SMATTERINGS 10/26/13: The Nub of Some Ongoing Issues

Our main stream television media must believe we can’t handle thinking about more than one issue at a time.  All the world was the congressional budget/debt ceiling battle for three weeks or so.  Before that, all the world was Syria and their chemical weapons.  Before that, I can’t recall.   Like most Americans, I have a short memory, even shorter than most as a member of the social security set.

English: Depiction of the House vote on H.R. 3...

English: Depiction of the House vote on H.R. 3590 (the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) on March 21, 2010, by congressional district. Click the map for a much larger image and details (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now all the world is the faltering Obamacare web site.   Of course, this is the world the Republicans want us to dwell in, while the Democrats wish to constantly refresh our memories about how obstructionist the Republicans were in regard to the extension of the budget and raising of the debt ceiling.

Meanwhile the Republican Civil War is steadily simmering en route to a boil, with many of that party angry at Ted Cruz and his Tea Party set for making Republicans look imbecilic to a majority of the rest of us with their non-plan to stop Obamacare.    Had that not been the case, they could have been focusing attention on the clownish internet roll out for weeks.

Oh, well, they are making up for lost time by holding congressional hearings to accentuate the disaster to the public mind, the “train wreck” that they “knew” to be Obamacare even before it was passed.   Well, of course, they didn’t know, and they still don’t know, nor does anyone know how this will play out overall.   ( I know, many individuals already have personal stories, seemingly more negative than positive, but the whole thing has barely begun to be rolled out.)

The Federal Debt Ceiling and Budget Extension Battle

After much struggle and gnashing of teeth, the government reopened what was closed and will remain “open” at least until January 15, when the appropriated money runs out.   Also, the debt ceiling either will need to be raised again Feb 7 or government default on federal debt payments will once again be in the offing.

In short, the political arm twisting accomplished little more than postpone the match for a few months so both sides can enjoy the holidays and rest up.    Well, there are two things that may be seen as accomplishments down the line.  One is the formation of a Senate/House committee to try to actually come up with joint budget recommendations by Dec 13.

Given the inability of the two parties to come to terms on budget issues for a few years now (except for the sequester which they forced upon themselves through inaction), it is hard to get too excited about the prospects, but the upcoming second point might help.

Point Two is what seems a clarification of the political hazards of using the threat of a government shutdown and/or a default on federal debt as bargaining chips in future negotiations.  According to most polls the Republican “brand” took a big hit through all of this because they are blamed more for causing it.  (Don’t you just love how everything has been turned into a brand these days, including each of us.)

While the Tea Party types say they will continue to use such tactics, the rest of the Republican party doesn’t look like it will fall in line next time out.

The Republican Civil War

Recently I heard that Liz Cheney called John McCain a “liberal” which among the right is like “sinner”  was used in the early days of Puritan America.   A little Googling of the issue will reveal that Republicans are deeply divided between those who think of Ted Cruz as a hero and those, like Representative Peter King of New York, who called him a “fraud.”   Of course, party leadership tries to paint this as healthy debate within the party, but when one side in a debate refuses to compromise, there is no room for resolution.  Hence, a civil war.

I never tire of pointing out the irony of the Tea Party folks always proudly defending the constitution as if it were dropped from the heavens on a tablet.  It is a remarkable piece of work but it came about through torturous compromises, the most profound being the toleration of slavery in the new republic.   “Compromise” was not a dirty word to the founders, but a necessity to establish a stable central government.

How the Republican split will play out by January is sheer guess work, but if the rift doesn’t heal (and i do not think it will), Republican moderates and Democrats may actually work together on some sort of fiscal compromise that lasts longer than a few weeks.

Obamacare

As indicated above, one reason many Republicans are angry at Ted Cruz and his posse is that in pushing for changes in Obamacare that weren’t going to happen and in turn making the party resemble the keystone cops of early film days while trying to somehow look sensible, attention was paid to their intra-party squabbles and not to the initial roll out of the Obamacare website, which turned out to be the Democrats’ own version of the Keystone cops.

Here is my take on Obamacare.   It has barely begun to be rolled out and it is not going away, so let’s just wait and see how it plays out.   When Republicans argue that it is a disaster and a majority of Americans agree, keep in mind that the right has called it a disaster from the beginning, even when it was little more than an elaborate idea.  Since most Americans, including me, know little about it, if they feel it is a disaster it is because the Republican message has been more effective than that of the Democrats.   A part of that success is because negative advertising is more effective than positive, which is why campaigns are largely made up of the former.

In man-in-the-street interviews, when asked if they prefer Obamacare to the Affordable Care Act, most people state the latter, while oblivious to the fact they are the same thing.  In terms of brands, Obamacare doesn’t look good right now.  But it is not going away anytime soon, so let’s see what happens between now and the mid-term elections in 2014.

If Obamacare really is the train wreck portrayed by the Republicans, they should come to dominate both houses of Congress, that is if they haven’t torn apart the party by then.

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Perhaps the Sequester Isn’t All Bad

What do former Vermont governor, full fledged liberal Howard Dean and the Tea Party have in common?   They both welcome the sequester.   The Tea Party because any cut in government spending is a good cut,  and Dean because while “tough on things that I care about a lot…  the fact of the matter is, you are not going to get another chance to cut the defense budget in the way that it needs to be cut.”

Certainly Dean’s opinion is not the common liberal view, which is more along the lines of the sky is falling, with the President publicizing details of various losses  and the pain and reduced safety they will cause (*1).  What makes this all murky is that much  of the money cut could be refunded or the cuts be delayed for years to come.

While Dean and the Tea Party make for strange bedfellows, the gathering looks odder still when some like minded military experts are included.  On Feb 22, retired Adm. Gary Roughead and some others with strong military credentials gathered for a discussion of military spending at the Brookings Institute Feb 22.   Not that they favor these across the board cuts, but as Roughead stated:  “the Defense Department could absorb the pending $500 billion sequester reduction in planned Pentagon spending over the next 10 years if it had ‘the latitude to rebalance its own spending.’ ”

English: Graph of the global military spending

English: Global military spending from several years ago, but relative comparison remains roughly the same. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Somewhere between 18 and 24% of our federal budget goes for military spending (depending on how a given chart breaks it down), so the idea that the sequester cuts will weaken our defense is mostly a matter of their heavy handed nature.   Of course, wiser cuts might be “politically incorrect”.   As Roughead noted, “It is a matter of public record, many times over, that the military infrastructure [bases, air fields etc.] exceeds need,” but Congress has balked at closing facilities.”  Apparently government waste is money spent in congressional districts other than ones’ own.

Another aspect is when talking about military spending, the underlying issue is what we expect our military to do, tied to what we see our role in the world to be.   I believe America does have a unique role as world leader, but to paraphrase Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), a former chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, it’s time to restore the idea that the United States would help countries, but those countries must help themselves.  As another panelist put it, we should be “a catalyst for common action”, implying an active but less dominant role than has been our American way over the past 70 years.

But could Congress come around to allowing the military to suggest the best cuts to make?   Hmm…  At least this forces the issue to some extent, and how it will play out could get interesting, as some Republicans oppose the military cuts while the Tea Party views them as a victory.

Since Defense, along with Social Security and Medicare make up about 60% of federal expenditures,  spending cuts take on the “guns vs. butter” dynamic, so the fundamental question is:  How much defense spending is really enough?  (*2).  As David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal has pointed out, our military expenditures are greater than  the next 17 nations combined, our navy is larger than the next 13 nations combined and we have 11 carrier strike groups while no other nation has more than one.   We replace a carrier with a new one every few years, and they costs about 11 billion each?   Could we get by with 10 or even nine? (*3).

So maybe letting the sequester happen will become  a good thing when it comes to military spending.   Now that the size of the cuts is no longer the  issue, but how they are to be made, the two parties might actually come to a sensible agreement.

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(*1)   It will be interesting to see the public reaction as the cuts unfold and the kind of impact it will have on altering them.   Here’s one  place to start, a story about a small Kansas airport planning to cut out its control tower.

(*2)  A problem of talking about cutting “defense”  spending is the word itself.    “Defense” raises the issue of safety.  How safe is safe enough?  I wonder if the debate would be of a different nature if we were talking about cuts in the War Department, as it was called  until the late 1940s.

(*3)  The Wessel facts come from either his book Red Ink or from a video I borrowed for a previous post.  Greg Mankiw, a highly regarded right leaning economist  has praised the book, so I believe the facts to be fairly presented.

An Alternative to Thinking About the Sequester

Happy Sequestration Day, or Eve as it begins at midnight, I think.   According to the Huff Post, there will be a White House meeting today between President Obama and top congressional leaders, including Republican House Speaker John Boehner.   I will be shocked….shocked I say….if it produces anything except more animosity, though it is hard to fill a jar that is already full.

For those who have forgotten, this whole sequester thing was the result of a series of discussions, primarily between the Obama team and the Boehner team back in mid-2011.  Discussions on a fiscal compromise that went nowhere, so in August of that year they came up with this gun-to-the-head scenario called the sequester.   Surely, the threat of across the board meat cleaver type cuts would make both sides come to some agreement.   Well, no.

It seems widely agreed upon that the key stumbling block is the Tea Party wing of the Republican House.  It has been said politics is the art of compromise.  They apparently didn’t get the memo.  They are thrilled that they can do nothing and still get some budget cuts.   It is not that they are so powerful as a block, maybe 30 or 40 of them in the House, but the well funded Tea Party threatens other members with campaigns against them in the next election.  It has come to be called “being primaried,” and to my mind a cancer in the Republican Party.

So, Boehner, who is actually a pretty flexible guy, is very limited in what he feels he can agree to in negotiations, especially if he wants to remain Speaker.  That’s not the whole problem, but it is a big part of it.

According to Bob Woodward, on July 6, 2011 the President and Speaker Boehner met while still trying to make a deal.  “But at the end of the meeting, despite their previous discussion about pressing staff to find an agreement, they remained far apart on the key issues of taxation and entitlement reform (the emphasis my own).

That split remains wide and intractable.  At this point, I agree with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd that both sides seem “willing to just let the sequester happen as long as they don’t get blamed for it.”

NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

Thank you Monty Python for the above intro.   I can only think so much about our congressional gridlock before getting brain cramps, so as a form of refreshment I suggest TED, which produces an ongoing series of great lectures, showing nearly infinite human potential, in contrast to that reflected in Congress.   Anyone familiar with Ken Robinson?   I wasn’t until recently, but now I know he is recognized internationally as an expert on the subject of creativity, something I’d love to see Congress show a bit of.

He is much more interesting than the sequester and funny, too,  as I think you will agree.  Do note, though, it is an 18 minute talk, so put some time aside or prepare to listen in nibbles (I know it’s a mixed metaphor.  I love to mix metaphors if you haven’t already noticed).

Why My State of the Union Message is Better

It is much shorter.

My Fellow Citizens,

The state of our union is so disunited that I am going to say little about it.

079 Capitol Hill United States Congress 1993

(Photo credit: David Holt London)

I like and respect our president, the latter largely colored by my sense that he has an impossible job, so I judge him less harshly than most.   When hearing him criticized I recall how President Lincoln was widely looked upon as an incompetent fool during most of his presidency.   Even his own cabinet took quite awhile to realize he had a lot more ability than “a well meaning baboon.”

Having said that, I am tired of hearing speeches by our current president.  I don’t have much audacity of hope left and need to see things happening rather than hear them talked about.  Tonight I can’t imagine him saying anything  momentous, and if I’m pleasantly surprised I’ll find out about it tomorrow.

For me it all boils down to what will happen in Congress over the next few months and whatever the President says tonight won’t affect that much one way or another.   According to Bloomberg News:    “The president will offer proposals for spending on infrastructure, clean energy and education, according to a senior official briefed on the speech. ….  He will also stress the agenda laid out in his inauguration address, pushing Congress for action on immigration, gun control, and climate change.”

It  all sounds good to me, but I want to see how it plays out, not hear more about it.   As indicated in my previous post, the across-the-board budget cuts (called the sequester) interests me more because they play out by March 2 (*1).  At least the next act of this ongoing tragicomedy does.   I am interested to see how that will be dealt with because sharp cuts in government spending can slow our economy as shown in the last quarter (*2).

Obama has said he would like the deadline to be pushed back again to the summer, so the two parties could work out a more comprehensive approach.  However, this strikes me as a ploy, for the Tea Party rump of Republicans seem willing to let the sequester go into effect and see what happens.  If it does, Obama will be seen as more reasonable and if the cuts do really make a negative impact on our economy, he can blame the Republicans.   For this reason I wouldn’t be surprised if John Boehner cooperates with the Democrats again and goes along with kicking the can down the road.  But if he does that, I wonder whether it will split the Republicans apart, or more apart than they already are.

That is what I want to see and believe it will be necessary for much of anything to get done in congress.   As long as the Tea Party folks have enough power to veto what they don’t like, which is anything that includes compromise, not a whole lot is going to be accomplished.

With that in mind, I cannot imagine that the President will say anything this evening to make me glad I tuned in, so I think I will watch college basketball instead in preparation for filling out brackets for one of my favorite sporting multi-events:  March Madness (the NCAA basketball tournament for the sports-challenged).  There will be plenty of analysis tomorrow in case I miss something noteworthy.

If I learn something interesting, I’ll write about it later this week.

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(*1)   When talking about across the board cuts in spending, we’re really talking about cuts to about one-third of the overall spending, the discretionary part as opposed to entitlement programs and interest on our debt itself, which automatically go into effect each year.   That’s why we often hear someone arguing that to really deal with our debt we must deal with entitlements.

(*2)   In that last quarter, a sharp drop off in military spending was the primary cut back and under the sequester it would be the primary one again because about 24% of our entire budget is spent on the military.  Or think of it as about two-thirds of that one third of the entire budget that is spent on discretionary spending.   Linked here is a pie chart of federal spending.

Kabuki Dancing on the Edge of the Fiscal “Clurb” (Cliff or Curb)

Although President Obama is meeting with Congressional leaders this afternoon, it looks like no fiscal deal will get done before 2013.  If some stop gap measure is passed, it will suggest that both sides have been working more closely beneath the surface than it has  seemed.  It’s called a Kubuki dance.

Katsuo-uri((dance of)fish seller(kabuki dance))

Katsuo-uri((dance of)fish seller(kabuki dance)) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The nature of Kubuki political dances is there is more agreed upon than what meets the eye, posturing being a fundamental part of the dance.  The problem is that the posturing can run out of time, just as it did in the car chicken run to the cliff in the movie Rebel Without a Cause referred to in a previous post.   One of the drivers jumped but the other had his jacket caught on the door and could not jump.

John Boehner’s jacket seems caught on a Tea Party door.  And he can’t free himself.  He seems living a life of quiet desparation.  Why else would he come up with what he called a Plan B solution, of allowing only the tax rates of millionaires (literally) to go up while maintaining the cuts for others?

He could not even get his own caucus to support it.   Surely, he must have realized the Tea Party types would reject the proposal which ignored their mantra of “no new taxes”  and did not even have spending cuts attached.  So, Plan B went nowhere and only adds to  puzzlement at the process.   Most observers seem to think Boehner just made a clumsy move and tripped.  Could he have been more clever than that in a way yet to be revealed?  Did he want to show conclusively how his hands are tied?

On the administration side, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner sent a letter to Congress Wednesday that the federal debt ceiling would be reached this Monday.   As if they didn’t know.  This intensifies the scary image of a steep cliff only days away, which may be an Obama move to put more pressure on Republicans to make a deal on the debt ceiling now, so as to avoid making it another issue in two months.

That’s when the true debt ceiling will be reached after  Geithner has run out of a series of emergency steps – sort of like check kiting – to allow the government to keep paying its bills.   Obama wants a debt ceiling deal NOW, so he can’t be held hostage by Tea Party naysayers in another two months.

Boehner may have his jacket caught in the car door, forced to fall over the Clurb, but Obama seems willing to jump, believing the landing will be softer for the Democrats.   Polls indicate the Republicans are being blamed more for the impasse.  Also, after income tax rates  have gone up the Democrats can press to reduce them for most Americans forcing the Republicans to either go along with their proposals or finding themselves in the awkward position of resisting tax cuts.

A pre-2013 deal does not seem likely, but one  reached in two or three weeks seems more so, and it shouldn’t do too much harm as provisions can be made retroactive to January 1.   Helping that along will be  more nerves wracked  and louder citizen clammer aimed at Congress.  Consumer confidence is already down to the level of last August and who knows when the stock market will lose confidence that anything will get done?  Oh, and there is the world economy, by the way, in which we still remain the lead actor even when we aren’t playing our part well.

If a deal does get done in the next couple of days, my guess is it would…..oh, I don’t know.  I’ll just wait and see and hope that Obama and Boehner turn out to be great Kabuki dancers, that the stumbles and apparent head knocking were mostly just steps to increase the relief most of us will feel when they actually do come together publicly and take a bow.

Can Barack and John Work Something Out?

Official photographic portrait of US President...

(Wikipedia)

In my previous post I gave  columnist David Brooks some credit for coming up with a vision (or fantasy) of the two parties actually working together to not only survive the fiscal bumpy slope, i. e. cliff,  but to actually begin to fix our entrenched fiscal problems.   For his efforts he has been made a pin cushion, mostly by critics on the left.

These critics, brimming with their belief in an Obama mandate, have shredded Brooks’ ideas for one reason or another.   Hey, it was only one column exploring the possibility of the Republicans coming to the table and saying something more than “no”.  Those on the left, retract your fangs, please!   When someone comes to you wishing to talk peace and carrying a white flag, you don’t shoot him.

Official portrait of United States House Speak...

(Wikipedia)

Generally speaking, the Republicans are in some disarray, trying to come to grips with their election losses,  while the Democrats feel they hold the high cards, so they are not inclined to give an inch to any Republican attempt to make peace.   Barack Obama has demonstrated that attitude knowing that if the Bush tax breaks expire, the Democrats will then be able to propose new legislation to bring back the tax cuts for those below $250,000 (or maybe a bit higher).  That would leave the Republicans in the awkward position of appearing to oppose tax cuts.  Also, polls suggest that Republicans will receive more of the blame for the consequences of not making some sort of deal.

The  amount of  money going in and out of Washington is not going to suddenly change  January 1, and the Obama team can soften the immediate effects of the so-called cliff, as mentioned in my previous post.   As such, the Democrats are feeling their oats, believing they can have their way with Republicans on this issue. The Obama team seems willing to head down a bumpy 2013 slope if the Republicans won’t deal.

Given the Tea Party’s ability in the past to throw a monkey wrench into most compromises between the parties, perhaps no deal can be made any time soon, but some interesting news broke yesterday in an article in the NY Times  “At House Speaker John A. Boehner’s request, Senate leaders and Representative Nancy Pelosi have been excluded from talks to avert a fiscal crisis, leaving it to Mr. Boehner and President Obama alone to find a deal, Congressional aides say.”

What’s that song?  Just the two of us….   Boehner’s request suggests to me that negotiating progress has been made behind the scenes AND that both gentlemen believe they have some negotiating room, i.e. that each can make some concessions and still sell the deal to their parties.   Supporting this line of thought was the appearance of numerous pundits of  liberal political opinion at the White House recently, such as many of the hosts at MSNBC.   I infer this to mean Obama was looking for support for some concessions.  Meanwhile  Tea Party types have complained that Boehner is asserting more control over them by removing some from key committee assignments, i. e. he has laid the groundwork for less interference by them.

Boehner hasn’t shown suicidal tendencies as far as I know, so in requesting this meeting, he must feel fairly confident they can come up with something he can live with, which means he can get passed in the House.

When the two meet, I’d love to be a fly on the wall.

Merry Christmas: A Fiscal Fantasy for You

Over the last few days both President Obama and House Speaker Boehner have made proposals for a compromise in the budget battle that made each other laugh.  And not in a good way.  The details aren’t worth mentioning because the proposals are not really serious, like first bids at an auction.

The two sides are so far a part that we seem inexorably headed over that fiscal cliff –  or fiscal curb and bumpy slope as envisioned in my previous post.  You can easily find cheerleader columnists from both sides urging their side to let it happen, that it will actually make the other side look worse if we dive or fall off that whatever.

Cover of "The Santa Clause (Widescreen Sp...

Cover via Amazon

In watching this “game” in upcoming weeks, a pivotal point to track is the stake in the ground stuck by the Obama team that any deal must include allowing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy to expire while leaving in place those cuts for most of us.   Obama has stressed this point and seems set to stick with it backed by his base and commonly polled stat of 60% or so of Americans being in favor.

However, the Republican members of their controlled House are more concerned with their base back home who put them in office.  Not raising taxes has been the lynchpin of Republican identity, with the Grover Norquist pledge not to do so, signed by most of them, being the stick to keep them in line.  The carrot being we the Tea Party, won’t try to defeat you at your next primary (or viewed as a stick, they will).

It is hard to imagine how those two seemingly intractable positions can come to some kind of agreement, but in a New York Times column this morning David Brooks, a moderate conservative, creatively comes up with one.

Brooks describes why he believes that President Obama has his fellow Republicans over a barrel and they “have to realize that they are going to cave on tax rates. The only question is what they get in return.”

Brooks goes on to describe his vision of how the two parties might work together in 2013, with the Republicans getting a lot in return.   It is not as hard to believe in as Santa Clause, but pretty close to a Grinch like me.   Still,  in our present political climate when every win by one side means a loss by the other, it does hold out a prospect of both parties – and most importantly the country – benefiting from working together.

Undoubtedly critics on the left and right are or will be ripping apart this suggestion by Brooks.   And, yes, it sounds too good to be true.  But being the holiday season and all, and the “cliff-curb-slope” still a few weeks away, we can all still hope.

Here’s the link to the editorial.