Wednesday, March 04, 2020

A Long, Vulnerable Record

Tweeter makes a good, albeit sarcastic, point:

In the same vein, I would say "come on- it's not only Mitch McConnell."  We know it won't be only the GOP Senate leader because, as Jacobin's Branko Marcetic wrote last April

In journalist Bob Woodward's 2012 book The Price of Politics, he portrays Biden during Obama’s first term eager to sacrifice Social Security and Medicare for the sake of bipartisan compromise and achieving what would be, in the eyes of Washington, a political victory.

Biden first displayed his friendliness to GOP entitlement hawks when he appointed former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson to co-chair  the president's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility, created in February 2010 via executive order. Simpson was one of Congress's most high-profile foes of entitlements and a proponent of Social Security privatization. In Woodward's telling, Biden even had to lightly pressure a somewhat reluctant Simpson to take the role.

Sure enough, the Simpson-Bowles Commission, as it came to be known, recommended cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, leading liberal economist Paul Krugman to label the commission “terrible.” Failing to secure enough votes from the commission to recommend the plan to Congress, the proposals were never taken up.

But Biden took a far more direct role in undermining Social Security and Medicare when he headed tax policy negotiations with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in December 2010. In Woodward's telling, Biden's eagerness to cut a deal with the Republicans sometimes elicited outrage from his fellow Democrats, who felt he was giving too much away.

An Obama priority was to end the Bush tax cuts on top earners. Woodard reports that, to achieve this, Biden's team at one point considered dropping the poorest citizens—anyone who didn’t pay income taxes—from the Obama stimulus payments of $400 a year. Economist Gene Sperling, then a counselor to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, strongly objected, calling the idea “immoral.” At Sperling’s urging, Biden’s team instead proposed a holiday for payroll taxes, which are used to fund Social Security and Medicare.

The final deal extended the Bush tax cuts, cut payroll taxes by $112 billion and met a host of other Republican demands: a lower estate tax with a higher exemption, new tax write-offs for businesses, and a maximum 15 percent capital gains tax rate locked in for two years. In return, unemployment insurance was extended for 13 months and the Opportunity Tax Credit for two years.

House Democrats were furious at both the estate tax provision and the Bush tax cut extension, partly because, according to Woodward, Biden had failed to mention the extension was on the table when he briefed Democratic leaders during the talks. Even conservative Democrats like House Whip Steny Hoyer had strongly opposed the extension, and the deal drew consternation from across the party. Dianne Feinstein balked at its size, and Bernie Sanders and two other senators interrupted Biden's presentation of the package. Sanders later vowed to “do everything I can to defeat this proposal,” including filibuster it. However, enough Democrats eventually capitulated, with some grumbling, for the deal to pass, overcoming an eight-hour filibuster by Sanders.

Biden subsequently led the debt negotiations with then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Sen. Jon Kyl and other Republicans. Biden's “opening bid” was cutting $4 trillion in spending over ten years, with a 3 to 1 proportion of cuts to revenue. Biden later proposed $2 trillion in cuts to general spending, federal retirement funds, Medicare and Medicaid, and, at Cantor's urging, food stamps.

At one point, Biden suddenly called for $200 billion more in cuts that had never been discussed, which, according to Woodward, led then-Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen—also involved in the negotiations—to believe Biden had gone over to the Cantor-Kyl side. Biden again crossed Van Hollen when he offered to take revenue-raising out of the “trigger”—a combination of revenue raising and spending cuts meant to be equally unpalatable to both parties, which would automatically kick in if a deal failed to be reached.

Later in the negotiations, Biden dangled the possibility of Medicare cuts in return for more revenue—meaning higher taxes. Soon after, he suggested Democrats might be comfortable raising the eligibility age for entitlements, imposing means testing and changing the consumer price index calculation, known as CPI. (Means testing is often seen a Trojan horse for chipping away at these programs, because their universality is one of the reasons they've remained virtually untouchable for almost a century. It’s also been criticized for imposing an unnecessary and discouraging layer of bureaucracy.)

At one point, Biden reportedly called the Medicare provider tax a “scam.” “For a moment, Biden sounded like a Republican,” Woodward notes. Biden’s team was forced to remind him that such a move would force states to cut services to the poor, to which he replied, “We're going to do lots of hard things,” and so “we might as well do this.”

As Woodward writes, “this was a huge deal” for Cantor (“Biden had caved”), and showed the administration had adopted the Republican view on the matter of the Medicare provider tax. Despite this giveaway, the Republicans continued their stubborn opposition to any revenue increases in the proposed deal.

The negotiations were ultimately scuttled by Cantor, after Biden inadvertently revealed to him that then-Speaker of the House John Boehner was secretly holding his own “grand bargain” talks with Obama. But the Biden portrayed in Woodward's book continued this pattern of bending over backwards to achieve the Republicans' cooperation in subsequent negotiations.

Senator Sanders may not know the entire record as well as does Marcetic, who goes into additional detail, but he has a pretty good idea:

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