Wonkbook: Reid wants to call Republicans’ budget bluff

April 23, 2013

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(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Some fun news this morning for budget wonks. "Leader Reid is very likely to ask for consent to move to conference [this] morning," e-mails a Democratic Senate aide. "We will see if Senate Republicans who have talked about regular order will actually stick to that and allow us to move to conference or if they will drag their feet and provide cover for House Republicans who want to drag their feet on negotiations."

If that means nothing to you -- and, if you're a halfway normal human being, it shouldn't mean anything to you -- then perhaps we should back up.

For the last two years, congressional Republicans have argued that the real problem in the budget debate is that Democrats have abandoned "regular order." By regular order, Republicans mean -- well, I'll let Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, explain it.

"Secret deals have not worked and are an affront to popular democracy," he argued in January. "The right process is the regular order. The House produces its budget--as it has--and the Senate passes its budget, all in accordance with the Budget Act of 1974. Under that law, the Senate Budget Committee must approve a budget resolution by April 1st. From there, the law requires the budget to be considered on the Senate floor where it must receive 50 hours of open amendment and debate. A budget cannot be filibustered and is adopted by a simple majority in both committee and the full Senate. Then, once the issues and differences are clarified by this open process, the work of conferencing must begin."

Got that? The House should pass a budget, the Senate should pass a budget, and then the two chambers should head to conference to work out the differences between the two budgets -- all of it out in the open. No more of these backroom negotiations. Let Congress work as Congress was intended to work.

Regular order has achieved a totemic significance on the right. Bringing it back by forcing Senate Democrats to pass a budget was, in fact, the lure that House Speaker John Boehner and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan used to convince their colleagues to raise the debt ceiling.

"The good news is that we now have a vehicle for regular order," Ryan exulted in March. "Democrats derailed the budget process when they gave up governing a few years ago. Nearly four years without a budget. We brought them back in the game this spring. That is a good thing."

But a funny thing happened after Senate Democrats passed their budget: House Republicans, it seemed, weren't that eager to move to regular order after all. There's been no evident interest in the next move, which is appointing conferees to begin reconciling the two budgets. "It seems to us they want to slow this down, keep it in the back rooms, keep it quiet, because there’s no advantage to them in having a formal public process," said one Democratic aide.

In fact, Republicans see a disadvantage in a formal public process. "If you appoint conferees and after 20 legislative days there’s no agreement, the minority has the right to offer motions to instruct, which become politically motivated bombs that show up on the House floor,” Boehner told reporters.

Senate Democrats don't find this a very convincing excuse: They note that they had to vote on dozens of Republican amendments -- many of which were designed to embarrass them.

House Republicans instead want a private agreement -- a "framework" -- that would direct the conference committee as they attempt to reconcile the budgets. "What we want to do is have constructive dialogues to find out where the common ground is and go to conference when we have a realistic chance of coming out with an agreement," Ryan told reporters. There's precedent for this sort of thing. But it's not what's traditionally meant by "regular order." Rather, it's a return to the precise kind of backroom, leadership-driven dealmaking Republicans have spent so much time assailing.

And Senate Democrats aren't having it. After years of Republicans complaining about secret deals and hammering Senate Democrats for betraying regular order, they're calling the GOP's bluff. That's why Reid intends to move towards conference this morning. Either Republicans will agree, and regular order will proceed -- which will likely mean no deal, and which will then give House Democrats a chance to throw their bombs -- or Senate Republicans will filibuster, and that will be the end of the regular order talking point.

But that's all political theatre. However it works out, the point is more than proven. What's holding up a budget deal isn't disagreements over the process. It's disagreements over the budget.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: $630 billion. That's how much there may be in annual spending on clean-energy projects by 2030, according to a report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. That would mean renewables would account for half of all electricity generation capacity.

Wonkblog's Graph of the Day: The Tax Policy Center has published its analysis of President Obama's budget for fiscal year 2014.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) immigration reform won't be a breeze; 2) boom forecasted in green energy; 3) new Tax Policy Center tables!; 4) why austerity is no longer the answer; and 5) should Medicare pay for patient satisfaction?

1) Top story: Judiciary Cmte. hearing marks debut of hot conflict over immigration reform

Lots of heat in the Senate Judiciary Cmte.'s hearing on immigration legislation. "After months of heated negotiations, a bipartisan group of eight senators finally achieved compromise, coming together to unveil a broad overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws. But at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the legislation Monday, a new set of divisions began to emerge, offering an early glimpse at the partisan politics likely to be on display as the immigration bill winds its way through the Senate." Ashley Parker in The New York Times.

Watch: One highlight of the hearingTalking Points Memo.

5 ways immigration reform will help low-wage workers. "Something odd happens whenever immigration reform enters the news: Politicians and pundits who barely spare a word for low-wage workers in normal times suddenly become extremely concerned that immigrants might compete with low-wage laborers. There’s a reason for that: The overall economic benefits of immigration are clearly positive. Immigration is good for the economy. So opponents of the bill are left picking over the distribution of those benefits." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

Q&A: What you might be wondering about the Senate's immigration billJulia Preston in The New York Times.

Should we be thinking about Boston when we think about immigration reform? "Senators pushing to overhaul immigration laws faced a new call Monday to suspend work on the legislation in order to add security measures in response to the Boston Marathon bombings...In [a] letter, Mr. Paul called for hearings by the Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee looking specifically at the national security aspects of any attempt to overhaul U.S. immigration laws" Corey Boles in The Wall Street Journal.

@mattyglesias: I like that immigration reform hearings will be presided over by a senator from Vermont, where there are ~0 immigrants.

Reminder: The Boston bombers were here legally. "What’s more, the best information we have suggests that terrorism doesn’t have a whole lot to do with illicit border crossings in general. The National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland put out a report in December detailing 221 border crossings by people later indicted in a federal terrorism-related case. Those crossings were associated with 43 terrorist attacks between 1975 and 2001." Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

@Goldfarb: .@PressSec: Momentum on immigration legislation shouldn't be thwarted by concerns about Boston bombers' imm status

SUAREZ-OROZCO AND SUAREZ-OROZCO: The immigrant child, adrift. "In 1997, we started a large-scale, five-year study of newly arrived immigrants, ages 9 to 14, in 20 public middle and high schools...Many newcomer students attend tough urban schools that lack solidarity and cohesion. In too many we found no sense of shared purpose, but rather a student body divided by race and ethnicity, between immigrants and the native born, between newcomers and more acculturated immigrants. Only 6 percent of the participants could name a teacher as someone they would go to with a problem; just 3 percent could identify a teacher who was proud of them." Marcelo Suarez-Orozco and Carola Suarez-Orozco in The New York Times.

PONNURU: Immigration reform's one big flaw. "What ought to be drawing more opposition is the proposal to bring hundreds of thousands of “temporary guest workers” to the U.S...One of the worst things about illegal immigration is that it creates a class of people who contribute their labor to this country but aren’t full participants in it and lack the rights and responsibilities of everyone else. A guest-worker program doesn’t solve this problem. It formalizes it." Ramesh Ponnuru in Bloomberg.

@RameshPonnuru: Something odd about supporting immigration bill, then saying after Boston we need to look at national security implications.

CILLIZZA: How Obama's failure on guns weakens immigration reform. "The failure of a package of gun control measures last week not only robs President Obama of what was expected to be a major legislative accomplishment of his second term, it also ramps up pressure for him to find a way to succeed in upcoming fights on immigration and the federal budget." Chris Cillizza in The Washington Post.

Music recommendations interlude: Richie Havens, "Freedom," 1969.

Top op-eds

SUNSTEIN: The psychology of risk and fear. "After a tragedy such as the one last week in Boston, people have a heightened sense of risk...The first is that we often assess probabilities not by looking at statistics, but by asking what events come readily to mind...When a terrible event produces widespread fear, it is often because of the availability heuristic. A tragic event becomes so public, and so memorable, that people feel at risk whether or not they really are." Cass R. Sunstein in Bloomberg.

KLEIN: Machin-Toomey failed, but it's not the end of the world. "Universal background checks for gun purchases are a good, and overdue, idea. So too with cracking down on straw purchasers and traffickers. But the rending of (mostly Democratic) garments after the failure of the gun-control bills is out of proportion to anything the legislation actually would’ve done." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

SOLTAS: After austerity, what comes next? "[T]he intellectual case for austerity is on its way out -- at least in its vulgar form of immediate cuts to public spending and sharp increases in taxes...What comes next, however, isn’t clear...[F]iscal policy could move in any of several directions...Putting the budget on autopilot for a while -- and dealing with questions that were sidelined during years of fiscal monomania -- might be the best result." Evan Soltas in Bloomberg. 

ROBINSON: Our double standard on guns and terrorism. "Gun violence costs 30,000 lives in this country each year. Other steps proposed after Newtown — such as reimposition of a ban on military-style assault weapons and large-capacity magazines — were deemed too much to hope for. Imagine what our laws would be like if the nation were losing 30,000 lives each year to Islamist terrorism. Do you think for one minute that a young man named, say, Abdullah or Hussein — or Tsarnaev — would be able to go to a gun show and buy a semiautomatic AR-15 knockoff with a 30-round clip, no questions asked?" Eugene Robinson in The Washington Post.

BROOKS: The confidence questions. "For decades, surveys indicated men had a higher self-esteem than women. But there is some evidence that the gap has narrowed or vanished. A 2011 study from the University of Basel based on surveys of 7,100 young adults found that young women had as much self-esteem as young men." David Brooks in The New York Times.

Wonkblog book club interlude: The schedule is out. Start reading!

2) Will green investments triple?

Is investment in green energy about to triple? "The plunge in the cost of wind and solar power that bankrupted more than two dozen manufacturers is forecast to spur a tripling of investment in renewables by 2030 and to reduce the grip fossil fuels have on world energy supply. Annual spending on clean-energy projects that don’t add to greenhouse-gas pollution may rise to $630 billion at the end of the next decade from $190 billion last year, Bloomberg New Energy Finance said in a report today. That’s 37 percent more than estimated in November 2011 and means renewables would account for half of all generation capacity by 2030." Louise Downing and Alex Morales in Bloomberg.

Yesterday was Earth Day. Let's check in on Obama's green record. "More than any other action, the single biggest climate policy Obama could undertake would be to impose limits on greenhouse gas emissions from utilities now in operation. The president has not yet said whether he will pursue this course, but EPA has given every indication it plans to pursue this policy in concert with the states over the course of the next year. No matter what the administration does, this will provoke a major political and legal battle." Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

Survey finds majority in favor of Keystone pipeline. "Nearly 75% of Americans and 68% of Canadians indicated they "support" or "somewhat support" the project, which would carry heavy crude from the Alberta oil sands to the U.S. Gulf Coast for refining, according to the poll conducted by Ottawa-based Nanos Research. The poll also asked participants—1,007 Americans and 1,013 Canadians—which was more important: reducing greenhouse-gas emissions or having North America free from oil imports? Both a majority of Americans and Canadians, 63% and 55%, respectively, suggested reducing reliance on oil imports trumped environmental policy." Paul Vieira in The Wall Street Journal.

Explainer: American attitudes on global warming, in 8 chartsScott Clement in The Washington Post.

...But the EPA has critical words for the State Dept. on Keystone. "In a relatively unusual public squabble between agencies, a top E.P.A. official said in a letter to State Department officials that the department’s latest environmental statement for the 1,700-mile pipeline provided “insufficient information” to adequately judge the project, and that the E.P.A. could not sign off on the pipeline unless more complete studies were performed." John M. Broder in The New York Times.

Why aren't younger Americans driving? "Ever since the recession hit in late 2007, Americans have been driving less and less. Was that because of the horrible economy? To some extent, perhaps. But it’s striking that Americans are still cutting back on driving even though the economy is growing again...Since June 2005, vehicle miles driven have fallen 8.75 percent. The decline has persisted for 92 months and there’s no sign it’s abating." Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

...And the trucking industry is ditching gasoline for natural gas. "[T]This month, Cummins, a leading engine manufacturer, began shipping big, new engines that make long runs on natural gas possible...And in the latest sign of how the momentum for natural gas in transportation is accelerating, United Parcel Service plans to announce in the next few days that it will expand its fleet of heavy 18-wheel vehicles running on liquefied natural gas, or L.N.G., to 800 by the end of 2014, from 112." Diane Cardwell and Clifford Krauss in The New York Times.

Extreme sports interlude: Combat juggling. C'mon, you know you want to check it out.

3) Tax Policy Center releases budget analysis

How the Tax Policy Center has just assessed the Obama budget. "The study by the Tax Policy Center finds that in 2015, 86 percent of the increase in taxes would be borne by people earning $200,000 or more a year. That would largely be a result of dramatically scaling back tax breaks that disproportionately benefit the wealthy and establishing a minimum level of taxation for people who earn $1 million a year. But the study also finds that some Americans of more modest backgrounds would face more taxes. Some people earning between $100,000 and $200,000 a year would pay about $150 more, while some earning less than $100,000 a year would pay less than $100 in additional taxes." Zachary A. Goldfarb in The Washington Post.

...But chained CPI incites revolt among House Democrats. "The resolution, H.Con.Res. 34, was sponsored by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), and co-sponsored by 81 other Democrats. It says it is the sense of Congress that "the Chained Consumer Price Index should not be used to calculate cost of living adjustments for Social Security benefits."" Pete Kasperowicz in The Hill.

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, witness the incredible shrinking budget deficit. "The number crunchers at Goldman Sachs have lowered their estimates of the deficit both this year and next, on the back of higher-than-expected revenues and lower-than-projected spending. Analysts started the year projecting that the deficit in the current fiscal year would be about $900 billion. Earlier this year, they lowered the estimate to $850 billion. Now they have lowered it again, to $775 billion, or about 4.8 percent of economic output." Annie Lowrey in The New York Times.

Furloughs begin for federal employees. "Labor Department employees have already begun taking their unpaid leave, part of the government’s cost-cutting hatchet known as the sequester...Though government service is bound to suffer from the sequester, “it would be unfair to think the world has stopped and that the earth would stop turning” because he will miss two work weeks, one day at at time, [an employee said.]" Joe Davidson in The Washington Post.

Explainer: Everything you need to know about the Senate's online sales-tax billBrad Plumer in The Washington Post.

Internet sales tax bill proceeds in Senate. "Lawmakers voted 74 to 20 to open debate on the measure, which would allow states to compel out-of-state merchants to collect sales tax for them...Opening debate doesn't guarantee passage of the measure, which still faces opposition in the Senate and the House. A final vote is unlikely to occur until early May, when the Senate returns from a weeklong recess. That could give opponents more time to mass against the bill." John D. McKinnon and Siobhan Hughes in The Wall Street Journal.

Old school interlude: The bumper cars of the 1920s.

4) Why austerity is no longer the answer

Austerity is no longer the answer, Barroso says. "A top European Union official signaled his support Monday for relaxing Europe's austerity drive, in what could be a significant break for countries struggling to hit tough budget targets amid persistent economic weakness. In a speech, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso said the policy of austerity pursued by the EU in recent years no longer has the public backing needed to work." Alessandro Torello, Frances Robinson, and Paul Hannon in The Wall Street Journal.

Deep dive into econometrics: Deepankar Basu breaks out the full analytical toolkit to show that weak economies probably cause debt, rather than debt causing weak economies. The Roosevelt Institute.

Why the economy is 3 percent larger than we thought it was. "Huzzah! America’s economy is around $400 billion bigger than you thought it was. And the details of why include some really important lessons about the contributions that the creative class, including corporate research and development staff and America’s moviemakers, TV producers, and songwriters, make to the economy. Star Wars creator George Lucas and his counterparts, it turns out, are more important to growth than the numbers have previously captured." Neil Irwin in The Washington Post.

Home sales see growing pains. "Sales of previously owned homes in March fell 0.6% from February after adjusting for seasonal factors, the National Association of Realtors said on Monday. Sales were still up by 10.3% from a year earlier, marking the 21st consecutive month in which sales have increased from their year-ago levels. In a reversal from just two years ago, the biggest challenge facing housing markets today is too few homes being offered for sale, according to industry executives." Nick Timiraos in The Wall Street Journal.

Math interlude: Explore prime numbers.

5) Medicare can't get no satisfacton -- or can it?

Should Medicare pay for patient satisfaction? "Medicare started doing something differently in October 2012, as part of the new health care law. It began tethering some of hospitals’ payments to patient satisfaction rankings...While that might improve patient rankings, a new study suggests it will not improve quality of care: There is little relationship between patient satisfaction and the quality of care they receive." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Tavenner likely heading for Senate confirmation. "The Senate Finance Committee is expected this week to approve President Obama’s nominee to head the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)...Finance’s approval of her nomination would move her one step closer to officially running CMS, though the full Senate must still vote on her confirmation." Elise Viebeck in The Hill.

Here's why health cost growth is slowing. "A new study from the Kaiser Family Foundation suggests that most of the slowdown is indeed temporary – but even the smaller fraction that is permanent has the potential to cut a half-trillion health-care costs over the next decade...Levitt and Kaiser Family Foundation President Drew Altman worked with the Altarum Institute, a nonprofit based in Michigan, to come up with a model that predicts health spending growth. They found that just two factors did a really great job of explaining how quickly health-care costs grew. The first was inflation and the second growth in the overall economy, not just that year but also in the five years prior." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

A roundup of ways we can reduce crime without gun lawsDylan Matthews.

Everything you need to know about the Senate's online sales-tax billBrad Plumer.

Wonkblog book club: Ira Katznelson’s “Fear Itself.” Brad Plumer.

Reminder: The alleged Boston bombers were here legallyDylan Matthews.

Here’s why health-care costs are slowingSarah Kliff.

Five ways immigration reform will help low-wage workersEzra Klein.

Huzzah! The U.S. economy is 3 percent bigger than we thought. Thanks, George LucasNeil Irwin.

Why aren’t younger Americans driving anymoreBrad Plumer.

The Manchin-Toomey gun bill failed. That’s not the end of the worldEzra Klein.

Should Medicare pay hospitals for leaving patients satisfiedSarah Kliff.

Et Cetera

Obama to dine with female senators tonightRachel Weiner in The Washington Post.

Major positions still open in Commerce and State Depts.Al Kamen in The Washington Post.

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

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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