hardline political news and analysis

Month: April, 2013

Snap Out of It!

In a memorable scene in the 1987 film “Moonstruck,” Nicholas Cage and Cher (who is engaged to Cage’s brother) have a quick tryst which prompts Cage’s character to profess his love.  Cher delivers two well-placed smacks upside his head and tells him, “Snap out of it!”

In the current debate about gun violence legislation, it is the American people who are slapping themselves on the forehead and demanding that the Congress “snap out of it.” 

Members of Congress have numerous reasons for voting against legislation beyond the obvious one: they don’t support it.  In some cases, support means voting against the wishes of constituents, or offending base supporters and contributors.  Sometimes, but not very often, a vote can unleash powerful interest groups that will launch an effort to defeat an incumbent.   

That is where integrity and courage enter the equation.  Part of your job as a public official is to cast a tough vote, even when it might have implications for your longevity on Capitol Hill.  Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know: who believes Members of Congress are willing to put their careers on the line even for something really important, if it means an enraged constituency with a big bankroll?

Critics might be surprised.  I remember very well such acts of courage during the 103rd Congress, when I served as staff director of the Committee on Natural Resources under Chairman George Miller.   Among the Democrats on the Committee were the “Two Karens” – Karan English of Arizona and Karen Shepherd of Utah: both freshmen, both environmentalists, both in very difficult seats and facing tough re-election campaigns.  At one point, as we marked up a number of important but controversial public lands bills (always a subject of controversy in many Western states), the “Karens” were delivering regular “aye” votes.  I went down to their seats on the dais and whispered to them, “You can vote against a couple of these; it’s OK, we have the votes.”  They responded, “That’s not what I came here to do.” 

In the same Congress. Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky of Pennsylvania, another first termer, was ridiculed by Republicans as she courageously provided the key vote to pass the 1993 Reconciliation bill that set the stage for the economic boom and deficit reduction of the 1990s.  

In 2010, freshmen Tom Pierriello, John Boccieri and a number of other vulnerable freshmen Members defied angry (and largely misinformed) constituents and voted for the health care law.  (When an infuriated constituent warned Perriello that a vote for the bill would prompt the questioner to work to defeat the Virginia lawmaker, Perriello replied, “That is absolutely part of the democratic process and I encourage that. If the worst thing that happens to me is that I get to be part of the House for two years and part of the greatest democracy ever invented—I can live with that.”

True to their words, these legislators not only cast tough votes, knowing their careers were endangered by their decisions, but they didn’t complain about paying the price.  That’s what they came to Congress to do.

Which brings me to the subject of the pending gun legislation and the reluctance to vote for it by some who know it is needed and who personally support it.  I have personally heard of a wavering senator who confessed, “I support it, my state supports it, but I can’t vote for it.”

Good grief.  Voting for expanded background checks (let along restrictions on large size magazines or assault weapons, neither of which is going to happen) doesn’t exactly qualify you for a Profile in Courage award.   Actually, former Rep. Gabby Giffords just won that distinction, and well-deserved it is for an Arizonan who might seek political office in the future.  Unlike raising taxes or even the health law, modest tightening of gun laws is wildly popular.

Any number of recent polls have confirmed the overwhelming support for tighter background checks (as high as 92% in some polls).  Twice as many people believe aliens walk among us disguised as humans as oppose such reforms.  According to the CBS/New York Times poll, nearly 9 out of 10 Republicans and 96% of Democrats want universal background checks that are more stringent than those in the Manchin-Toomey compromise.  You don’t need to be half as courageous as Karan English or Tom Perriello to stiffen your back and vote for that proposal.

Yes, the Members I cited as exhibiting “courage” lost their seats in the next election.  And no one wants to lose a long-coveted seat over a bill that might get little or no attention from Speaker Boehner and the House Republican majority.  That’s where the “courage” part comes in – having the guts to stand with 80% of your constituents against the NRA leaders who partly say stupid things to protect gun rights, but mostly say them to pump up memberships.    

America was traumatized by Newtown, and by Columbine, and by Aurora.  No one can make sense of 20 little children gunned down in their classrooms.  But time passes, and as it does, the urgency of political actions seems to fade, while the determination of the NRA only grows.

But here is something to consider.  Since Newtown  — since Newtown – nearly 4,000 Americans have died in gun violence.  That is not a typo: 4,000.  That’s the equivalent of 9 fully loaded 747’s crashing, about two each month since December 14, 2012.  There have been over a million Americans killed by guns since John Lennon was murdered in 1980, a number which dwarfs those killed in all American wars throughout our history.  How hard would it be for Congress to stand up to the aviation industry and impose tougher controls on aircraft maintenance under those circumstances?

 Now some news reports I have seen are focusing in on the few Senate Democrats who are hesitant to commit themselves or are flat out opposed, people like Max Baucus, Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor.  Sure, the pressure must remain on these senators, who have pretensions of leadership, to demonstrate a little backbone.  But it is foolish, and inaccurate, to suggest, as have some, that this is a bipartisan problem.  It isn’t.  When 80+ percent of Senate Democrats support tougher restrictions, and more than an equivalent number of Senate Republicans oppose them, it doesn’t take a math wizard to correctly identify where the problem lies.   Democrats cannot be held equally culpable because they cannot produce 100% of the votes needed to pass legislation, while nearly all Republicans vote “no.”

As the Senate begins voting on gun legislation and the House Republicans continue to ignore the issue, we need to remember that not very long ago, courage was a recognizable quality among many in Congress.  For those who remain on the fence despite overwhelming public support and maybe even their own convictions, or because they fear a tough campaign commercial  a year and a half from now (or more), remember Cher’s admonition: “Snap out of it!”  Your country needs you.


Chained CPI: Time for a Grown-Up Conversation

The budget that President Obama will send to Capitol Hill later this week has only the slimmest relevance to the actual spending plan for the next year.  The House and Senate have their own budget resolutions, which will never be reconciled and wouldn’t be sent to the President if they were.  The appropriations process and, likely, sequestration, will govern spending for Fiscal 2014.


The Obama budget appears to be the latest example of the ever-hopeful President who is determined to include congressional Republicans in an  elusive “grand bargain” to reduce long-term budget deficits.  As with many Obama initiatives, Hill denizens and other observers are again wondering about the President’s strategic game plan in light of past Republican obstinance.


As with the 2009 stimulus bill, the health care bill, the 2011 debt ceiling debacle and numerous other unhappy experiences, the White House seems still to hold out hopes that Republicans will engage in sincere, bipartisan negotiations. Once again, the Obama budget leads with its chin, offering up an enormous concession to demonstrate the Administration’s sincerity to Republicans while immediately infuriating Democratic allies: chained CPI.


The President has made little secret of his willingness to reconsider the inflation rate by which entitlement and tax policies are determined, the exhaustively discussed “chained CPI.”  During the ill-fated July 2011 Obama-Boehner debt ceiling summit, chained CPI was put in play by the White House but proved insufficient to entice the revenue-phobic Republican Speaker into finalizing an eminently achievable deal that would have cut long term deficit projections by $4 trillion. 


Now, in the midst of dinner diplomacy with Hill Republicans, the President will again formally serve up chained CPI, this time evidently without having secured any Republican concession or even a commitment to join him at the table.  Many seasoned Hill veterans predict the President will be left at the altar once again, while Republicans gleefully force floor votes on chained CPI, reminding Members that “the Administration has already agreed to it.”


Whether due to naiveté (a little hard to believe), a genuine belief that Republicans can overcome their reflexive dislike of him (ditto), or a scheme to document GOP inflexibility (hardly necessary), Obama is trying yet again to make inroads with hostile congressional Republicans. Press spokesman Jay Carney referred to “the potential members of the common-sense [Republican] caucus” in describing the President’s outreach, but many on the Hill doubt any such Caucus exists or is likely to emerge around tax and deficit issues.  Instead, Democratic strategists are wary that the President has again put a major give on the table prematurely, and they fear he may agree to minor Republicans concessions s to secure a bipartisan agreement.


Congressional Republicans rejected the President’s major concession even before the budget arrived.  The chained CPI plan, snorted a key Republican staff, was “more disingenuous posturing … [that] doesn’t address the core structural problems.”  President Obama’s effort to find a budgetary lifeboat into which everyone could clamber was dismissed as “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”  Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell prefers more sweeping reforms, like raising the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare benefits.  Try that one out at a town hall meeting and see if it generates Public Option-like hysteria.


Many Democrats have much the same reaction to chained CPI.   Already, 107 House Democrats have signed letters ruling out cuts in Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid benefits as part of a deficit deal, which of course means there is no chance of their supporting any deal that could conceivably be fashioned.  Similarly, more than half the Democrats in the Senate, including Leader Harry Reid, sent a letter to their colleagues pledging their vote against Social Security cuts “for current or future beneficiaries.”  If President Obama has a plan for passing chained CPI notwithstanding Sen. Reid’s stated opposition, it must be an extraordinary strategy.


Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (full disclosure: my former employer) has long taken a more tempered response to chained CPI, if it were designed in a way to reduce the impact on the poor.  That openness puts the former Speaker in a very different position from some in  her Caucus and leadership, not to mention Reid and many progressive groups that are threatening war with any Democrats who support chained CPI.  But Pelosi has always offered to put “everything on the table” for discussion in budget talks.  

Chained CPI does deserve a serious look, especially were its impacts on lower income Americans mitigated and were it extended to cover tax policy affecting upper income taxpayers.  It is one thing to propose policies, as do House Republicans, that undercut the essential nature of programs like Social Security or Medicare – policies like George W. Bush’s privatization proposal for Social Security, or Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s voucher plan for Medicare, or general Republican ideas to slash Medicaid spending.  Traditional supporters of these key programs, which have so dramatically reduced poverty among seniors and improved health care for hundreds of millions of Americans, are right to rule out unproven Republican alternatives.   

But to defend as sacrosanct an outdated inflation formula has a somewhat less noble ring to it.  True, chained CPI would slightly reduce benefits (although, as noted, that impact on the poor can and should be mitigated).  But is it truly pragmatic to oppose the adjustment if the current version reflects an inaccurate methodology for assessing inflation?  Is that standing up for these vital programs, or defending a costly benefit computation notwithstanding development of a more accurate calculation, and despite serious impacts on essential programs that follow the failure to find a budget deal?


Small changes to the CPI calculation yield truly sizeable savings that, combined with other common sense initiatives, should be in a deficit package (raising the Social Security earnings cap, for example).  These savings could neutralize the need for additional painful sequestration cuts.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, applying chained CPI to Social Security would save over $127 billion in the next decade.  If the same formula were applied to tax policy, another $124 billion would be saved.  That’s a quarter trillion dollars from a mathematical recalculation that, in truth, would barely be noticed by most beneficiaries, especially since benefits would continue to rise, albeit at a slightly slower rate. 


OK, yes, seniors would have to give a bit.  Is that worth it to reduce pressure to cut Head Start, or education, or student loans, or services for special needs kids?  Or other programs that serve seniors, for that matter?  More directly, if no changes are to be made in entitlements, then Republicans are never going to agree on tax changes, and that means no budget/deficit deal and perhaps a decade of sequestration, which achieves savings by cutting the domestic programs that progressives are committed to preserving. 


What could be compromised in agreeing to chained CPI would be the Democratic high ground, the ability to assert (as Democrats have so effectively done) that they alone stand as the last barricade against Republican plans to destroy Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  Democrats certainly remember it was W’s ill-conceived privatization plan that fueled their momentum in 2005-2006 for regaining control of the House.  But Democrats have all the ammunition they will ever need to prove decisively that Republicans are gunning to end these sacrosanct programs, not  “reform” them.  And chained CPI does not “destroy” these programs. 


The real question is whether there is sufficient interest in a comprehensive budget deficit deal to turn off sequestration and address long term deficits in a balanced way.  If there is, and that is very much an open question, then chained CPI is one of the more reasonable and defensible entitlement changes that could facilitate a grand bargain together with additional revenues and cautious cuts in discretionary spending, which already has sacrificed the most in the running budget battle.

 April 8, 2013