New legislation providing a patch to Medicare physician payments also includes a one-year delay of scheduled Medicaid cuts to hospitals serving low-income patients. That’s especially good news for hospitals in states that haven't expanded Medicaid.
Just for starters the broad purpose of the "doc fix" legislation is to avoid a sharp drop-off in Medicare payments scheduled for March 31. Provisions of the House bill could still change, but this bill was the product of House and Senate negotiations. Speaker John Boehner said the House will vote on it tomorrow and that the Senate will take it up quickly after that.
If Debbie Dingell succeeds her husband John in Michigan's 12th Congressional district - as seems likely - it will mark a slightly odd milestone: She'll be the first woman to take over her husband's seat while her husband is still alive.
Plenty of women have inherited their husband's seats before - 47 to be exact, 8 in the Senate and 39 in the House. But according to Debbie Walsh of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, in all those instances the woman took over the seat after her husband had passed away. The mechanics are slightly different for the House and Senate - empty House seats are filled via a special election, while Senate seats are typically filled via appointment. "Widow's succession" or the "widow's mandate" is the technical term for when an empty seat is filled by the spouse of the deceased legislator.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey released Wednesday asked 1,000 U.S. adults about what would make them more or less likely to vote for a congressional candidate. “Compromise” overwhelmingly topped the list, with 86 percent saying that they’d be more likely to vote for a candidate who “will work with members of the other party and compromise to get things done.”
When President Obama took office in 2009 at the height of the recession, the annual budget deficit came in at 10.1 percent of gross domestic product -- a level not seen since the end of World War II. In the five years since, the budget deficit has been sliced more than half. New figures in Obama's just-released budget put it at only 3.7 percent of GDP in 2014. Explore 60 years of deficits - and the occasional surplus - in the interactive chart below. As the chart shows, the recent reduction of the deficit has come primarily due to spending cuts instead of revenue increases. Spending has shrunk 4.1 percentage points from 2009 to today, while revenue has grown only 2.2 percentage points in the same period. To put it another way, there have been nearly $2 in spending cuts for every $1 in revenue increases. On the surface, it would appear that Republicans won the budget wars. But you wouldn't get that impression listening to the rhetoric coming from some quarters of the Republican base after the recent debt-ceiling fights.
Just because Congress isn't passing much legislation doesn't mean members of Congress aren't writing many bills. But as Lee Drutman and Alexander Furnas show, only the barest sliver of the bills introduced in Congress pass one chamber — and only a fraction of those ever become law.
"Members of Congress had no shortage of ideas for bills they wanted to become law, especially on the subjects of health, national security, public lands, taxation, government operations and education," Drutman and Furnas write. Those subject areas "accounted for roughly half of all bill introductions." Interestingly, about 40 percent of the bill introduced into Congress had bipartisan (as measured by 10 percent or more of the legislation's co-sponsors coming from the other party).
On Tuesday, the Senate failed to muster up the votes to pass an extension of unemployment insurance. Some 1.3 million workers lost their jobless benefits on Dec. 28 when an emergency program to help the unemployed expired.
Two different bills came up for a vote. The first would have extended unemployment benefits for 11 months and paid for it by extending the existing 2 percent cuts to Medicare health providers another year, to 2024. The second would extended unemployment benefits for three months at a cost of $6.4 billion.
The Senate gets back in session on Monday, and the House gets back on Tuesday. So, what, exactly, is Congress going to be doing in 2014? Here's a short list of what's on the front burner:
1) Avoid a government shutdown.
Yes, that's right. If the House and Senate don't pass a big spending bill before Jan. 15, we get another government shutdown. It's not very likely, but it is a possibility.
On Tuesday, I joined Thomas Roberts and ex-Sen. Judd Gregg on MSNBC to talk about the Ryan-Murray budget deal. Gregg made an argument that's become common in Washington. The deal, he said, showed there was a path forward in which the two parties could compromise and work together. It was a place to start, not a place to end.
Since 1990, the NBC/WSJ poll has occasionally asked Americans whether the current Congress is "one of the best, above average, average, below average, or one of the worst?" Perhaps unsurprisingly a majority of Americans -- a new record -- thinks the current Congress is one of the worst ever:
Only three percent of Americans think this Congress is "one of the best" or even "above average." One percent don't know. That means solidly 96 percent of Americans think this Congress is at or below average.
The latest budget deal struck between Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan was, in the end, a compromise between Senate Democrats and House Republicans. But which side got more of what they wanted? There are a couple of ways to look at this.
At first glance, the deal looks like an even compromise. First, we can compare opening bids. Senate Democrats wanted $1.058 trillion in discretionary spending* for 2014. House Republicans wanted $967 billion. The final deal will set spending at $1.012 trillion next year. That sounds like a straight-down-the-middle compromise....
It's budget time again: Lawmakers from the House and Senate are trying to nail down an agreement to keep the government funded before they leave for the holidays on Dec. 13. And, while nothing's final just yet, a deal to avert another shutdown may be in reach.
At the moment, Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray are discussing a proposal to boost discretionary spending modestly in the next two years, by providing government agencies with partial relief from the automatic sequestration budget cuts.
It's one of the cruel paradoxes of the government shutdown: The politicians who are most responsible for the chaos will still get paid. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of federal workers either get sent home or see their paychecks delayed.
So why do members of the House and Senate still draw salaries during the shutdown while many of their staffers and other federal employees don't? Blame the law. And the Constitution. And Congress for not changing the law.
After spending the past few months trying to figure out a way around passing a funding bill that defunded Obamacare, House Speaker John Boehner spent the morning passing a funding bill that defunded Obamacare.
"You know, we had a victory today for the American people," he said with a straight face. "And frankly, we also had a victory for common sense. Listen, Senator Baucus said it right several months ago when he said that this law is a ‘train wreck.’ And it is a train wreck."
On Wednesday, National Review quoted Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) complaining about his salary. He reportedly noted that congressional staffers could become lobbyists and "make $500,000 a year. Meanwhile I’m stuck here making $172,000 a year." (Gingrey says he doesn't remember making the comment.)
The statement generated predictable mockery. To state the obvious: $172,000 is more than three times the median household income in the United States. No one should feel sorry for members of Congress who "only" make that sizable sum.
President Obama was right to go to Congress. That’s true even if Congress deals the administration a stunning defeat and votes against authorizing strikes on Syria.
In fact, it’s especially true if Congress votes against authorizing strikes on Syria.
The White House’s decision to ask Congress for permission to strike Syria is being covered as a political story. If Congress backs the resolution, then that’s a “win” for Obama. If they rebuff the administration, that’s a loss -- and it makes Obama look like a lame duck.
It's a snippet from a PowerPoint presentation to incoming freshmen by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee that the Huffington Post got its hands on, and that caused lots of handwringing around Washington.
And it is, indeed, a bummer: It implies that members of Congress should be spending the biggest chunk of their day fundraising ("call time" = fundraising, and "strategic outreach" can also = fundraising).
It's that time of year again. Congress is preparing for its summer recess. They'll leave town Friday and they won't be back till Sept. 9. Between now and then, the rest of Washington will occupy itself by whining about Congress going on another of its endless vacations.
The problem here is vocabulary. Congress's "recess" isn't like the recess you enjoyed as a kid. No one plays kickball. There aren't juice boxes. (Well, there might be some juice boxes.) When Congress goes on recess, they're still working. It's just a different kind of work. The kind people tend to say they want Congress doing more of.
Earlier this year, the House Judiciary Committee launched a "comprehensive review" of copyright law. Today, the Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet is having a hearing on the role of copyright in innovation. But the line-up is looking a little one-sided.
Innovators are almost entirely absent from the list. The witnesses include the executive directors of the Copyright Alliance and the American Society of Media Photographers, and the general counsel of Getty Images. These groups represent established copyright interests that are likely to resist any serious reforms to copyright law. Slightly more innovative: the co-founder of an independent music record and distribution company, and the president of Stereo D, a company that produces 3-D versions of 2-D films. Completely absent: representatives from the information technology industry, whose innovations have transformed the market for copyrighted works over the last two decades, and who have repeatedly argued that overly-broad copyright law has stifled innovation.
A growing number of technology startups are being threatened with lawsuits over broad patents they allegedly, and inadvertently, infringed. The founders of three small startups came to Washington this week and spent Wednesday lobbying members of Congress to change the patent system.
"This is the single worst thing to happen to me since I started the company," says one of the CEOs, the founder of a five-person e-commerce startup that was targeted by a firm he calls a patent troll. He is so concerned about retaliation from that firm that he asked that his name not be used for this story.
The Senate has been bickering all day over how to confirm President Obama's nominees for various executive-branch positions. And it's worth taking a step back and asking: Why are there so many jobs that require Senate confirmation, anyway?
Let's start with the raw numbers: There are somewhere around 1,200 to 1,400 positions in the executive branch that require Senate confirmation, according to an estimate by the Congressional Research Service. That means several hundred nominees have to get scrutinized by the Senate each year.
"Asymmetric polarization" is the term political scientists use when one party becomes way more radical than the other. Most recently, it's the term Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein have used for the Republican Party becoming way more radical than the Democratic Party.
Political scientists tend to back up their case with graphs like this one, which use standard poli-sci measures of polarization that rely on long-term analysis of coalitions and you've stopped listening, haven't you?
Remember this chart about the contents of the House farm bill?
As you can see, the farm bill isn't purely a "farm" bill. About 80 percent of the bill actually goes toward food stamps for the poor and other nutritional programs — a long-standing arrangement that explains why the farm bill has historically gotten plenty of votes from politicians in both rural farm districts and urban areas.
Welcome to Wonkbook, Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas's morning policy news primer. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism, or ideas to Wonkbook at Gmail dot com. To read more by Ezra and his team, go to Wonkblog.
Six months into its term, there's little evidence that the 113th Congress will be the worst Congress ever. But they might be the laziest.
The two big stories of the day are really one story: They're what happens when Congress fails.
The Supreme Court didn't declare the Voting Rights Act unconstitutional. It didn't even declare section 5 of the Voting Rights Act -- which is the section that gives the federal government special powers to oversee state elections -- unconstitutional. The court just told Congress it needs to come up with a new way of deciding which states get the extra scrutiny and which don't.
One of the National Security Agency's key talking points since the PRISM program was revealed two weeks ago has been that its surveillance activities are subject to oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. In his latest scoop, the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald has revealed two of the documents the government submits to the court prior to engaging in surveillance under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Sorry, guys (and yeah, Congress is mostly made up of guys):
Polling about the overwhelming unpopularity of Congress is sometimes batted away with a knowing remark about how the public has been losing faith in most all institutions over the past 30 or 40 years. And there's something to that. But it's also worth being clear that Congress is much, much more unpopular than any institution Gallup has seen fit to poll:
President Obama was in San Jose on Friday to talk about the Affordable Care Act. But he took the opportunity to try to calm the furor over new revelations that his administration is presiding over unprecedented surveillance of telephone and digital communications.
"These programs were originally authorized by Congress," President Obama said. "They have been repeatedly authorized by Congress. Bipartisan majorities have approved them. Congress is continually briefed on how these are conducted. There are a whole range of safeguards involved. And federal judges are overseeing the entire program throughout."
Earlier this week, the Senate immigration bill passed the Judiciary Committee easily, by a 13-5 vote, with three Republican supporters. And odds are looking good on the Senate floor. If Democrats stay unified in favor of the bill (a big if), and if those three Republicans and the two members of the Gang of Eight who are not on the committee back it on the floor, that's 60 votes in favor, enough to break a filibuster. Supporters are hoping to have more like 70 yes votes, a surprising possibility.
Robert Kaiser on Dodd-Frank: 'This example of Congress working also illuminated why it works so rarely.'
Almost three years ago, the Dodd-Frank Act was enacted, a sweeping piece of legislation aimed at overhauling regulation of the financial system. And now our colleague Robert G. Kaiser is out with a book reporting the inside story of how the law came to be. Kaiser's "Act of Congress: How America's Essential Institution Works, and How it Doesn't" uses the long battle over Dodd-Frank--and the unique access to Christopher Dodd, Barney Frank, and their staffs that he was afforded--to show how 21st century legislating really works. Here, Kaiser, an associate editor and senior correspondent for the Post, explains what he found.
Wondering why Congress doesn't pass more environmental legislation? The poor economy probably has a lot to do with it. A new study finds that U.S. senators are far less likely to take green votes when the unemployment rate in their state is high.
That's plausible enough. Recent research by Matthew Kahn and Matthew Kotchen found that public support for action on climate change tends to drop when unemployment rises. If people are worried about losing their jobs, it's a lot harder to focus on how high the oceans will rise decades from now.
That the U.S. Congress contains more than its fair share of millionaires is fairly well known. But I've never seen it put quite this vividly:
If millionaires were a political party, that party would make up less than 10% of the country, but it would have a filibuster-proof super-majority in the Senate, a majority in the House, a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court, and a man in the White House. If the Millionaires' Party ever gets its act together, watch out.
"Listen," House Speaker John Boehner said Thursday, "it was never a rule to begin with."
Boehner was talking about the so-called "Hastert rule," which says, roughly, that the speaker of the House shall not consider any legislation that does not command support from a majority of his own party. The result is that lots of legislation that could get a majority in the House never comes to a vote because it couldn't get a majority of the House Republican Conference.
As part of the grand compromise that created the United States of America, the Senate overrepresents small states and underrepresents big states. That's common knowledge. What's less well-known is that the malapportionment of the Senate is much worse today than it was at the time of the nation's founding.
Advocates for victims of domestic violence were overjoyed to see the House pass the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act on Thursday. Just a few days ago, they were convinced that it would be months until the expanded version of VAWA would have a chance of passing both houses of Congress, as House Republicans were standing firm against new provisions expanding protections for Native-American, immigrant, and LGBT victims.
This post spoils a medium-sized plot point midway though the Netflix drama, "House of Cards." If you don't want the spoiler, stop reading. You've been warned.
A key moment in "House of Cards" comes when House Majority Whip Frank Underwood pulls off a very complicated — and very quick — coup that involves Underwood threatening to unite the Congressional Black Caucus and a handful of House Republicans to vote for a new speaker of the House.
The death knell for the Violence Against Women Act has been sounding for weeks. "The 112th Congress ended Thursday, and the Violence Against Women Act perished with it," Talking Points Memo wrote in early January.
In reality, the protections for victims under VAWA haven't completely gone away, but they are being threatened by ongoing legislative gridlock that the new Congress is now trying to overcome.
The debt-ceiling bill that House Republicans are expected to pass Wednesday is the first bill I've seen that's being officially sold with a hashtag: #nobudgetnopay. That refers to the provision meant to force Senate Democrats to pass a budget by withholding their pay if they don't.
But exciting as it is to see Twitter-speak invade the august halls of Congress, #nobudgetnopay is not actually an accurate description of the bill. It's more #nobudgetdelayedpay.
A funny thing happened in the House of Representatives the other night: The Hastert rule was broken. Again.
The Hastert rule isn't an official rule of the House. It refers to former speaker Dennis Hastert's practice of bringing bills to the floor only if a majority of the Republican Party -- his party -- supported them. It means a bill that has 125 Democrats' support but only 100 Republicans' support never comes to the floor, even though it would pass easily if it did.
The Huffington Post secured this slide from a PowerPoint presentation to incoming freshmen by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The slide supposedly lays out the optimum schedule for a new member of Congress. It's depressing:
"Call time" is not time spent calling your family, or think tank experts, or ordinary constituents. It's time spent calling donors. Strategic outreach is, of course, also time you can spend with donors, and if your constituent visits include constituents who are donors, then all the better!
Poli-Sci Perspective is a weekly Wonkblog feature in which Georgetown University's Dan Hopkins and George Washington University's Danny Hayes and John Sides offer an empirical perspective on the issues dominating Washington. In this edition, Sides looks at the evidence on whether public anger at Congress will come back to bite House Republicans. For past posts in the series, head here.
House Speaker John Boehner is taking a lot of heat for the fact that 151 House Republicans voted against the fiscal cliff deal while a mere 85 Republicans voted for it. That means he brought a deal to the floor that two-thirds of his members hated! It means he broke the Hastert rule, in which the speaker of the House brings bills to the floor only when a majority of his party's members support it!
Poli-Sci Perspective is a weekly Wonkblog feature in which Georgetown University's Dan Hopkins and George Washington University's Danny Hayes and John Sides offer an empirical perspective on the issues dominating Washington. In this edition, Hopkins looks at research showing which words best predict the passage -- or failure -- of legislation.
Arguments over the filibuster tend to devolve into relatively esoteric debates about minority rights and majority rule. But let's ground this conversation in real-world consequences: In the absence of the filibuster, what laws would have passed the Senate that didn't?
In order to limit the size of the search, we begin the clock with the 111th Congress, which began in January 2009. We're looking for bills that got more than 50 votes in the Senate but that didn't make it to the president's desk. In most cases, bills that failed due to a filibuster in the 111th Congress had already passed the House, so they would be law today. In the 112th Congress, the Republican House was less aligned with the Democratic Senate, and so passage in the Senate does not mean the bills would gave been passed into law.
In 2008, Barack Obama promised to change the way Washington works. In 2013, we might actually see that change. But it won't be because of Obama. It will be because a critical mass of senators perhaps even including some Republicans decide enough is enough: It's time to rein in the filibuster.
The problem with a president promising to change Washington is that the presidency isn't the part of Washington that's broken. The systemic gridlock, dysfunction and polarization that so frustrate the country aren't located in the executive branch. They're centered in Congress. And one of their key enablers is Senate Rule XXII better known as the filibuster.
I’ve spent the morning reading various endorsements of Mitt Romney for president, and they all say the same thing: Mitch McConnell and John Boehner’s strategy worked.
Okay, that’s not quite how they put it. But it’s precisely what they show. In endorsement after endorsement, the basic argument is that President Obama hasn’t been able to persuade House or Senate Republicans to work with him. If Obama is reelected, it’s a safe bet that they’ll continue to refuse to work with him. So vote Romney!
You haven’t hear much about Enhanced Section 179 expensing on the campaign trail. There’s no mention of it in President Obama’s 2013 budget or Romney’s economic plan. But it’s among the reasons that businesses are so worried about the looming fiscal contraction at the end of the year.
Most discussions of the fiscal cliff have focused on the automatic sequester spending cuts and the tax hikes that are set to take effect after Dec. 31. But there’s a host of other tax breaks that are scheduled to end at the same time, which the Tax Policy Center’s Donald Marron calculates will constitute about one-eighth, or $65 billion, of the cliff’s impact. CBiz, a business services firm, has rounded up a few of the so-called extenders that will most directly affect the business community. (Some of them have already expired in 2011, but their full impact won’t be felt until companies file their 2012 taxes next year.)
President Obama supports the idea. So does Mitt Romney. In fact, it’s one of the few major points of consensus on immigration policy between Democrats and Republicans. So what doomed a proposal to give more green cards to immigrants who get science, technology, engineering and mathematics graduate degrees in the United States?
John Boehner believes there is one person to blame for the defense cuts poised to take effect on Jan. 1. “Look at Mr. Woodward’s book that came out this morning, page 326. It makes it perfectly clear, where the sequester came from,” the House Speaker told reporters Tuesday morning.”The president didn’t want his reelection inconvenienced over another $1.2 trillion increase in the debt-ceiling.”
On Monday, public-interest group Common Cause filed a legal brief in a U.S. District Court trying to persuade the court that the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold in the Senate violates the Constitution. Our filing today demonstrates how far the Senate, now effectively dominated by a minority, has strayed from the intent of Americas founders as expressed in our Constitution, Common Cause president Bob Edgar said in a statement.
Tom Friedman had a nice line in his Tuesday column. Responding to the drumbeat of pundits exulting in the possibility for “a real debate” in this election, Friedman snapped, “We need more than debates. Thats all we’ve been having. We needdeals.”
Yes, the italics are in the original.
When I talk to legislators from both parties, I tend to hear some variation of the following: “This is a choice election. The American people are getting two very different visions and they’re going to pick one of them.”
What does it mean to be a moderate in Congress? One measure might be the willingness of legislators to break from their party’s prevailing position on an issue—perhaps driven by regional differences, special interests, or contrarian ideologies to break outside of the left-right partisan divide and spur a multi-dimensional debate.
The Obama administration is acting unilaterally to give states more flexibility in designing their welfare programs. This is something Republican and Democratic governors have wanted for some time, and the White House has been clear that they do not intend to permit states to ease up on work requirements — ““no plan that undercuts the goal of moving people from welfare to work will be considered or approved,” says Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary for Health and Human Services. Nevertheless, as Ramesh Ponnuru writes, it’s a major assertion of authority by the executive branch. — authority that no previous administration has exercised.
Something amazing happened yesterday: The Senate passed a piece of legislation. An important piece of legislation. And it did so by 51 votes. There was no filibuster.
Sadly, the more I reveal about this shocking turn of events, the less amazing it will become. The legislation was the Democrats’ proposal to extend the Bush tax cut for income up to $250,000. And tax laws have to originate in the House. “The only reason we won’t block [the bill] today is that we know it doesn’t pass constitutional muster and won’t become law,” McConnell said. “What today’s votes are all about,” he continued, is “showing the people who sent us here where we stand.”
In May, Harry Reid apologized for killing off a 2010 filibuster reform bill, admitting that the legislative procedure has been “abused, abused, and abused.” Reid has now gone a step farther: the Senate Majority Leader is now openly promising to pass filibuster reform in the beginning of the next Congress if Democrats manage to hold onto a simple majority in the Senate and if Obama is reelected.
This week, the House of Representatives voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act. On its own, such a vote would be unremarkable. Republicans control the House, they oppose President Obama’s health reform law, and so they voted to get rid of it.
But here’s the punchline: This was the 33rd time they voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
The Tea Party didn’t just help get more conservative Republicans elected: It also helped influence key votes in Congress, according to a new article in American Politics Research.
The study found that the more Tea Party activists there were in a politician’s district, the more likely he or she was to vote based on the movement’s preferences. By contrast, the authors write that constituent opinion of the Tea Party “had virtually no impact” on these key votes.
A small Texas bank, together with two conservative advocacy groups, have filed suit against the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, claiming that its powers and Obama’s recess appointment of its director are unconstitutional.
The State National Bank of Big Spring, Tex., the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the 60 Plus Association, a conservative advocacy group for seniors, claim that Dodd-Frank effectively gives “unbounded power to the CFPB,” resulting in “unprecedented violations of ‘the basic concept of separation of powers’ ” laid out in the Constitution.
Olympia Snowe is on her way out of Congress. But before she leaves, the Maine Republican may try to do something to fix the political deadlock and dysfunction that drove her to retire in the first place.
“I’ve been sorting through the aspects, procedurally, that contribute to locking down the process,” Snowe said. First and foremost: abuse of the filibuster.
One of the main themes in my work is how much more power Congress has than the president, and how our emphasis on the president thus distorts our view of what’s possible and why the things we want to see happening aren’t happening.
The most common and persuasive rejoinder to this argument is, sure, that’s true on domestic policy, but on foreign policy, the president really is the key actor. There is, in practice, something to that: The president tends to have much more autonomy on foreign policy than on domestic policy. But that’s only because Congress has chosen to give him that autonomy, and he has chosen to take it. Take this comment from Mitt Romney’s interview with CBS’s Bob Schieffer:
Sen. Richard Lugar’s concession speech -- coming, as it does, after years in which Lugar mostly buckled to the extreme elements in his party -- is more evidence of one of my personal laws of politics: Everything a politician says about American politics after they resign from office or lose in a primary is more interesting than anything they say while actually serving. Call it the Bayh rule.
For 35 years, Alan Frumin did everything he could to avoid talking to the press.
As Senate parliamentarian, Frumin was responsible for keeping the rules in an institution that’s grown increasingly dysfunctional over time. But now that he’s retired as the Senate’s top referee, Frumin has finally begun to open up — and after three decades keeping the rules in the Senate, he has a few ideas on how to break the logjam on Capitol Hill.
Here's a sign of how fractious the debate over Congress’s highway bill has become: Arguments about horse trailers, of all things, are helping to bog the bill down.
Over the past few weeks, Republicans have struggled to put together a highway-spending bill that can pass through the House. The original five-year proposal wasn’t acceptable to the party’s rank-and-file — partly because it was too expensive for fiscal conservatives, and partly because of disputes over transit funding and drilling. A newer, slimmed-down version hasn’t passed muster, either. So we’re still waiting to see what they come up with. But this tidbit about horse carriages from Politico’s rundown was eye-catching:
In a new report, the Congressional Research Service breaks down how who represents us has changed over the past six decades:
Members in 2011 are older, more likely to identify a religious affiliation, and include more women and members of racial and ethnic groups than Members in 1945. The data suggest that since the 79th Congress, Members have had high levels of education, and worked in professional positions prior to coming to Congress. The number of Members who previously served in the military has risen and fallen, largely in tandem with the levels of service in the broader population.
This morning, Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) rolled out a Medicare reform proposal that they estimate would save the program at least $300 billion to $500 billion over a decade. Their plan would, like the Ryan-Wyden proposal, have private plans compete against traditional Medicare for seniors’ business. It would, however, do so faster--launching in 2016, rather than 2022--while also raising Medicare’s eligibility age and increasing premiums that higher-income seniors pay.
As Ezra wrote earlier today, the question to ask about Wednesday’s recess appointments isn’t necessarily why they were made, but why the administration didn’t appoint even more nominees. There are, after all, 198 nominees awaiting Senate confirmation. Why not get them into office, too?
Ezra offers a few possible explanations, and Hudson Institute’s Tevi Troy adds one more from his confirmation experience: Coming into office as a recess appointee can undermine a bureaucrat’s clout on Capitol Hill. “When I was up for confirmation, the possibility of a recess appointment came up,” says Troy, who served as a deputy secretary at Health and Human Services under President George W. Bush. “I was told by a lot of people, ‘you better not let them do that to you. Nobody will listen to you in the Senate.’” Bypassing the Senate, Troy argues, means “You’re just not as welcome there. The bureaucracy doesn’t give you the same regard.” Troy was ultimately confirmed in August 2007, shortly before the Senate recessed for the summer.
To recap this morning’s Wonkbook, the reason President Obama moved to recess appoint his nominees to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the National Labor Relations Board is that if he didn’t fill those positions, the underlying agencies would whither and die. The CFPB would never get its powers and the NLRB would be barred from making legally binding rulings. Obama wasn’t fighting Republican obstruction. He was fighting nullification.
But that doesn’t explain why Obama limited his appointments to agencies threatened with obstruction-induced obsolescence. The underlying legal theory allows recess appointments for any reason. And there are a lot of empty chairs around the federal government right now.
There are two empty seats on the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors. There’s an acting director running Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac who has foiled many of the administration’s more ambitious ideas to heal the housing market. There are empty spots atop the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. In a year when the Obama administration is unlikely to get much through Congress, these vacancies make it harder for them to do more through executive action, too. In some ways, then, the question isn’t why they’re making these controversial recess appointments, but why they’re limiting themselves to appointing four of the 202 nominees languishing in the confirmation process.
Last week, we asked an assortment of economists, economic policymakers, and investors to name the most important chart of the year. This week, we turned the question back on ourselves, and chose the 11 charts that do the best job of explaining the political and economic scene in 2011. Here they are:
“No Labels.” Even the name is annoying. For one thing, it’s a label. There’s no branding quite like anti-branding, which in this case is even perched atop a slogan: “Not left. Not right. Forward.”
It reminds me of nothing so much as the cartoon character Kang’s stump speech from “The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror VII”: “My fellow Americans. As a young boy, I dreamed of being a baseball, but tonight I say, we must move forward not backward, upward not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling toward freedom.”
The problem, of course, is that Americans disagree about which direction is forward. Is it toward universal health care? Or away from it? Toward policies to curb climate change? Or away from them? Toward more rights for gay and lesbian couples? Or toward a constitutional amendment enshrining the primacy of traditional marriage?
The single most important thing to understand about the ongoing debate over the payroll tax cut is that it’s not about the payroll tax cut. This has gotten somewhat confused in the current contretemps over whether the extension should be for two months or one year, but if this were actually about the payroll tax cut, there would be no argument over the length of the extension.
Consider a negotiation in which both sides agreed on extending the payroll tax cut: Republicans would propose extending it for a year, every Democrat in the House and Senate would vote “aye,” and President Obama would sign the legislation into law before the week is out. But that’s not the negotiation we’re having.
Rather, Democrats and Republicans are arguing over the price Democrats are willing to pay and Republicans are willing to accept in order to extend the payroll tax cut for a full year. Republicans want, among other things, the Keystone XL Pipeline and further cuts to discretionary spending. Neither of those things, you’ll notice, is “a payroll tax cut.” Democrats oppose resolving big environmental questions through a rider to a must-pass tax bill, and they’re against some of the cuts Republicans are proposing. Neither of those concerns, you’ll notice, are concerns about a payroll tax cut.
With just about two weeks left in the year, Congress still has a lot on its plate. About a half-dozen federal tax and spending policies are set to expire at the end of the year. They range from extending unemployment insurance to the payroll tax holiday to the Medicare doctor fix, and extending any of them costs billions.
As you have no doubt heard by now, the supercommittee failed. So did the Obama-Boehner negotiations that preceded it, and the Biden-Cantor negotiations that preceded that. Those efforts failed because the principals — and the political bases they represent — couldn’t come to an agreement. What chance they did have was almost entirely because of the staff scurrying in the background.
The idea that a handful of politicians, few of whom have any formal background in economics or budget analysis, were the ones doing the heavy policy lifting, is laughable. They’re in the room to make the final decisions. In some cases, they’re there to show that they and their party are taking the negotiations seriously. It’s common to hear stories of bored legislators tapping their feet through these sessions like schoolchildren waiting to be released for recess.
But behind the scenes were dozens of staff members putting in long nights and giving up weekends to try to find something, anything, that could lead to an agreement. The Congressional Budget Office was offering nonpartisan, detailed estimates on the costs of various proposals. The Congressional Research Service was sending out clear, detailed summaries of the provisions under consideration. Amid seemingly endless partisanship and polarization, the work of congressional support staff is, in most cases, an oasis of professionalism.
Which is perhaps why some of the Republican presidential candidates have begun attacking it.
In the past, I’ve talked about the “do-nothing plan” for deficit reduction: Congress heads home to spend more time with their campaign contributors, and the Bush tax cuts automatically expire, the 1997 Balanced Budget Act’s scheduled Medicare cuts kick in, the Affordable Care Act is implemented, and the budget moves roughly into balance. It’s not an ideal way to balance the budget, but it helps clarify that the deficit is the result of votes Congress expects to cast over the next few years. If, instead of casting those votes, they do nothing, or pay for the things they choose to do, the deficit mostly disappears.
The last few years have added new elements to the do-nothing plan: the trigger, for instance, and various temporary tax cuts Congress has been extending. James Horney of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities ran the numbers for my colleague E. J. Dionne, and he says the do-nothing plan would now lead to $7.1 trillion in deficit reduction — more than even the Fiscal Commission envisioned. Here’s how it breaks down:
In his new book “Throw Them All Out,” Peter Schweizer alleges rampant insider trading by members of Congress. But if members of Congress are trading based on inside information, they’re doing a crummy job of it — at least lately. Via Nolan McCartney, here’s Andrew Eggers and Jans Hainmueller:
We examine stock portfolios held by members of Congress between 2004 and 2008. The average investor in Congress underperformed the market by 2-3% annually during this period, a finding that contrasts with earlier research showing uncanny timing in Congressional trades during the 1990s.
Here’s one reason the American public might not know much about the supercommittee and its down-to-the-wire negotiations: Political advertisers aren’t biting. “So far, the dog is not barking,” says Ken Goldstein, executive director of the Campaign Media Advertising Group, which tracks political advertising. He’s been keeping an eye on the landscape as it relates to the deficit reduction panel and, so far, it’s been surprisingly quiet.
Little news of progress from the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction probably means one of two things: Either the “supercommittee” is good at keeping secrets, or it’s not making much progress.
If it turns out to be the latter, you’ll want to keep this chart handy: The Pew Charitable Trust has outlined how various programs would fare if the supercommittee fails to come up with cuts and triggers $1.2 trillion in across-the-board spending reductions (the Mercatus Center at George Mason University has also put together a similar graph). Here’s what it looks like:
The newest Washington Post-ABC News Poll has congressional approval ratings hitting new lows, with an overwhelming 82 percent of Americans disapproving of the legislators. Of those, 60 percent “strongly disapprove.” These numbers make Congress less popular than animal cloning, BP’s handling of the gulf oil spill and even the use of caning as punishment for teenage vandals.
Peter Orszag’s New Republic article arguing that “we need less democracy” is getting a lot of attention, but mostly for the wrong reasons. “We need less democracy” is a good headline, but if you read the piece closely, that’s not actually what Orszag is arguing. Rather, he’s arguing that we need less Congress. And that’s a bit different.
Orszag is really worried about the way party polarization leads to “paralyzing gridlock” in our system. But that’s often because Congress actually isn’t that democratic. The filibuster foils majority rule and exacerbates the consequences of political polarization in the Senate, and the six-year election cycle and lack of proportional representation further insulate the chamber from democratic trends. Legislators also pulled toward party discipline and away from their voters by the desire to chair committees and secure campaign cash through the party’s fundraising apparatus. And as for whether Congress works this way because this is how the American people want it to work, a quick look at the legislative branch’s poll numbers will disabuse anyone if that notion.