Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Race Hustler And GE

There will be criticism, from the left, the far right, or simply from Americans who believe that with unemployment over 9%, a deal to raise the debt ceiling should not be fashioned to be a job-killer. But from whatever corner is expressed disappointment over a Democratic President encouraging the unraveling of the New Deal, it won't come from the guy holding down the 6:00 p.m. (Eastern) hour on MSNBC.

Until recently, that was the Young Turks' Cenk Uygur, who held the curious notion that Presidents should not be immune from criticism, even from the sole 24-hour cable news channel not partial to Barack Obama. Uygur fell victim to the corporate masters at the network, once owned by General Electric and now by Comcast, but with a substantial minority ownership still held by GE. He was replaced by Al Sharpton, who was the subject of a 60 Minutes profile (transcript here; video here, hopefully) on May 29, 2011, in which Lesley Stahl noted he is "now a trusted White House adviser who has become the president's go-to black leader campaigning around the country for President Obama and his agenda." Stahl added "the administration is rewarding him with access and assignments, like making him a spokesman for their education policy and sending him on the road with Newt Gingrich, of all people, to build support for hiring better teachers. " Moreover,

Sharpton told us that having a black president is a challenge: if he finds fault with Mr. Obama, he'd be aiding those who want to destroy him. So he has decided not to criticize the president about anything - even about black unemployment, which is twice the national rate.

Glenn Greenwald (who has found Sharpton "a constructive political voice") rhetorically but pointedly asks

How can a media outlet such as MSNBC that purports to be presenting political journalism possibly employ someone as a journalist -- even an opinion journalist -- who publicly and categorically pledges never to criticize the President of the United States under any circumstances? That would be like hiring a physician who vows never to treat any diseases, or employing an auto mechanic who pledges never to fix any cars, or retaining a pollster who swears never to make any findings about public opinion. Holding people in political power accountable is the prime function -- the defining feature -- of a journalist, including a pundit; if you expressly and publicly vow never to do that, how can you possibly be credibly presented as being one? And how can the political analysis of someone who takes this pledge possibly be trusted as sincerely held, let alone accurate? Note that this vow was not from three years ago; it was from two months ago.

Why would MSNBC violate orthodox journalistic standards? Perhaps because Barack Obama appointed GE chairman Jeffrey Immelt as chairman of the President's Council on Jobs and Effectiveness. Or perhaps it's only a coincidence. In either case, the President's modus operandi is clear. Only one individual could have realistically challenged his re-nomination in 2012 and was appointed Secretary of State. An attractive, moderate, respected western governor who was interested in the GOP nomination to run against Obama in 2012 was appointed ambassador to mainland China. That is a liability almost impossible to overcome in a Repub primary, as Jon Huntsman will find out.

Long-time investigative reporter Wayne Barrett of The Daily Beast, identified in the 60 Minutes piece as having "written about Sharpton for more than 20 years," remarked

I think he has been a hustler all of his career.... I think he's in the civil rights business, I don't think he's a civil rights leader. I think he's in the business. He has an organization called the National Action Network; nobody knows what has happens to all that money.

It's disturbing that General Electric avoids income taxes, its chairman is appointed to a potentially influential position, and MSNBC hires an Obama acolyte to hold forth for an hour nightly.

Additionally, however, as the Immelt/Murdoch truce over the petty Olbermann/O'Reilly feud suggested, the pro-Administration MSNBC and previously pro-Administration Fox News may have more in common than it appears. The sacking of Uygur and his replacement with Sharpton prompts Greenwald to observe

Of course, never criticizing the President was the overarching credo of Fox News during the Bush years, but that's one of the features that made it so pernicious; besides, not even Fox took a public pledge never to do so.


The Deal Emerges, Probably

At 10:39 p.m. Saturday night, ABC's Jonathan Karl reported the" key elements" which, "according to Democratic and Republican sources," comprise a debt ceiling agreement worked out, as best as can be determined, among President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

-A debt ceiling increase of up to $2.1 to $2.4 trillion (depending on the size of the spending cuts agreed to in the final deal).

-They have now agreed to spending cuts of roughly $1.2 trillion over 10 years.

-The formation of a special Congressional committee to recommend further deficit reduction of up to $1.6 trillion (whatever it takes to add up to the total of the debt ceiling increase). This deficit reduction could take the form of spending cuts, tax increases or both.

-The special committee must make recommendations by late November (before Congress' Thanksgiving recess).

-If Congress does not approve those cuts by December 23, automatic across-the-board cuts go into effect, including cuts to Defense and Medicare. This "trigger" is designed to force action on the deficit reduction committee's recommendations by making the alternative painful to both Democrats and Republicans. (Karl believes that the Medicare cuts would be smaller than defense cuts and would be reduction in payments to providers, not to beneficiaries.)

-A vote, in both the House and Senate, on a balanced budget amendment.

Major Garrett of the National Journal has heard something similar but adds "no net new tax revenue would be part of the special committee's deliberations."

Assuming the reporting by Karl and Garrett is correct, there are still several questions left unanswered, details which may or may not become clear as the Senate vote, scheduled for 1:00 p.m. Sunday, takes place. Obviously, the mix of spending cuts is critical, as is whether the balanced budget amendment is the atrocious one approved this week in the House or less dangerous version(s) advocated by varied Democrats over the years.

Whether Congress by 12/23/11 would have to approve all the recommended cuts or perhaps only a majority of them presumably would be clarified, as would what constitutes a committee recommendation. Recall that the President's Executive Order establishing a fiscal commission required approval of 14 of 18 members before Congress would consider its recommendations. It failed to receive such a consensus and released a report nonetheless, which most of the committee's supporters since have pretended is an official, bona fide, decisive report.

"God is in the details," as the old bromide has it. Unfortunately, it is true also that "the devil is in the details." After months of controversy and with the President having at least three other options available to continue borrowing authority, Barack Obama finally may have a deal of some sort. If approved by Congress, a deal would be a betrayal of Democratic principles, require Congress and the President to cede some of its authority to a commission, and hasten the return of recession, but delight the White House.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

No Disaster Necessary

On Friday night, Lawrence O'Donnell continued to explain how the debt ceiling controversy is being benevolently stage-managed by President Barack Obama for the benefit of a nation which eventually will be grateful. He opened by commenting

The House of Representatives has now passed a Tea Party fantasy that will never become law once again leaving the job of working out a realistic compromise to the United States Senate.

Two hours earlier, it was Luke Son of Tim Russert and MSNBC host Al Sharpton agreeing on the futility of passing a bill including a balanced budget amendment which they understand never will become law, Congress not having adopted complete disregard for the American economy. Russert commented

But look, all of this is really for naught, Reverend Al, because this is going to go to the Senate. It`s going to be tabled by Harry Reid. And the question then becomes, what can Harry Reid work on with Senate Republicans as a compromise that`s acceptable to them that they can get out of the Senate and then come back over here to the House, where it`s ultimately going to pass with a combination of Republican and Democratic votes?

Sharpton then responded, apparently as to House Speaker Boehner, "Well, a lot of it, you`re right, is all theatrics."

A fantasy, perhaps, though not one without effect. And hardly "all theatrics." Brian Beutler reports that Talking Points Memo has been given a copy of the most recent proposal by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, in which he

hopes to entice Republicans to support his plan in two ways. First, with slightly deeper cuts. Second, by adopting an idea, first proposed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, that would delegate the authority to raise the debt limit to President Obama -- and give Congress the prerogative to attempt to block Obama from taking that action.

It does not include any penalties or triggers to force Congress to enact entitlement and tax reforms in the coming months.

The new cuts aren't very extensive. They bring the package's total deficit reduction up to $2.4 trillion -- but only when judged against a slightly outdated January baseline. Judged against the current baseline, the revised plan would still reduce the deficit by $2.2 trillion....

Late update: At a late Friday press conference, Reid suggested that the door is still open to further tweak his proposal, including by adding fai lsafes to assure future entitlement and tax reforms -- but it's up to Republicans to offer up their votes.

Given the Abolish The Government fervor of the House GOP and the Cut The Heart Out of Government Programs of President Obama, Reid has his work cut out for him and can hardly be blamed for trying to hold the line while reaching a settlement. But he has compromised further from his previous proposal- and has done so following defeat of a dangerous proposal from the House Republican leader and passage in the House of an even more dangerous proposal. The goalposts have been moved again, this time by, as O'Donnell characterized the tea party senators," the work of the children in his party, the political Peter Pans who still, with the United States of America careening towards default on its obligations, refuse to grow up."

Fashioning a new debt limit bill in response to the success of the far right of the far right Party should not be necessary. Yale constitutional law professor Jack M. Balkin identifies two alternatives- aside from the oft-discussed 14th Amendment- which would prevent congressional Republicans from emasculating Obama:

A little-known statute gives the secretary of the Treasury the authority to issue platinum coins in any denomination. So some commentators have suggested that the Treasury create two $1 trillion coins, deposit them in its account in the Federal Reserve and write checks on the proceeds.

The government can also raise money through sales: For example, it could sell the Federal Reserve an option to purchase government property for $2 trillion. The Fed would then credit the proceeds to the government's checking account. Once Congress lifts the debt ceiling, the president could buy back the option for a dollar, or the option could simply expire in 90 days. And there are probably other ways that the Fed could achieve a similar result, by analogy to its actions during the 2008 financial crisis, when it made huge loans and purchases to bail out the financial sector.

As Balkin notes, there are sound reasons that the Administration has not floated the possibility of employing either of the two latter options. But presidential press secretary Jay Carney has contended "only Congress has the legal authority to extend that borrowing authority. That's our position," and the President himself has suggested that he would not go 14th Amendment.

Evidently, all is moot if agreement if Congress gives the Executive borrowing authority before August 2. But appearances are deceiving. President Obama's apparent reluctance to signal willingness to take unilateral, decisive action if necessary has signaled to his opponents that everything they want, including his party's principles, can be had for a price. This is no way to run a presidency, or a great nation.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Are They Really So Happy With The Constitution?

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," reads the First Amendment of the United States Constitution the right pretends to revere.

Just an annoying clause, according to director Joshua DuBois of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. The Denver Post reports

The White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships said working with religious leaders in their hometowns enables the administration to better support the critical work of feeding and housing people, ensuring health care, creating economic opportunities, promoting education and strengthening families.

Gov. John Hickenlooper said in the keynote address that people questioned Denver's recruitment of congregations to help the city end homelessness — an initiative he undertook as mayor.

The law says government can't favor one religion over another, Hickenlooper said — it doesn't say you cannot get involved with religious communities.

"Communities of faith have been a big part of our search for social justice from the beginning," Hickenlooper said.

In continuing a faith-based initiative of President George W. Bush, President Barack Obama said faith-based groups are not a substitute for secular nonprofits and government efforts, but America "needs all hands on deck."

"If your focus is first and foremost serving people in need, then there's not a tremendous amount of time left to debate the finer points of the church- state relationship," said program director Joshua Dubois.

Except this is the Constitution we're talking about- its Bill of Rights. And to this fellow Dubois, we can ignore "the finer points of the church-state relationship."

Not, however, if you're a supporter of the U.S. Constitution, which appears to leave a lot of Republicans out. Now that the Boehner far-right House debt proposal has gone down in the House, the Speaker has decided to appease his colleagues elected with tea party support by resurrecting the balanced budget amendment. Among the numerous deficiencies of the latter are, as David Gans, director of human rights, civil rights and citizenship program at the Constitutional Accountability Center, notes

The first powers that Congress gets in the Constitution are lay and collect taxes and pay the debts.... and second is borrow money on the credit of the United States. I think that cuts sharply against the idea that the Balanced Budget Amendment is something that we should sort of write into stone so it's not fixable..... If there's some sort of emergency we're sort of hamstrung.

It's easy to embrace the Constitution rhetorically, as Tea Party members have been fond of doing, when you love it as you wish it were. But to cherish the document suggests that you might actually like it largely as it is, not wish it were dramatically transformed, as it would be by addition of this one proposed amendment.

The GOP and the President (with congressional Democrats dragged along), daring a sharp downturn in the economy, eventually will resolve the debt ceiling conflict with a disastrous cut in spending, presumably in the $1 trillion-$3 trillion range. If those obsessed with wrapping themselves in the Constitution were sincere, that Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, chiseling away at the Establishment clause of the First Amendment, would be a good place to start.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Rick Warren Can't Get It Straight

At first thought: Rick Warren should stay out of politics. At second thought: Rick Warren should stay in politics.

After President Obama's televised statement Monday night detailing his efforts to end the debt ceiling crisis, Reverend Rick Warren of Saddleback Church tweeted

HALF of America pays NO taxes. ZERO. So they're happy for tax rates to be raised on the other half that DOES.

Criticism from individuals who know better immediately followed. Blogger Karoli characterized it as "odious" and quoted Matthew 25:31-46, prompting Warren to delete the post from his twitter feed, then respond "Karoli You are 100% right! It did sound mean."

Salon's Joan Walsh sent this Twitter message

Hi @RickWarren many hard working but low-paid Americans don't pay taxes, thanks to a George H.W. Bush era charitable move to bolster income

I assume @RickWarren won't be giving the invocation in 2013. He lacks a preferential option for the poor. Very sad.

Class warfare against the poor. Is that what Jesus would do?

Warren responded to such criticism by sending two Twitter messages, the first to the general public, the second privately to Walsh:

Never engage those who insult you online. They're just looking for a fight, not clarity."Fools have no interest in understanding; they only want to air their own opinions" Prov18:2

I take zero salary & we feed over 2000 familes a wk. But thank u Joan for the opportunity to pray God blesses your life greatly

When Walsh wrote her post outlining her exchange(s) with Reverend Warren, he responded in the letters section with the following explanation, which Walsh reprinted:

Thank you Joan - from Rick Warren

I never respond to insults but Joan's article is accurate & fair (except for the headline), so here's my view. I try to give anyone who tweets or speaks publicly a 10% "grace factor" because we all inevitably makes dumb statements, given enough words. I use up my 10% allowance by noon daily. I removed the tweet as soon as I saw how dumb & mean it sounded. What I should have said was that I honestly don't believe our nation can tax its way out of bankruptcy. There simply aren’t enough taxpayers. The unemployed CANT pay taxes, and right now 11% of our church is out of work. Saddleback is not a rich white church- we are multicultural & speak 67 languages. My view is that a better solution to increasing revenue is to focus instead on incentivizing JOB CREATION which will spur both consumer spending AND tax revenue. Finally, it is arrogant nonsense to insist (as many hate-filled responses tweeted) that only those who support larger government love the poor. That’s absurd. I'm a small-govt Independent (neither Dem nor Rep), yet I've given my life to helping the poor & sick in 164 countries. I drive a 12 yr old Ford & wear a $15 watch from Wal-Mart so Kay & I can give 91% of our income to help others. If you need a reason to hate me, attack my pro-life position, or my belief that Jesus is the only Way to salvation. But to accuse me of siding with the rich & wealth, being a GOP shill, or not caring about the poor, the sick, & those needing education, is nonsense. My life, ministry, and philanthropy for 30 years is a public record of caring “for the least of these.” THAT is why both Bush & Obama had me pray at Inaugural events.

Perhaps a well-thought out letter should not be criticized when it is preceded by an ignorant original post,a self-righteous post to the public, and a patronizing private tweet to a prominent Salon blogger. Warren would have better served his cause and himself if he had resisted the Twitter impulse and instead found a forum to post a letter explaining his opinion about taxation and patting himself on the back ("I'm a small-govt Independent (neither Dem nor Rep), yet I've given my life to helping the poor & sick in 164 countries. I drive a 12 yr old Ford & wear a $15 watch from Wal-Mart so Kay & I can give 91% of our income to help others.") It would have been a little like Nixon going to China, with Warren emphasizing that he has the personal and moral standing to advocate a conservative economic policy.

But criticize I will, because I want to. The revulsion over some Americans of limited means not paying federal income taxes is impeccably conservative- and has been thoroughly debunked, including here and here. Additionally, after an orgy of self-promotion, Warren pleads that he not be attacked personallyf or for his political stance, but on the issues of personal salvation- and abortion. He then refers to opposition to abortion two sentences- two sentences!- after claiming to be "a small-govt Independent (neither Dem nor Rep)."

Reverend Warren probably is a registered Independent- it could be easily refuted otherwise. But opposition to reproductive freedom does not qualify anyone- even a clergyman- as a supporter of small-government. He might have said, perhaps accurately, that he is a small-government supporter except when it "regards human life," but that is far less pithy than to describe oneself neatly as "a small-govt Independent."

But then, if claiming inaccurately to be a supporter of small government is borderline dishonest, there is nothing borderline about implying, by arguing the U.S. government cannot "tax its way out of bankruptcy," that the federal government is bankrupt.

The federal government is not bankrupt, though it is a GOP talking point to claim bankruptcy or insolvency of whatever the party doesn't like, including Social Security or the federal government itself. But of course, Warren is not a GOP shill.

Really, Rick? Warren, in Walsh's term at the time, "sandbagged" Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential debate at Saddleback Church. He lied about McCain being in a "cone of silence" while his opponent was being interviewed, opened a line of abortion questioning partial to Republican McCain, then later compared "an evangelical Christian voting for a pro-choice politician to a Jew voting for a Holocaust denier."

Independent or not, the guy gives a pretty good imitation of a "GOP shill." That does not mean, however, that Warren should eschew politics, by which he has done well. He undermined Barack Obama during the campaign, then gets invited to speak at the man's inauguration. Given this President's way of doing business, if Reverend Warren continues to criticize liberal economic policies, he may one day become Secretary of Treasury Warren.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Last Option

With the days dwindling down to a precious few to August 2 and the default (more likely, an economic calamity) that might ensue if the debt ceiling isn't raised, attention can be turned again to the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution. Article 4 reads

The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any state shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

A few scholars, including law professors Eric A. Posner and Adrian Vermeule, believe the President of the United States unilaterally can raise the debt ceiling without invoking the Amendment because he "would derive authority from his paramount duty to ward off serious threats to the constitutional and economic system." Further, The New York Times Adam Liptak notes, the Amendment may refer only to Congress or to outright default on existing debts, improbable given the likelihood that the Treasury Department would pay bondholders first if the ceiling isn't raised.

Nevertheless, the 14th Amendment argument probably is stronger and using it (with a complete explanation to the public) to prevent an outcome desired by the hard right would be quite delicious, given obsessive references to the Constitution by Tea Party acolytes. And the Administration's position likely would prevail, Harvard law professor Lawrence H. Tribe contending "This is not a circumstance in which the courts have any plausible point of entry” and Yale law professor Jack M. Balkin "This is largely a political question. It is unlikely courts would decide these questions.”

More bluntly, Bill Clinton maintained that were he president now, he would invoke the 14th Amendment "without hesitation and force the Courts to stop me."

Liptak (a lawyer and Times Supreme Court correspondent), though, characterizes the Article as "quite vague" and was "meant to ensure the payment of Union debts after the Civil War and to disavow Confederate ones." He writes "The Supreme Court has said in passing that those words have outlived the historical moment that gave rise to them."

That settles it. We must ALWAYS give meaning to a constitutional amendment in light of the historical context "that gave rise to" it. Take, for instance, the Second Amendment, which reads

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

In case Mahmoud Ahmadinejad develops that nuclear weapon he dreams of with the necessary delivery system, and drops it on Chicago, Illinois, be reassured that the Illinois National Guard stands ready to retaliate. Or if a catastrophic terrorist attack were launched on, say, New York City, that well-regulated militia would be the last line of defense for American citizens. And be sent out to hunt down Osama binLaden.

Unless they were extremely psychic, the Constitution's framers, cognizant of attacks from Creek Indians, the threat from Redcoats, and the need of individual homeowners to kill their own food, never envisioned a future in which urban neighborhoods have become virtual battlefields (or even, probably, of urban neighborhoods). Yet there are people, from all appearances sane and sober, who believe that the Second Amendment pertains to everyone, drug addicts, gang members, and the mentally ill among them (and especially Mexican gang members employed full-time in the drug war along the Texas border). Sadly, across the political spectrum, Bill Clinton on the sort-of center/left, some liberals, and the mainstream media (among which it's an article of faith), there is an assumption that- aside from reasonable restrictions- American citizens are guaranteed by the Second Amendment to bear arms.

The idea that the Second Amendment applies to modern society is nonsense. But it is commonly held nonsense, in contrast to the strong possibility that Article 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment applies well beyond the Civil War. So, Mr. President, if you can't get an agreement by August 2, follow the advice of Clinton 42 and demonstrate leadership. Challenge the House to impeach you (not likely) and the Senate to remove you from office (a near impossibility). Or dare Congress to file suit and the Supreme Court to stop you.

Surely You Jest

"There is something rich," Dana Milbank wrote late last night, "about the president of the United States and the speaker of the House pretending that they are somehow not part of Washington. If these two aren’t Washington, what is? The International Spy Museum? Ben’s Chili Bowl? Wolf Blitzer?"

Milbank was referring to the statement (that of Obama and Boehner, here) a little earlier in the evening when the President asked "But do you know what people are fed up with most of all?" and answered

They’re fed up with a town where compromise has become a dirty word. They work all day long, many of them scraping by, just to put food on the table. And when these Americans come home at night, bone-tired, and turn on the news, all they see is the same partisan three-ring circus here in Washington. They see leaders who can’t seem to come together and do what it takes to make life just a little bit better for ordinary Americans. They are offended by that. And they should be.

Blaming Washington for the failure of two Washington politicians is not only "rich," it ought to be a warning to all those on the left who will be asked to remain on the Obama team because, if only the Change We Can Believe In is re-elected, he will be free to enact a progressive agenda. Keep telling the American people that "Washington" (whatever that means) is the problem, they won't be too amenable to the dynamic change necessary to restore vitality to the middle class.

Further foreshadowing a shackled- or actively conservative- presidency during a second term, Obama continued "The American people may have voted for divided government but...."

Get it? We're not in charge and our values, principles, and policies need not prevail because, having fought the GOP to a draw in Congress and controlling the (more powerful) Executive Branch, it really is an equally divided government. It is Obama's notion that the government isdivided. A Democratic President and a Republican Congress. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi- and especially those darn liberals she leads- need not apply.

The President, trying to identify with average voters and re-establish his outsider image, argues "all they see is the same partisan three-ring circus here in Washington. They see leaders who can’t seem to come together and do what it takes to make life just a little bit better for ordinary Americans." The Speaker of the House, who has been working overtime looking out for wealthy Americans and even wealthier corporations, is even worse, claiming in his rebuttal "I was amazed at how different Washington DC operated than every business in America" when he arrived from Ohio, neglecting to mention that he came to Sodom-Inside-The-Beltway a mere 21 years ago.

President Obama, recognizing that Boehner will not respond to common sense, a sense of decency, or a sense of shared sacrifice, took the conflict to the American people, asking rhetorically

Most Americans, regardless of political party, don’t understand how we can ask a senior citizen to pay more for her Medicare before we ask corporate jet owners and oil companies to give up tax breaks that other companies don’t get. How can we ask a student to pay more for college before we ask hedge fund managers to stop paying taxes at a lower rate than their secretaries? How can we slash funding for education and clean energy before we ask people like me to give up tax breaks we don’t need and didn’t ask for?

Obama's response: "That’s not right. It’s not fair." Unfortunately, "fair," as the fictional John Becker once said, "is a place where hogs compete for ribbons."

Monday, July 25, 2011

Small Government In Action, Again

Over the past few months of wrangling over the debt ceiling, "shared sacrifice" became one of the most appealing mantras, repeated across the political spectrum. On the left, there is Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in early July stating "I’m trying to rally public opinion and put pressure on the White House to say that the American people want shared sacrifice." Ten days later, it's the center-right President, advocating cuts in domestic discretionary programs, defense, Medicare, and elimination of a few tax loopholes, declaring "Simply put, it will take a balanced approach, shared sacrifice, and a willingness to make unpopular choices on all our parts."

The cliche has reached the statehouses, including in Pennsylvania, where the low-key hard right governor, Tom Corbett, having slashed state jobs and education and given a free pass to natural gas drillers, intones "everyone needs to share in the sacrifice."'

Then there is trend-setter Oklahoma Senator and Gang of Six member Tom Coburn, who back in December stated "The only way we get out of the hole we are in is if we make shared sacrifices." On Meet The Press (transcript of segment here) yesterday, he conceded "waste in tax credits" but still recommended we" lower the rates because our biggest problem isn't that taxes are too low, it's that the government interference and the oppressive nature of our government on our economy is lessening the economy's response. " "The problem," Coburn claimed, " is that we're spending way too much money, and, and it's not hard to cut it without hurting entitlement benefits."

The Oklahoma Republican recommended also cutting entitlements and added "it's that the government interference and the oppressive nature of our government on our economy is lessening the economy's response." The "oppressive nature of our government," conspicuously (and still) absent while Wall Street was running wild and wrecking the economy, is playing little role in harming the economy's response, unless Senator Coburn is referring to the two million or so jobs created by the stimulus.

Coburn, who voted to extend the USA Patriot Act but otherwise finds government "oppressive," understandably did not mention

Many states hit hardest by this week's searing heat wave have drastically cut or entirely eliminated programs that help poor people pay their electric bills, forcing thousands to go without air conditioning when they need it most.

Oklahoma ran out of money in just three days. Illinois cut its program to focus on offering heating money for the winter ahead. And Indiana isn't taking any new applicants. When weighed against education and other budget needs, cooling assistance has been among the first items cut, and advocates for the poor say that could make this heat wave even more dangerous.

"I've never seen it this bad," said Timothy Bruer, executive of Energy Services Inc., which administers the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program in 14 Wisconsin counties. The group has turned away about 80 percent of applicants seeking cooling assistance.

The sizzling summer heat comes after a bitterly cold, snowy winter in many places and at a time when unemployment remains stubbornly high.

The cuts began after Congress eliminated millions of dollars in potential aid, forcing state lawmakers to scale back energy assistance programs. The agencies that distribute the money are worried that the situation could get even worse next year because the White House is considering cutting the program in half.

The Oklahoman might have been concerned that Oklahomans are suffering through record-breaking heat and the state's worst drought in decades coupled with limited government. Perhaps that is the "shared suffering" its senator advocated last December, exacerbated by conservative politicians exorcised by "shared suffering" and titillated by budget cuts.

Extreme weather occurrences such as heat and drought, however, need not be noticed. But when the northern hemisphere- remarkably- experiences a snowstorm this winter, some politicians, pundits, and talk-show hosts will triumphantly declare the foolishness of the concept of global warming.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Negotiating For The Other Side

Jonathan Cohn of The New Republic has been talking to Administration officials, who told him of the changes to entitlements President Obama had agreed to prior to Speaker Boehner breaking off the recession promotion debt reduction talks. These, as well as more fluid elements, he explains below:

Medicare: Raising the eligibility age, imposing higher premiums for upper income beneficiaries, changing the cost-sharing structure, and shifting Medigap insurance in ways that would likely reduce first-dollar coverage. This was to generate about $250 billion in ten-year savings. This was virtually identical to what Boehner offered.

Medicaid: Significant reductions in the federal contribution along with changes in taxes on providers, resulting in lower spending that would likely curb eligibility or benefits. This was to yield about $110 billion in savings. Boehner had sought more: About $140 billion. But that’s the kind of gap ongoing negotiation could close.

Social Security: Changing the formula for calculating cost-of-living increases in order to reduce future payouts. The idea was to close the long-term solvency gap by one-third, although it likely would have taken more than just this one reform to produce enough savings for that.

Discretionary spending: A cut in discretionary spending equal to $1.2 trillion over ten years, some of them coming in fiscal year 2012. The remaining differences here, over the timing of such cuts, were tiny.

The two sides had also agreed upon a basic structure for the deal. The agreement was to specify the discretionary cuts and implement them right away. But the entitlement cuts and new revenue were to be in the form of instructions to Congress, leaving it committees and eventually each chamber to write the legislative language and enact the changes. To make sure Congress followed through, the agreement was to include a failsafe: If Congress failed to enact the changes and produce the necessary deficit reduction, then automatic reductions to Medicare and Medicaid as well as automatic tax increases (mainly, expiration of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy) were to take effect.

Cohn notes that the revenue-enhancing proposal of Boehner and that of Obama "were far more tilted towards the Republican position, of seeking to balance the budget primarily if not wholly through spending cuts."

But not only for that reason. The two men agreed to raise revenue, in Cohn's words, "by closing loopholes, broadening the base, and lowering rates overall. " Details are sketchy but in Republican-world, "broadening the base" and "lowering rates overall" means there are too many people in the working class and the middle class who are paying no income tax while the wealthy are paying an excessive rate. ( While increasing revenue to people living in the real world (Democrats) means increasing taxes and/or eliminating deductions, many Republicans maintain, implausibly, that it means lowering tax rates or maintaining those same deductions for "job producers," the lords of the universe). If the partisan roles had reversed, it would be "as if George W. Bush had offered to tax evangelical churches and ban private ownership of handguns in exchange for Democrats agreeing to raise the cap on Social Security." Not likely Bush, who did not negotiate like Barack Obama, would have done so.

Cohn was impressed because, following his televised remarks Friday,the President "described himself as a 'Democratic president'" when he stated "I think this whole episode has indicated the degree to which at least a Democratic President has been willing to make some tough compromises.... A lot of Democrats stepped up in ways that were not advantageous politically. So we’ve shown ourselves willing to do the tough stuff on an issue that Republicans ran on."

Sorry, no. Mr. Obama did not refer to himself as representing the values of a Democratic president, fighting for the middle class while helping raise the standard of living of the poor and maintaining the safety net for children and the elderly. He cynically used his affiliation with the Democratic Party to illustrate that Democrats, too, can cut off the poor and the elderly and disregard a 9.2% unemployment rate. I sold out my constituency- so can't you guys be a little bit reasonable?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Closer, Probably

There is more good news than bad, or at least more significant good news than bad. Talking Points Memo reports that, unfortunately,

An urgent Saturday morning White House debt talks meeting between President Obama and Congressional leaders ended after less than an hour, a sign that both sides likely still remain in a stand-off.

But the President laid down a marker, somewhat, in his remarks (text, here) last night when he noted

Last point I’ll make here. I mean, I’ve gone out of my way to say that both parties have to make compromises. I think this whole episode has indicated the degree to which at least a Democratic President has been willing to make some tough compromises. So when you guys go out there and write your stories, this is not a situation where somehow this was the usual food fight between Democrats and Republicans. A lot of Democrats stepped up in ways that were not advantageous politically. So we’ve shown ourselves willing to do the tough stuff on an issue that Republicans ran on.

Although the President- inaccurately- characterized beltway differences of opinion as the "usual food fight," he did at least assert that this is not a "he said, she said" situation. One side, he noted, has "stepped up in ways that were not advantageous politically" while "we've shown ourselves willing to do the tough stuff on an issue that Republicans ran on."

Admittedly, it's a little late to start making this argument. The debt limit has been raised 89 times since 1939- all with clean bills and the current GOP leadership on Capitol Hill has voted 19 times to raise the debt limit. Saint Ronald himself once asserted

Congress consistently brings the government to the edge of default before facing its responsibility,” Reagan says in the clip. “This brinkmanship threatens the holders of government bonds and those who rely on Social Security and veterans benefits. Interest rates would skyrocket, instability would occur in financial markets, and the federal deficit would soar. The United States has a special responsibility to itself and the world to meet its obligations.”

Obama's comments were not dramatic or very powerful, but they did constitute what passes for healthy partisanship from this president: we're trying to prevent the destruction of the nation's, and perhaps the world's economy, and they're not. Even if our team is trying to do it by giving the other side almost everything they could have dreamt of.

But a more important factor is coming into play. Grover Norquist (the Americans for Tax Reform in the Americans for Tax Reform), who this past week explained that letting the Bush-era tax cuts expire would not constitute a tax hike, would constitute a tax hike, and might constitute a tax hike, apparently has been listening to his organization's corporate sponsors. Their identities remain, as permissible under law, a secret but Joe Conason, who recently interviewed Norquist, reports

Unlike the Tea Party Republicans, but much like his supporters in the business community, he is troubled by the potential consequences of an impending and unprecedented default. As Norquist told The National Memo today in an interview:

“I am not an advocate or adherent of the position I have heard some state, that a default would be ‘not a big deal’ or ‘would strengthen the hand of those arguing for limited government.’ I worry that handing the executive branch control over what bills to pay is not a wise move....even when they would have less cash to spend.”

Norquist went on to say that “a ‘shutdown’ or ‘default’ or ‘wobbly walk around the rim of default’ would be, as my mother would say, ‘unhelpful.’ How unhelpful? I don’t know, [and I’m] not real interested in finding out. Let’s experiment on a smaller country.”

Consistent with their campaign rhetoric, those "Tea Party Republicans" have firmly and virulently held firm against anything which approximates a tax increase. If they vacillate, equivocate, or show any sign of self-doubt (practically a capital offense in GOP politics, anyway), they may find themselves going the way of Bob Bennett. And that is in large measure because of Grover Norquist.

It's a sad, sad state of affairs that the economic viability of the United States may depend on pressure applied by the business community upon the political party it owns. But when the situation is this dire, it's better than the alternative.

No Question, Really

On the House side, former Congressional Black Caucus chairman Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland was growing weary. He lamented

It would concern me greatly if these folks — the tea party group — have been able to convince the president to go along with a deal that basically gives them everything they want but yet still takes away from those who are our most vulnerable.

This is barely coherent- undermining the most vulnerable is not collateral damage to "the tea party group"; it is a prime objective. And "these folks" are not convincing the President to "go along" with this slap to the poor and the elderly. The Senate's Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, offered a deal without those reductions but Obama just couldn't find it within him to accept it.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, met with White House budget director Jacob J. Lew, prompting The Washington Post to report

For the first time in weeks of debt negotiations that have focused on rifts within the Republican Party, Thursday brought forward long-simmering tensions between Obama and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill.

With more concerns than details, Democrats lashed out, saying that deep cuts to federal agency budgets and entitlements were too steep a price to pay. They questioned whether Obama shared their core values, and they sought reassurance — at a hastily arranged evening meeting at the White House that lasted nearly two hours — that the final legislative package would be the balanced approach that the president had promised.

This in turn moved Firedoglake's Blue Texan to note wryly

Let’s pause for a second. Democratic legislators are publicly questioning the President’s core values. That seems like a rather bad development.

Good point, although there is really no longer much question about President Obama's core values. These were clarified by Frank Rich as he described the President's acquiescense to Wall Street and observed

For all the lurid fantasies of the birthers, the dirty secret of Obama’s background is that the values of Harvard, not of Kenya or Indonesia or Bill Ayers, have most colored his governing style. He falls hard for the best and the brightest white guys.

Small Government In Action

In August of 2009, welfare queen Michele Bachmann, otherwise an ardent critic of gay unions and reproductive choice, contended "that's why people need to continue to go to the town halls, continue to melt the phone lines of their liberal members of Congress, and let them know, under no circumstances will I give the government control over my body and my health care decisions."

In March 2010, then-House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, also exorcised over extending health care to more Americans, derided "government takeover of the entire economy." In this speech to the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, he more broadly declared
The core identity of the country is now at stake. We don’t want or need socialist democracy. All of us who agree on fundamental principles of freedom, limited government, personal responsibility and government accountability must band together. We have to reapply ourselves to the struggle for freedom and the things that come with it.

Last December, in the midst of the controversy over extending the Bush-era tax cuts, a prominent gay rights group issued a press release to emphasize its opposition to big government, maintaining "Log Cabin Republicans stand for individual liberty and limited government."

The rhetorical contrast of limited government vs. the big, bad government sounds so appealing that it is dredged up on every issue. But an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer inadvertently demonstrates how the principle of low taxes and limited government is working in the real world:

Seven judges. Five thousand cases. New filings heaped onto their crowded dockets every day.

Digging into the backlog of pending cases in federal immigration courts in Pennsylvania is like using a spoon to empty an ocean.

New Jersey, with nine immigration judges and 9,100 cases, is similarly swamped.

Despite the nationwide hiring of more than 40 additional judges in the past year, the number of deportation cases, asylum claims, and green-card fraud prosecutions in America's 59 immigration courts is at an all-time high: 275,000, and climbing....

"Immigration courts are underfunded, and the judges are under terrible pressure. There are waves crashing down on them," said Bala Cynwyd immigration lawyer John Vandenberg.

There is money for "night vision goggles for border patrols," said Temple University law professor Jaya Ramji-Nogales, coauthor of the book Refugee Roulette, but "next to nothing to fix the problems of the courts."

Nationally, the backlog grew 2.8 percent in the first four months of 2011 and is 48 percent higher than it was three years ago, according to a June study by a Syracuse University research group.

One factor contributing to the growth is "Secure Communities," a new program in which communities share arrest data with federal immigration agents. The result: more prosecutions.

Another is the tougher rule on reentry to America for immigrants caught here illegally. Now, instead of going home and eventually trying again for a green card, "illegal presence" in the United States is penalized by a decade's wait. That makes immigrants "fight like hell" in court, rather than depart voluntarily, Vandenberg said.

The Syracuse study, by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, found that immigration cases take longer than ever to complete - an average of 525 days in Pennsylvania, 395 days in New Jersey, 482 nationally.

Fortunately- perhaps- many of those individuals don't have to wait in jail for over a year to have their cases heard. Inquirer reporter Michael Matz noted

Approximately 40 percent of the defendants are in jail, awaiting hearings in an overwhelmed system. The rest are free on bail. Free on bail and free to roam the country which many of those individuals have entered illegally and in which many others are remaining illegally.

People who will eventually be exonerated waiting over a year in jail and others on the loose. Such is the wages of limited government.


The husband-wife (or, rather, wife-husband) duo of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and Martha-Ann Alito nee Bomgardner flew an upside do...