic spending cuts will be triggered – including cuts to the defense budget – and the Bush tax cuts would expire after 2012. So, the anti-tax, pro-defense spending Republicans should be very eager to reach a deal with the Democrats in order to avoid what they would consider excessive tax increases and cuts to the defense budget.  Their revenue deal offered a trillion dollars less than what the Democrats want, and it included tax cuts for the rich. Why would they do that? Because when dealing with spineless Democrats, intransigence has proven to be the method that works best for them. For the past dozen years or so, the Democrats have almost always ended up caving in to their demands. This time let’s hope they do not.

Because the Democrats have not yet capitulated, the Republicans are trying to reverse the part of the deal that would cut military spending if the Super Committee fails. The Republicans say that the cuts would destroy jobs, and our country needs more jobs – not less.  But why is it that Republicans approve of job-creating government spending on wars, weapons, and military personnel but disapprove of job-creating government spending on education, first responders, and infrastructure rebuilding? And if military spending is so dear to Republicans, why won’t they ask their “base” to chip in by paying more income tax?

Paul Krugman explained quite well in today’s column:

… the gulf between our two major political parties is so wide. Republicans and Democrats don’t just have different priorities; they live in different intellectual and moral universes.

In Democrat-world, up is up and down is down. Raising taxes increases revenue, and cutting spending while the economy is still depressed reduces employment. But in Republican-world, down is up. The way to increase revenue is to cut taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and slashing government spending is a job-creation strategy. Try getting a leading Republican to admit that the Bush tax cuts increased the deficit or that sharp cuts in government spending (except on the military) would hurt the economic recovery.

Moreover, the parties have sharply different views of what constitutes economic justice.

Democrats see social insurance programs, from Social Security to food stamps, as serving the moral imperative of providing basic security to our fellow citizens and helping those in need.

Republicans have a totally different view. They may soft-pedal that view in public — in last year’s elections, they even managed to pose as defenders of Medicare — but, in private, they view the welfare state as immoral, a matter of forcing citizens at gunpoint to hand their money over to other people. By creating Social Security, declared Rick Perry in his book “Fed Up!”, F.D.R. was “violently tossing aside any respect for our founding principles.” Does anyone doubt that he was speaking for many in his party?

Not me. The Republicans are ruthless in their quest to destroy our social safety nets and, as they say, “take our country back” to a time when working people were poor, died young, and existed only to serve plutocrats. You know… the good old days.

The Republicans are not going to budge on the revenue side, so the only way the Super Committee would not fail would be if the Democrats agreed to massive spending cuts on everything but the military and received no tax increases in return.

Dionne’s column says that the revenue increases that would kick in if the committee fails would amount to $7.1 trillion. It would be best to delay the tax increases on the middle class until the unemployment rate goes down, but given the choice of tax increases on the rich or tax cuts for the rich, I’ll take the increases.  Some of the increased tax revenue should be spent government projects that create jobs. The jobs will increase demand for products and services which will grow our economy.  It will take time, but not nearly as long as it would if the radical Republicans get their way and destroy jobs with drastic cuts to government spending during this severe economic downturn.

2012 Election Requires Unprecedented Sophistication from the Electorate

2012 Election Requires Unprecedented Sophistication from the Electorate

Conventional wisdom has it that in the absence of a dramatic and highly unlikely decrease in the unemployment rate between now and the 2012 election, President Obama’s electoral goose, and probably that of congressional Democrats, is well and truly cooked.

His favorability rating in recent polls hovers around 45%, a grumpy and pessimistic electorate blames him as much as congressional Republicans for the government’s inability to improve the nation’s employment numbers, and increasing anger and disgust with governmental paralysis threatens the electoral prospects of Democrats, in particular, as the party identified with the belief in the essential role of government.  

Yet voters will be making an historic mistake if they turn to Republicans as a means of punishing Obama and Democrats for their inability thus far to fix all that ails us in the wake of the Great Recession.  Let’s consider two of the most noteworthy policy accomplishments since January 2009.

Democrats have passed legislation that, while far from perfect, promises to significantly improve access for all Americans to affordable health care insurance once its provisions come fully into effect in 2014. Americans have embraced the few key provisions which have already been implemented such as enabling parents to extend the health insurance coverage of their children to age 26. When the law fully takes effect, insurance companies will no longer be able to deny coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions, or cap the amount they will spend, or dump sick policy-holders on spurious grounds.

The Dodd-Frank financial reform law will go a long way towards ensuring that we don’t experience another system meltdown by curtailing the most irresponsible behavior of banking institutions and that future failures will be managed in such a way as to avoid a potential systemic collapse as occurred in 2008.  It also establishes a consumer protection bureau that will – now here’s a novelty – fight on our behalf against the worst predatory excesses of the Big Banks.    

These laws have three things in common: They both place the interests of ordinary Americans over those of the rich and powerful, whether Big Banks or Big Insurance (and in the case of the Affordable Care Act, represents a rare transfer of wealth from the rich to the middle-class); they were enacted over the strenuous objections of Republicans in Congress; and Republicans have vowed to repeal both laws if they regain control of the government.

As for the Obama stimulus package passed by Democratic lawmakers in early 2009 with just one GOP vote, it (along with TARP passed under the Bush administration) probably prevented the Great Recession from becoming another Great Depression according to many prominent economists. If the stimulus law had any significant flaws, they were that it wasn’t big enough and that too much of it went on tax credits instead of additional targeted spending and aid to states.

Even now GOP proposals to address what ails us economically are derisory. First and foremost they would drastically reduce federal spending which will do far more harm than good in the long term by slashing government funded scientific research and development and support for education, which will impede our ability to compete economically. And in the short term will result in more layoffs and reduced economic activity.  Their other Big Idea is to roll back environmental regulations to reverse decades of progress in curbing health-damaging pollution and protecting our land from unfettered development by the oil, gas and mining industries.

The electorate bemoans the paralysis of a feckless and ineffective government yet assumes no responsibility for its role in creating the conditions for governmental dysfunction by handing control of the House of Representatives to a GOP in the 2010 mid-term elections that was being increasingly dominated by an extremist Tea Party minority. Why?  The answer evidently was to punish Obama and the Democrats because they had failed to fix in two years the catastrophic consequences of the GOP’s deregulatory zealotry.

In its current incarnation, the GOP is bereft of any useful governing principles and ideas to competently steer the country, but has resolved to make it impossible for a Democrat in the White House to govern effectively, no matter what the cost to the country. A first step to restoring sanity to our political system is to deliver a resounding electoral defeat to todays’ destructive and extremist GOP in 2012.  I won’t hold my breath.

If Americans fail to display a greater degree of sophistication in 2012 than they did in 2010, the consequences could be disastrous.   They would only begin with the repeal of health and banking reform; they could end with an acceleration of America’s decline and fall from economic pre-eminence that may well prove to be irreversible.

Republicans for Tax Increases?

Republicans for Tax Increases?

Regular readers no doubt know that I have been very critical of Republicans that signed Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge and our led by John Boehner who stubbornly says raising taxes in any way is a “non-starter.”

So what a surprise this was:

A group of 40 House Republicans for the first time Wednesday encouraged Congress’s deficit reduction committee to explore new revenue as part of a broad deal that would make a major dent in the nation’s debt, joining 60 Democrats in a rare bipartisan effort to urge the “supercommittee” to reach a big deal that could also include entitlement cuts.

The letter represents a rare cross-party effort for the rancorous House, and its organizers said they hoped it would help nudge the 12-member panel to reach a deal that would far exceed the committee’s $1.5 trillion mandate.

Among those who signed were several dozen Republicans who had previously signed a pledge promising they would not support a net tax increase. Among the Democratic signers were some of the House’s most liberal members who have opposed entitlement cuts.

Shocking news!  I had to go back to the Washington Post home page to see if I’d missed a story about how Hell froze over or how pigs have flown. Nothing… So what’s up with this?

The bipartisan letter sent Wednesday included no specifics — it did not, for instance, commit its signers to supporting a tax increase, as many Democrats have urged, but merely urged that the committee consider revenue.

Still, Republicans said the number of members of their party who signed was significant, given fear among many members it would nevertheless be interpreted as endorsing taxes, particularly by Grover Norquist, the Americans for Tax Reform president. Norquist urges elected officials to sign a pledge that they will not raise taxes.

Norquist played down the letter’s significance, noting it merely asked the committee to consider all options.

“Consider anything,” he said. “Just don’t vote for a tax increase.”

Yes… consider all options except for a tax increase.  Well I’d expect nothing less from Mr. “drown the government in a bathtub” Norquist, but what about these 40 Republicans? Are they sincere? The letter  representing the bipartisan group of 100 representatives organized by Mike Simpson (R-ID) and Heath Shuler (D-NC) says:

To succeed, all options for mandatory and discretionary spending and revenues must be on the table. In addition, we know from other bipartisan frameworks that a target of some $4 trillion in deficit reduction is necessary to stabilize our debt as a share of the economy and assure America’s fiscal well-being.

While two of the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination argue about who’s regressive tax-reform plan is simpler, 100 sensible congressmen are asking the members of the Super Committee to consider collecting more tax revenue as part of the plan to balance our long-term federal budget. Presumably the increased revenue would come first from those who can most afford it –  the 1% – the Super Rich.

And here is where we must give credit to the Occupy Wall Street protesters. They have successfully changed the conversation from one focused solely on deficits to one about economic injustice, and now even some Republicans appear to be listening.