Wonkbook: Of course Boehner wants another debt-ceiling showdown

at 08:13 AM ET, 05/16/2012

"We shouldn’t dread the debt limit," said Speaker John Boehner at the Peter G. Peterson Fiscal Summit. "We should welcome it. It’s an action-forcing event in a town that has become infamous for inaction."


House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio speaks at the Peter G. Peterson Foundation's 2012 Fiscal Summit May 15. (Manuel Balce Ceneta - AP)
These comments have been the occasion for much wailing and gnashing of teeth, as if anyone, anywhere, believed that the Republicans' 2011 debt-ceiling antics were some sort of one-off. But Boehner was clear on Tuesday. "I will again insist on my simple principle of cuts and reforms greater than the debt limit increase," he said.

Of course he will. For one thing, it worked well for him in 2011. Republicans got more than $900 billion in immediate spending cuts, as well as $1.2 trillion in triggered spending cuts -- though they don't much like the $500 billion or so of those cuts scheduled to fall on the Pentagon. They also drove President Obama's approval ratings beneath 40 percent. And while I'm not one who thinks Republicans intentionally tank the economy to undermine Obama, there's little doubt that the effect of the debt-ceiling debacle was to set back the recovery, brightening Republican prospects and darkening Democratic ones. The fact is that it's easier to be sanguine about economic showdowns when you're not the ones in charge.

For another, it's Boehner's only option in 2012. The Democrats, for once, have nothing but fiscal leverage. They've got the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, which all Republicans would hate and many Democrats would welcome. They've got the aforementioned spending trigger, which Republicans really have begun to fear for its cuts to defense spending. They can do nothing -- or, more likely, offer Republicans a deal they can't accept -- and the resulting paralysis will swing fiscal policy far, far, far to the left. Threatening to default on the national debt is Boehner's only piece of counter-leverage.

So of course Boehner will try and use the debt ceiling as leverage again. And again. And again. It's pretty clear that, at this point, there's no going back to the time when debt-ceiling increases came smoothly. If I were the market, I'd take the fact that the leader of one of the two parties has publicly said that he "welcomes" debt-ceiling showdowns as evidence that the United States is almost certain to default on its debt -- if only temporarily -- within the next decade or so.

The question is what, aside from complain, Democrats and the business community will do to stop him. Somehow, the debt ceiling needs to be taken off the table once and for all, either because Republicans forced a default in a way that they were blamed for the consequences and scared into never doing it again or because the president successfully pulled off one of the more creative maneuvers suggested during last year's showdown (Bill Clinton, for instance, argued that Obama should invoke the Fourteenth Amendment -- which says "the validity of the public debt of the United States ... shall not be questioned" -- to raise the debt ceiling unilaterally).

Wonkbook dashboard

RCP Obama vs. Romney: Obama +1.8%; 7-day change: Obama +1.6%.

RCP Obama approval: 48.0%; 7-day change: +0.7%.

Want Wonkbook delivered to your inbox or mobile device? Subscribe!

Top stories

1) Boehner threatened another debt-mageddon "Washington braced Tuesday for a replay of last summer’s tense battle over the burgeoning national debt as House Speaker John A. Boehner threatened again to block an increase in the federal debt ceiling without significant new cuts in spending. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and other senior Democrats quickly blasted the Ohio Republican, arguing that his ultimatum could put the nation’s credit rating -- and the broader economy -- at risk early next year, when the debt is expected to hit its $16.4 trillion limit." Lori Montgomery in The Washington Post.

@damianpaletta: Boehner's debt ceiling "line in the sand" is very similar to what he said last year; Definitely got the attention of White House and D's

@ObsoleteDogma: Shorter Boehner: Regulatory uncertainty is bad. But default uncertainty is good.

INTERVIEW: Sen. Tom Coburn on defusing the debt bomb.

READ: Mitt Romney’s remarks on the debt.

@MichaelSLinden: As a fiscal policy analyst, I'd like to thank Mitt Romney for offering no specifics whatsoever so I can go home at a normal time tonight.

2) Greece failed to form a new government, triggering new elections. "The threat of a full economic collapse in Greece escalated Tuesday after warring political factions here failed to forge a new government, triggering fresh elections and heightening chances that this rudderless Mediterranean nation could be forced to abandon the euro...A nation in danger of running out of cash to operate the government, and where fearful residents in recent days have been rapidly withdrawing more of their savings from Greek banks, faces uncertain new elections next month. Opinion surveys have shown that Syriza, a party that wants to break the terms of Greece’s bailout deal and that came in a surprise second in the last vote, is polling in first place...European finance ministers -- whose taxpayers have largely funded the bailout for Greece -- were quick to push back Tuesday. Given the potential shock waves if Greece is forced to leave the euro zone, there have been suggestions in recent days that European officials might show more lenience with Athens." Anthony Faiola in The Washington Post.

Surging bank withdrawals in Greece sparked fears of a bank run. "Greek depositors withdrew €700 million ($898 million) from the country's banks on Monday, fueling fears of a bank run amid the growing political disarray. With deposits falling, Greek banks become even more dependent on the European Central Bank to meet their funding needs, exposing the central bank to potentially huge losses if Greece leaves the euro area. Greek President Karolos Papoulias told the country's political leaders that bank withdrawals plus buy orders received by Greek banks for German bunds totaled some €800 million on Monday, a transcript of his comments said. A central bank official confirmed the figures...Monday's deposit withdrawal far outpaced Greek banks' steady decline in deposits since the start of the country's debt crisis in 2009, as depositors withdraw cash and transfer funds overseas." Brian Blackstone and David Enrich in The Wall Street Journal.

@grossdm: So, Greece is seeking to solves its economic problems through QE -- quantitative electioneering

3) The Senate will vote on several GOP budget proposals today. "The Senate on Wednesday will hold six hours of debate and votes on four different Republican budget resolutions, in an apparent attempt to demonstrate that they will not be supported in the Democratic-led Senate. A fifth budget measure up for a vote, from Senate Budget Committee ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), is based on President Obama's budget and is seen as an attempt to embarrass the White House. But Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said Tuesday that debate and votes on the GOP proposals would show there is little appetite for these plans. He also said it would give the country a chance to understand that last year's Budget Control Act already sets spending caps for Congress. Democrats have been under fire for failing to pass any budget resolution...One of the four GOP budget resolutions to be debated Wednesday is H.Con.Res. 112, the budget resolution approved by the House in March." Pete Kasperowicz in The Hill.

4) The Justice Department started a criminal probe into JPMorgan Chase's loss. "The Justice Department has initiated a criminal probe into the $2 billion trading loss at JPMorgan Chase, a law enforcement representative familiar with the situation said Tuesday. The inquiry is at a very early stage, said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter is private. Many details about the loss at JPMorgan are murky, so it is unclear what laws, if any, may have been violated. But the attention from federal officials indicates that regulatory pressure is rising on JPMorgan, and its chief executive Jamie Dimon, to explain what exactly led to the bank’s multi-billion dollar misstep. That, in turn, has rekindled questions about whether government regulators are equipped to monitor banks making risky, complex trades...Dean Boyd, a Justice spokesman, declined to comment." Jia Lynn Yang and Sari Horwitz in The Washington Post.

Too big to fail banks have gotten bigger. "JPMorgan Chase’s $2 billion blunder is throwing the spotlight on an awkward truth for President Barack Obama’s promise to end the era of big bank bailouts: The same institutions that were deemed 'too big to fail' before the financial collapse are even bigger now. Efforts to manage the size of such institutions were at the heart of the Dodd-Frank financial law passed in July 2010. But nearly two years later, many of the law’s regulations remain in limbo, as federal agencies muddle through long rule-making processes against stiff industry opposition...All the while, the country’s biggest financial institutions continue to grow. The five largest, which controlled $6.1 trillion in assets before the collapse, by the end of 2011 had assets worth $8.5 trillion -- equal to more than half of U.S. economic output, according to Federal Reserve data." Patrick Reis in Politico.

@BCAppelbaum: This whole JPM story underscores one reason we don't have effective financial regulation: Our public officials don't understand finance.

Top op-eds

1) PORTER: It's time for the euro to come to an end. "Social upheaval across the euro area suggests that it may be time to call it quits and try to work out an orderly process to re-establish national currencies throughout the bloc. Europe would be in much better shape if the euro didn’t exist and each member country had its own currency. Monetary union has shackled together nations with vastly different economies, depriving them of an independent monetary policy that can help them through rough times. The interest rate and exchange rate that serve Germany also have to serve Spain, though that country has more than four times Germany’s joblessness. The main problem is that while leaders eagerly embraced the monetary bond, they rejected its necessary complement: a central budget that would transfer money from successful regions to underperforming ones, as the United States government sends tax dollars collected in Massachusetts to pay for unemployment benefits in Nevada." Eduardo Porter in The New York Times.

2) FROST: The FDIC shouldn't protect investment banks. "I suggest that we divide the two functions into separately owned, managed and regulated entities. That's the only way we can ensure that their riskier businesses don't undermine the insured deposits that are the foundation of a stable and healthy economy. Taxpayer safety-net programs, such as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), should be available only to banks in business to provide insured deposits. Financial institutions that provide primarily investment, hedging and speculative services don't deserve protection either by the FDIC's explicit guarantees or by an implicit understanding that taxpayers will bail them out because there is no other alternative. Indeed, this kind of protection is a perversion of capitalism and can distort its good outcomes...We need a real and impregnable firewall that keeps one part of the banking system--and the economy--from being consumed when the other goes into flames." Tom Frost in The Wall Street Journal.

3) ROSEN: Competitive bidding can hurt patients. "On the face of it, competitive bidding sounds like a very good idea. If one supplier can provide power wheelchairs or oxygen masks for 30 percent less than another, it’s hard to argue for contracting with the more expensive supplier, especially at a time when everyone is looking for ways to save money. A one-year experiment with expanded competitive bidding that was recently conducted by Medicare yielded cost savings of 42 percent, without reducing the quality of care, and was hailed as a great success. But as a doctor working with patients on the ground, I have doubts about that quality-of-care measure, and I worry that those savings obscure a potentially serious problem...If competitive bidding is predicated on supplying equipment at the lowest possible price, something has to give. And more likely than not, that something will be patient care." Dennis Rosen in The New York Times.

4) ORSZAG: Want good news on jobs? Look to big businesses. "Big business, we keep being told, has been so hampered by regulatory uncertainty over the past few years, it has been reluctant to hire workers. So it is surprising to read the results of a little-known survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics: Very large businesses, it turns out, have been expanding their domestic workforces relatively rapidly. If, since January 2011, businesses of all sizes had hired at the same rate as those with 5,000 or more employees, we would have almost 4 million more jobs today...The JOLTS data highlight the importance of exploring how the continuing deleveraging process and resultant sluggish growth in demand is affecting smaller businesses in particular. With the percentage of working Americans stuck at a depressed level, we sure could use those extra 2 million to 4 million jobs." Peter Orszag in Bloomberg.

5) ALEXANDER: Washington should take over Medicaid and let states handle education. "Staring down steep tuition hikes, students at the University of California have taken to carrying picket signs. As far as I can tell, though, none has demanded that President Barack Obama accept a Grand Swap that could protect their education while saving them money. Allow me to explain. When I was governor of Tennessee in the early 1980s, I traveled to meet with President Ronald Reagan in the Oval Office and offer that Grand Swap: Medicaid for K-12 education. The federal government would take over 100% of Medicaid, the federal health-care program mainly for low-income Americans, and states would assume all responsibility for the nation's 100,000 public schools...If we had made that swap...states would have about $92 billion a year in extra funds, as they'd keep the $149 billion they're now spending on Medicaid and give back to Washington the $57 billion that the federal government spends per year on schools." Lamar Alexander in The Wall Street Journal.

Cover interlude: Screaming Females play Sheryl Crow's "If It Makes You Happy" for the AV Club.

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Still to come: Free trade with Colombia is in effect; Catholic bishops are close to suing over birth control; backlash against tests is growing; energy independence is within reach; and a puppies'-eye view of life.

Economy

The Senate will vote on two Fed nominees on Thursday. "Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) today set up a procedural vote for Thursday on two nominees to join the Federal Reserve whose nominations have stalled because of opposition from Sen. David Vitter (R-La.)...Vitter blocked attempts in March to quickly confirm Harvard University economics professor Jeremy Stein, a Democratic nominee, and former private-equity executive Jerome Powell, a Republican nominee...Asked whether he was confident that he would have the 60 votes to invoke cloture on the nominations, Reid said, 'Well I sure hope so, we’ve been waiting months and months.'...Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he believes there is bipartisan support for the nominees...Without the two nominees in place, the Federal Reserve Board will remain short-handed as it attempts to support the economic recovery" Humberto Sanchez in Roll Call.

The dip in gas prices eased inflation. "The recent slide in gasoline prices in the U.S. has pushed the nation's annual rate of inflation to its lowest level in more than a year, easing some economic strains on consumers. The consumer price index, which measures what Americans pay for everything from breakfast cereal to doctor visits, was unchanged from March to April, ending three months of increases, the Labor Department said Tuesday. A 2.6% drop in the gasoline-price index helped offset rising costs for many other items. Overall prices are now running 2.3% higher than a year ago, the smallest increase since February 2011...The inflation figures have mixed implications for the recovery. Lower gasoline and utility costs are keeping a lid on household expenses, effectively boosting Americans' spending money. However, prices are climbing broadly, most notably for food, but also medical care, rents, autos and airfares." Josh Mitchell in The Wall Street Journal.

States are using foreclosure prevention funds to plug budget gaps. "Hundreds of millions of dollars meant to provide a little relief to the nation’s struggling homeowners is being diverted to plug state budget gaps. In a budget proposed this week, California joined more than a dozen states that want to help close gaping shortfalls using money paid by the nation’s biggest banks and earmarked for foreclosure prevention, investigations of financial fraud and blunting the ill effects of the housing crisis. California was awarded more than $400 million from the banks, and Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed using the bulk of that sum to pay the state’s debts. The money was part of a national settlement valued at $25 billion and negotiated with five big banks over abuses in their mortgage and foreclosure processes...As part of the settlement, the banks agreed to pay the states $2.5 billion, money intended to help homeowners and mitigate the effects of the foreclosure surge." Shaila Dewan in The New York Times.

House Republicans are planning a vote on a 'fast track' proposal for tax reform. "Speaker John Boehner said in a speech Tuesday that House Republicans would try to attach a timeline to fast-track a broad tax overhaul to a vote extending the George W. Bush-era tax rates before the November elections...'Our bill to stop the New Year’s Day tax increase will also establish an expedited process by which Congress would enact real tax reform in 2013,' Boehner (R-Ohio) said in remarks to a fiscal summit in Washington. 'This process would look something like how we handle Trade Promotion Authority, where you put in place a timeline for both houses to act.'...GOP aides said that, even though Boehner specifically discussed Trade Promotion Authority on Tuesday, House Republicans are looking at a variety of expedited processes that have been used in the past, and have yet to settle on just one." Russell Berman and Bernie Becker in The Hill.

@grossdm: Memo to Boehner, the markets, etc.: the House passing legislation won't be sufficient to avert tax increases. They'll have to make a deal

The euro zone narrowly missed recession. "The euro-zone economy narrowly escaped recession in the latest quarter thanks to a surprising rebound in Germany, which offset deepening downturns in Spain and Italy. Although the region avoided two straight quarterly drops in gross domestic product, the common benchmark for recession, the figures nonetheless reflect a deepening divide between Germany and the rest of the euro zone that complicates the bloc's efforts to stem its debt crisis...Euro-zone GDP was unchanged from the previous quarter, said Eurostat, the European Union's statistics agency. In annualized terms, GDP rose 0.1% from the fourth quarter, according to calculations by J.P. Morgan Chase. Economists had expected an annualized contraction of around 1%. GDP fell at a 1.2% rate in the fourth quarter...European stock markets rose initially on the figures, which eased fears that the debt crisis may trigger an economic free fall." Brian Blackstone in The Washington Post.

Export-Import Bank reauthorization cleared the Senate by a wide margin. "On a broad bipartisan vote of 78 to 20, the Senate voted Tuesday to extend the life of the U.S. Export-Import Bank and expand its authority to make loans to U.S. exporters. In the 'Schoolhouse Rock' version of how Capitol Hill works, this is what Congress does all the time -- passes legislation. But it made for big news on this Capitol Hill, where protracted partisan warfare has meant that lately the story has more often been about votes forced by one party or the other to indignantly demonstrate the other’s opposition...Tuesday’s bill was the rarest of breeds: a lasting compromise on an issue of substance. It renewed the charter of what is commonly referred to as the Ex-Im bank for three years and will over that time raise the cap on the total financing the bank can guarantee from $100 billion to $140 billion." Rosalind Helderman in The Washington Post.

The U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement took effect. "A free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia took effect Tuesday after years of negotiations and despite strong opposition from U.S. labor organizations, which are worried about jobs being sent abroad and union-busting violence in Colombia. The first products shipped tariff-free were crates of Colombian roses and other flowers that landed Tuesday morning at Miami's airport...President Barack Obama signed the free-trade agreement with Colombia in October, days after Congress gave its final approval following heated debates. The deal was originally negotiated by the Bush administration, but President Obama reworked the deal to satisfy Democrats. The U.S. exported $14 billion of goods to Colombia last year, everything from cars to consumer electronics to food, and exports are expected to rise by more than $1.1 billion as a direct result of the pact, according to the International Trade Commission." Dan Molinski in The Wall Street Journal.

Adorable children singing interlude: Two girls cover Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know" from the back seat of the car.

Health Care

Catholic bishops are threatening to sue over the birth control mandate. "The Catholic Church's U.S. hierarchy warned Tuesday that without quick action by Congress, it will sue the Obama administration for mandating that insurance plans provide birth control to women without a co-pay. '[F]orcing individual and institutional stakeholders to sponsor and subsidize an otherwise widely available product over their religious and moral objections serves no legitimate, let alone compelling, government interest,' lawyers for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote in a letter to federal regulators. Several small Catholic universities have already filed suit over the policy...The bishops' notice came in 20 pages of comments submitted to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on a forthcoming rule to accommodate certain religious organizations, such as Catholic hospitals, that were not exempted from the original mandate." Elise Viebeck in The Hill.

Obamacare will expand healthcare options for immigrants. "The Obama administration’s drive to cut down on America’s uninsured is about to get multilingual. Come 2014, when core provisions of the Affordable Care Act kick in, millions of legal immigrants will have new options for gaining health coverage. And like U.S. citizens, most will be subject to the individual mandate, under which they will be required to get coverage to avoid a penalty. The national health law explicitly excludes illegal immigrants -- a politically explosive topic -- and bans them from the new state insurance exchanges, even if they use their own money. They will make up a big chunk of the remaining uninsured population. But advocates say states have good reasons to reach out and get uninsured legal residents covered -- especially as the federal government picks up most of the tab...In 2014...legal immigrants will be able to shop for health coverage through the new state insurance exchanges." Kyle Cheney in Politico.

Domestic Policy

The backlash against standardized testing is growing. "The increasing role of standardized testing in U.S. classrooms is triggering pockets of rebellion across the country from school officials, teachers and parents who say the system is stifling teaching and learning. In Texas, some 400 local school boards--more than one-third of the state's total--have adopted a resolution this year asking lawmakers to scale back testing. In Everett, Wash., more than 500 children skipped state exams in protest earlier this month...The efforts are a response to the spread of mandatory testing in the past decade. Proponents say the exams are needed to ensure students are learning and teachers' effectiveness is measured. Critics say schools are spending disproportionate time and resources on the tests at the expense of more-creative learning. They also contend the results weigh too heavily in decisions on student advancement, teacher pay and the fate of schools judged to have failed." Stephanie Banchero in The Wall Street Journal.

The NLRB suspended implementation of its union elections rule. "The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) suspended implementation on Tuesday of a rule that would speed up union elections. On Monday, U.S. District Judge James Boasberg struck down the regulation. In his ruling, the judge said the labor board only had two members vote on the final rule in December 2011 when it needed three members to form a quorum. In the wake of the court decision, the agency is temporarily suspending the rule's implementation, which went into effect on April 30. Further, Lafe Solomon, the NLRB's acting general counsel, withdrew guidance he sent to the labor board's regional offices and told those offices to follow the old union election rule instead. The agency is still considering its response to the court ruling...'We continue to believe that the amendments represent a significant improvement in our process and serve the public interest by eliminating unnecessary litigation,' said NLRB Chairman Mark Pearce." Kevin Bogardus in The Hill.

Dog's-eye view interlude: Life from on top of puppies.

Energy

Energy independence is no pipe dream. "Every president since Richard Nixon has called for the U.S. to wean itself from needing oil from unstable or unsavory countries. The nation's new-found energy riches are likely to bring that ambition closer to reality in the next two decades, according to many forecasters. It's no pipe dream. The U.S. is already the world's fastest-growing oil and natural gas producer. Counting the output from Canada and Mexico, North America is 'the new Middle East,' Citigroup analysts declare in a recent report. The U.S. Energy Information Agency says U.S. oil imports will drop 20% by 2025. Oil giant BP projects the U.S. will get 94% of its energy domestically by 2030, up from 77% now, as oil imports fall by half...Most enticing, a team of analysts and economists at Citigroup argues that the U.S., or at least North America, can achieve energy independence by 2020." Tim Mullaney in USA Today.

@umairh: So consider how our political institutions are paralyzed by a financial crisis. Now think about energy, water, etc crises. Sweet!

Wonkbook is compiled and produced with help from Karl Singer and Michelle Williams.

 
Read what others are saying

    Most Read: Business

    DJIA
    0.13%
    NASDAQ
    0.7%
     Last Update: : AM 12/29/2014(NASDAQ&DJIA)

    World Markets from      

     

    Other Market Data from      

     

    Key Rates from