Wonkbook: The House GOP’s peculiar retreat

January 18, 2013

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Wonkbook's Numbers of the Day: 88 and 65. Those are the percentages of Americans who say they support requiring background checks for guns bought at gun shows and limiting the size of ammunition clips, respectively, according to a new Washington Post-ABC poll. The findings show wide popular support for much of the president's proposals, even if some -- like the assault weapons ban -- are likely to have trouble getting through Congress. More below. 

Wonkblog's Graph of the Day: Why Americans are fat.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) What's happening behind closed doors in Williamsburg, VA, and how it may change the Republicans; 2) why 'assault weapons' may be the political key to gun control; 3) the economy is looking much better than you think ; 4) health exchanges come into form; and 5) where we are on the debt ceiling right now.

1) Top story: Will the Republicans sing a new tune after Williamsburg?

The GOP is taking some time to think. "House Republicans are cloistered at a tony golf resort here [in Williamsburg, Virginia] for three days hoping to resurrect their battered political brand, as they prepare for what could be another damaging confrontation with President Obama over federal spending. At their annual retreat, House members said there is general fretting about the damage done to the party’s image by the strident tone adopted by some candidates and officials." Rosalind S. Helderman and Ed O'Keefe in The Washington Post.

Read: This is the schedule for the Williamsburg conference.

@robertcostaNRO: The big hits so far in Williamsburg, per House GOP mbers: Kellyanne Conway (who spoke about women), and Erik Weihenmayer, the blind climber

...One of the most important things they're weighing: a short-term increase in the debt ceiling. "House Republicans are weighing a plan to raise the nation’s legal borrowing limit for just a few months, a move that could shift debate over the debt ceiling into March, when Congress will face other major fiscal decisions, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said Thursday." Rosalind S. Helderman and Ed O'Keefe in The Washington Post.

@EWErickson: Several different people have emailed to say the House GOP in Williamsburg has agreed to raise the debt ceiling with no fight.

...Another of the things they're being told: stop talking about rape. "'Rape is a four letter word — don’t say it,' the group was advised by a Republican pollster in one session, said a person familiar with the discussion. That was a reference to controversies about rape and abortion that helped lose the party two Senate seats in November." Rosalind S. Helderman and Ed O'Keefe in The Washington Post.

@EzraKlein: So House GOP retreat was about not defaulting on the debt and not saying stupid things about rape. These should not need to be topics!

Inside the Republican mind: "Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), emerging from a self-imposed post-election political exile of sorts after serving as Romney’s running mate, took a vocal lead in this private party meeting, urging House Republicans to tamp down their expectations as they try to extract legislative victories from Obama. Instead of defeating Obama’s initiatives entirely, some suggested that GOP lawmakers look for ways to stand some of their ground without forcing Obama to cede all of his. Compromise, in other words — not something the House GOP majority has done very well or often with Obama." Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer in Politico.

@mattyglesias: Choice of Virginia Williamsburg shows GOP is stuck in its dixie box, huge missed opportunity for outreach to growing hipster demographic.

Meet the 'vote no, hope yes' caucus of the GOP. "These are the small but significant number of Republican representatives who, on the recent legislation to head off the broad tax increases and spending cuts mandated by the so-called fiscal cliff, voted no while privately hoping — and at times even lobbying — in favor of the bill’s passage, given the potential harmful economic consequences otherwise...The Vote No/Hope Yes group is perhaps the purest embodiment of the uneasy relationship between politics and pragmatism in the nation’s capital and a group whose very existence must be understood and dealt with as the Republican Party grapples with its future in the wake of the bruising 2012 elections" Ashley Parker in The New York Times.

KRAUTHAMMER: The Republican re-think, and what it's worth. "It has become conventional wisdom that Republicans are suffering an internal split...In reality, Republicans have a broad consensus on what they believe, where want to go and the program to get them there. But they don’t have the power. What divides Republicans today is a straightforward tactical question: Can you govern from one house of Congress? Should you even try?" Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post.

Music recommendations interlude: Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime," 1981. The music video is priceless.

Top op-eds

LUDWIG AND VOLCKER: Bank reform takes a step forward. "The Financial Accounting Standards Board finished 2012 on a high note, issuing a draft new rule to change the way banks build reserves against losses on loans. It is a major step forward from our current system. Still, FASB's proposed rule is flawed conceptually and in its application, and in itself it cannot achieve the international consistency that is desirable." Eugene A. Ludwig and Paul A. Volcker in The Wall Street Journal.

KLEIN: Is this the end of the Hastert rule? "A funny thing happened in the House of Representatives the other night: The Hastert rule was broken. Again...Boehner’s members would turn on him, and quickly, if he began permitting bills to pass with mostly Democratic votes. Boehner isn’t so much forcing his members to follow the Hastert rule as he’s being forced by his members to follow it. But there is an alternative to the Hastert rule that doesn’t require Boehner’s assent. Under the rules of a “discharge petition,” an absolute majority of the House can bring a bill to the floor whether or not the speaker of the House wants it there. Democrats have 200 votes already, so all they would need are 18 Republicans who support that bill to agree that it should come up for a vote." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

KRUGMAN: The dwindling deficit. "The budget deficit isn’t our biggest problem, by a long shot. Furthermore, it’s a problem that is already, to a large degree, solved. The medium-term budget outlook isn’t great, but it’s not terrible either — and the long-term outlook gets much more attention than it should." Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

ALTER: Obama's unfinished business. "Remember Obama’s book “The Audacity of Hope”? Looking back, I was struck by the audacity of his five boldest 2008 promises: universal health care, ending the war in Iraq, killing Osama bin Laden, passing comprehensive immigration reform and creating a cap-and-trade system to reduce global warming. The president kept all but the last two promises, and by this time next year, he could be 4-for-5, with only carbon trading still outstanding" Jonathan Alter in Bloomberg.

YGLESIAS: The government is making it harder for you to buy a home. That's a good thing. "[N]ew proposals to crack down on abusive practices will have real benefits to consumers. At the same time, industry advocates are correct when they say the CFPB’s plans will make it harder for some people to get home loans. That’s a price worth paying if it produces a more honest, more stable mortgage market. Last week’s action, known as the “ability to pay” rule, essentially requires lenders to make a reasonable, good-faith determination that a mortgage borrower will be able to repay a loan that’s offered." Matthew Yglesias in Slate.

BROOKS: Relearning compromise. "I am an earnest, good-government type, so the strategy I’d prefer might be called Learning to Crawl. It would be based on the notion that you have to learn to crawl before you can run. So over the next four years, legislators should work on a series of realistic, incremental laws that would rebuild the habits of compromise, competence and trust. We could do some education reform, expand visa laws to admit more high-skill workers, encourage responsible drilling for natural gas, maybe establish an infrastructure bank. Political leaders would erode partisan orthodoxies and get back into the habit of passing laws together. Then, down the road, their successors could do the big things." David Brooks in The New York Times.

SOLTAS: Has the 'Great Stagnation' hit the U.S.? "In the manufacturing sector, the 10-year growth rate of productivity has fallen by more than half in the last decade. Over the period from 1994 to 2004, the height of the productivity boom, output per man-hour increased by 66 percent. Between 2002 and 2012, productivity growth decreased to about 30 percent. Unless the recent increases in productivity turn into an immediate surge, the U.S. will probably see the slowest manufacturing productivity growth in nearly 30 years." Evan Soltas in Bloomberg.

All I want for Christmas interlude: 'Nearly perfect' ultrathin electric invisibility cloak developed.

2) 'Assault weapons' and why they may determine the fate of gun control

Before banning assault weapons, define 'assault weapon.' "The most basic criteria have to do with a firearm’s ability to fire multiple rounds quickly. Because of this, the firearms included under any assault weapons ban are usually semiautomatic, meaning that a new round is automatically reloaded into the chamber but is not fired until the trigger is pulled again. The weapons also have detachable magazines, allowing them to fire 10, 20, 30 rounds or more without the need to insert a new magazine." Erica Goode in The New York Times.

...And is it even fair to use the term? "The gun rights lobby also argues that 1) the word 'assault' connotes offense and illegality, while the vast majority of such guns are used in a lawful manner and for defense and 2) so-called assault weapons differ from other guns solely because of cosmetic changes like a pistol grip or a threaded barrel for a silencer — not in the way they actually fire bullets." Aaron Blake in The Washington Post.

How building an effective ATF is key to Obama's gun policy agenda. "President Obama’s nomination of B. Todd Jones to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on Wednesday is an effort to energize a depleted agency that has been denied leadership and resources by legislators aligned with the gun lobby, according to administration officials and former law enforcement officials...The ATF has fewer agents than it did in 1970 and takes up to eight years between inspections of gun stores because of a lack of personnel. The agency also is prohibited from creating a searchable computer database for gun ownership records, according to current and former ATF officials." Peter Finn and Sari Horwitz in The Washington Post.

Obama 2012 campaign's next act: Selling gun control. "The next act of President Obama’s campaign organization is starting to take shape, with his former campaign manager Jim Messina leading a plan to convert the operation into a new grass-roots lobbying effort...The group will be run as a separate entity from the Democratic National Committee, people familiar with the operation said, and it could be set up as a 501(c)4, a section of the tax code in which disclosure of donations is not required." Jeff Zeleny in The New York Times.

...And the American public is behind him, at least for now. "[F]or things like requiring background checks for all guns bought at guns shows (88 percent) and limiting the size of ammunition clips (65 percent) there is strong support.  Even on a renewal of the assault weapons ban — something that appears to be a very tough lift to pass through Congress — there is strong majority support." Chris Cillizza and Scott Clement in The Washington Post.

...But the NRA is going to be ferocious. "They want to burn your freedom to the ground." And we're just getting started. "[NRA Executive Director Chris Cox, in an email blast:] '[T]he main goal of the gun banners in Congress is not to make schools safer, but to ban your guns and abolish every last sacred right you have under the Second Amendment..until they reduce your freedom to ashes.'" Rachel Weiner in The Washington Post.

Biden is campaigning for the gun law reforms already. "Speaking Thursday at the winter meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Biden devoted the entirety of his remarks to delivering a point-by-point defense of the White House gun agenda that he helped to spearhead, using stark, often personal language." Felicia Sonmez in The Washington Post.

The legislative strategy for gun control: piece-by-piece. "White House press secretary Jay Carney confirmed Thursday that the administration would encourage Congress to consider the various aspects of the president's gun violence proposals as separate pieces of legislation...By separating the more ambitious gun regulations from a bill that would impose universal background checks on gun purchases or provide additional funding for research, mental health professionals and police, the White House could be acknowledging the tough political opposition towards a weapons ban." Justin Sink in The Hill.

How most of Obama's gun agenda can pass. "[I]if you want to be optimistic about gun control’s chances in Congress, the focus on the assault weapons ban might be reason to cheer. Sometimes it can be helpful for vulnerable legislators to pick one high-profile thing to oppose if it means they can support the rest of the package...The assault weapons ban could suck up all the attention only to die toward the end of the process, when Republicans and centrist Democrats kill the proposal in order to remain in the NRA’s good graces. That will infuriate supporters of gun control, but it could help the laundry list of proposals behind the assault weapons ban to slip through as a compromise package." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

Gun research is allowed again. So what will we find out? "[It matters because] one of the major reasons that gun-policy disputes are often so contentious and interminable is that there’s remarkably little hard evidence to go on. And that ignorance is partly by design...The list of simple things that existing gun-violence research can’t answer is quite striking." Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

Debate: Can changes in the American mental health system reduce gun violence without creating more problems?

Pow! Crack! What we know about video games and violence. "[T]hough there’s been a wide range of academic research on the subject, there’s little to no conclusive evidence that playing video games results in real-life violence, much less criminal acts...'Psychological studies purporting to show a connection between exposure to violent video games and harmful effects on children do not prove  that such exposure causes minors to act aggressively.  Any demonstrated effects are both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media.'" Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Humorous interlude: How to tie a pony tail with a vacuum cleaner.

3) Killer economic data boosts optimism

Jobless claims just hit a five-year low. "[I]nitial claims for unemployment insurance fell 37,000 in the week to January 12, to a seasonally adjusted 335,000 – the lowest since January 2008 – labour department data showed on Thursday. It was the largest weekly decline since February 2010." Anjli Raval and Robin Harding in The Financial Times.

The unstoppable housing recovery? New construction soars. "The Census Bureau reported Thursday that new home construction rose 28 percent in 2012. That was capped by a roaring December in which the building of homes reached an annualized pace of 954,000. And more new houses are on the way: Builders received permits for more than 800,000 units last year, up 30 percent from the previous year, government data shows." Ylan Q. Mui in The Washington Post.

Wonkbookmark: Get an advantage by reading this CBO report on economic forecasting accuracy.

...And the housing boom is being driven by urban areas. "The increase was led by a surge in apartment construction, with starts up 116% for buildings with five or more units. Developers of such buildings, which make up 35% of all new residential construction, anticipate that demand for rental housing will keep growing in coming years." Robbie Whelan in The Wall Street Journal.

Debate: Should economic growth be the policy goal? Or something else?

All this good news makes the stock market happy. "The S.& P. 500 gained 8.31 points, or 0.56 percent, to close at 1,480.94, its highest level since December 2007. The Dow Jones industrial average also rose, climbing to a five-year high during the day, before falling back." The Associated Press.

...It also means that oil prices are rising. "Oil advanced to the highest level in four months in New York as a surprise drop in U.S. crude inventories countered concern that the global economic recovery may falter and curb fuel demand. West Texas Intermediate advanced as much as 0.7 percent to $94.87 a barrel, its highest intraday price since Sept. 19." Grant Smith in Bloomberg.

On the gloomy side, manufacturing pay used to be great. Now it stinks. Here's what that means for the American middle class. "From the mid-1970s until shortly before the Great Recession, it really paid to be a factory worker in America. Specifically, manufacturing workers earned more per hour, on average, than workers across the private sector at large...[T]he premium disappears around 2007. Today the premium has gone negative. Here’s part of the explanation for why that is: The factory sector has been almost entirely de-unionized." Jim Tankersley in The Washington Post.

Cool graphs interlude: The 113th Congress by occupation.

4) The face of the Affordable Care Act, the state exchange

HHS announces $1.5B in funding for exchanges. "The federal health department announced $1.5 billion in new grants Thursday for states to continue building their insurance exchanges under the Affordable Care Act. California, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Oregon and Vermont received funding — either one-or multi-year awards based on their progress in creating the marketplaces." Elise Viebeck in The Hill.

..And governors in 22 states have backed the exchanges. "An analysis published by the New England Journal of Medicine said the headcount, which includes 13 Republican governors who staunchly oppose Medicaid expansion, portends an uneven start for 'Obamacare' when its most sweeping reform provisions begin on January 1, 2014." David Morgan in Reuters.

The role of employers in health care reform is becoming much clearer. "[T]he Internal Revenue Service recently proposed new regulations to govern what has been dubbed the “employer mandate” section of the Affordable Care Act. The provision, which takes effect next year, requires companies with 50 or more employees to either provide adequate and affordable coverage to their workers or pay tax penalties." J.D. Harrison in The Washington Post.

Research shows that annual checkups are useless. "It might be the most familiar medical procedure: The annual check-up. Doctors screen for harmful diseases and check in on a patient’s well-being. And, if a new study is right, they waste lots of health care dollars without making patients any healthier. Two doctors in Colorado scanned through 14 randomized, controlled studies involving 182,000 patients. The articles spanned from 1963 to 1999. The doctors looked at whether those who had regular check-ups had higher mortality rates than their counterparts who dodged such visits. They could not find a difference." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Are imaging tech gains responsible for falling cancer rates? "The manufacturers of medical imaging devices say a drop in the U.S. cancer rate shows the value of their products. Congress and its Medicare advisory board often target imaging — services like MRI and CT scans — for payment cuts, arguing that doctors perform unnecessary tests. The rapid pace of new technology also keeps imaging prices high." Sam Baker in The Hill.

Mind blown interlude: The N+7 machine of Oulipo.

5) Your debt ceiling update

Expect difficult choices if we hit the debt ceiling. "A debt-ceiling crisis would be at its heart a cash-management problem. Every day the government receives millions of bills to pay, to its employees, older Americans, soldiers, bondholders and contractors, among others. Under normal circumstances, it makes payments with new revenue as well as with the proceeds from bond sales...The Treasury would be confronted with paying doctors but not soldiers, Chinese bondholders but not defense companies." Annie Lowrey in The New York Times.

Read this interview: Geithner, now at the end of his time as Treasury Secretary, sat down with The Wall Street Journal

What the market is trying to tell Washington. "The markets are not demanding deficit reduction now. This is the most widespread misconception among most Republicans in Washington, many centrists, and no small number of Democrats. The notion is that global investors are on a knife’s edge, ready to pounce and drive up U.S. government interest rates if we don’t enact a major deficit reduction package. There just isn’t any evidence from movements in the bond and currency markets that this is the case." Neil Irwin in The Washington Post.

Et Cetera

How the Internet is changing headlinesChoire Sicha in The Awl.

This is Reid's new filibuster planManu Raju in Politico.

The world needs $57t in infrastructure investment by 2030, McKinsey saysDylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

The State Department is almost done with its review of the Keystone XL pipeline. Prepare for the brawl to resume in 3, 2, 1... Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson in The Washington Post.

Will the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building be a gigantic new stage for the patent-reform debate? Emi Kolawole in The Washington Post.

An update on immigration reform, which gun control has moved to the political back-burnerCameron Joseph in The Hill.

The 112th Congress, our most polarized everDylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

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

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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