Wonkbook: The hopey-changey thing isn’t working out so well

April 30, 2013

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.

(Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Here's a depressing sentence: "the White House has not filled a position overseeing ethics and lobbying issues for more than two years — a job Obama created with great fanfare when he took office in 2009."

That's from Juliet Eilperin's look at President Obama's fading commitment to campaign-finance reform. This morning also brings a blistering letter signed by Americans for Campaign Reform, the Campaign Legal Center, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, Common Cause, Democracy 21, the League of Women Voters, and Public Citizen. "We are writing to express our deep concern about the nation’s corrupt campaign finance system and about your failure, to date, as President to provide meaningful leadership or take effective action to solve this fundamental problem facing our democracy," they say.

This is a White House that has little interest in quixotic causes. And campaign-finance reform is, at the moment, nothing if not a quixotic cause. With Republicans in control of the House and in possession of the filibuster in the Senate, big money is in no danger of being banished from American politics.

The White House thus sees this issue as heads, Republicans win, tails, Democrats lose. They'll never get the votes to truly change campaign-finance laws. But along the way, they'll attack the system in ways that will make them look like hypocrites for participating in it.

This all makes perfect sense. But it is another example of Team Obama being changed by Washington rather than changing Washington.

Bill Burton, head of Priorities USA, the pro-Obama superPAC, wrote that "our system is broken and...the Democratic Party should be spearheading reform. However, until campaign-finance reform is a reality, the party of reform should not be one of perpetual loss." It is a pragmatic argument that has fully triumphed over 2008's idealistic campaign.

Under Obama, today's Democratic Party is not the party of campaign-finance reform in any serious way. They favor it abstractly, but with the exception of relatively modest laws meant to roll back the effects of Citizens United and its related rulings, they expend no political capital or intellectual energy on the topic. Washington is safe. Democracy less so.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: $35 billion. That's the net amount of federal debt the Treasury Department says it will be able to retire between April and June of this year. It's probably not the beginning of any sustained fall in the total federal debt. But it is a shocking sight.

Wonkblog's Graph of the Day: The federal government's average interest rate on its debts is below 2 percent.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) debt is falling, down is up, and other unexpected economic news; 2) immigration myths; 3) Brookings finds $1T in health savings; 4) senators see backlash over background check vote; and 5) shaken to the Common Core.

1) Top story: Debt is falling for the first time in six years

Treasury to pay down debt for first quarter in six years. "The Treasury Department said that it expects to retire a net $35 billion in bonds, notes and bills from April to the end of June. That compares with its estimate from earlier this year that it would rack up an additional $103 billion in marketable debt in the second quarter...Still, the usual shortfalls will likely return quickly. The Treasury said it expects to borrow a net $223 billion in the July-to-September period." Jeffrey Sparshott in The Wall Street Journal.

@grossdm: Ironic that plenty was written about the deficit/debt on a day when Treasury announced it was paying some down.

As jobs lag, Fed seen as unlikely to do more. "There is little sign, however, that Fed officials are considering an expansion of their four-year-old stimulus campaign as the Fed’s policy-making committee prepares to convene Tuesday and Wednesday in Washington...[T]here are several reasons officials remain reluctant to do more. The benefits of additional asset purchases appear modest, at best. The consequences of buying more bonds are uncertain. And officials are frustrated that their monetary policy is being forced to play a role that most economists and Fed officials say could be more easily and effectively performed by fiscal policy." Binyamin Appelbaum in The New York Times.

...But it also faces calls to do even less. "Kevin Brady, who chairs the joint economic committee, wants Congress to appoint a bipartisan commission that could lead to a radical change in the mandate of the world’s largest and most important central bank. By setting up a process that has a chance of passing Congress, Mr Brady’s bill marks one of the most serious bids to revamp the Fed for years, on the centenary of its founding legislation in 1913." Robin Harding in The Financial Times.

@Matthew_C_Klein: Fed and Treasury must not believe in safe asset shortage since they are both working hard to make it worse

Lew names Treasury's chief of staff. "The Obama administration’s second-term staff reshuffling continued on Monday, as Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew named Christian A. Weideman as his new chief of staff. Mark A. Patterson, who has served in the role managing the Treasury Department’s day-to-day operations since President Obama took office in 2009, plans to depart at the end of May. Mr. Weideman is a well-known presence in the department. A lawyer by training, he is currently the department’s deputy general counsel, and he assisted with Mr. Lew’s confirmation process this year. He has also served as an associate counsel to Mr. Obama and has worked at the Williams & Connolly law firm." Annie Lowrey in The New York Times.

The era of austerity is over, at least for now. "[S]omething remarkable has happened in the last few weeks. It looks like world financial leaders are coming to that conclusion themselves, and reversing course. In my new book, I describe Iqaluit 2010 as the moment of the pivot toward austerity; some future book may well pinpoint Washington, 2013—that is, the IMF and World Bank spring meetings that ended a week ago—as a similar turning point in global economics." Neil Irwin in The Washington Post.

@JoshuaZumbrun: I wonder what percentage of Americans would even believe it's true that the government is paying down debt this quarter?

Should we worry about consumption again? "Americans boosted spending in March, partly due to high heating bills, but slow income growth suggests consumers may have trouble propping up the economy in coming months. Personal spending, which measures purchases from cars and clothes to health care and heating, rose 0.2% last month, the Commerce Department said Monday. Economists had forecast no change in spending levels." Jeffrey Sparshott and Sarah Portlock in The Wall Street Journal.

Congress spares air travel from sequester. Not child health. "Last week, those concerns became reality, as furloughs of air-traffic controllers fueled delays at the nation’s largest airports and provoked anger from travelers and the airline industry. After being inundated with angry e-mails from constituents, Congress voted to end the furloughs -- and then left for recess...Democrats said automatic budget cuts in a process known as sequestration would throw 70,000 children off the Head Start program, eliminate four million meals for seniors, take 600,000 people off a nutrition program for mothers and young children, and mean 125,000 fewer vouchers to help poor families pay for rental housing." Todd Shields and Nick Taborek in Bloomberg.

Age is the real culprit behind declining workforce participation. "Americans are leaving the labor force in unprecedented numbers. But the trend has more to do with retiring baby boomers than frustrated job seekers abandoning their searches...Put it all together, and the labor force is missing about three million workers who aren't in school or retired. That is still significant: Add those workers to the unemployment rolls and the jobless rate would jump to 9.3%. But it suggests the decline in participation is about more than a weak economy." Ben Casselman in The Wall Street Journal.

...And Jim Tankersley's rebuttal. "What I’d call really bad, though, is the end of a trend that had propelled America to sustained, strong growth in the decades following World War II. From 1948 to 1997, the labor force participation rate grew by an average of 0.4 percent a year, largely as a function of women entering the workforce. This was a good thing. The more workers you have, the more your economy is poised to grow." Jim Tankersley in The Washington Post.

...And Casselman responds. "Still, I do take issue with one of Mr. Tankersley’s points (this is meant to be a debate, after all). He argues that if the previous upward trend in participation had continued, more than 90% of the adult population would now be working. That’s true, but it’s also true that if I’d kept growing at the rate I did in high school, I’d now be close to 20 feet tall. Neither trend was likely to continue forever. A quick look at data from the OECD finds very few examples of industrialized economies with participation rates of 90% or better (though a number have rates higher than the U.S.)." Ben Casselman in The Wall Street Journal.

Yes, money really can buy happiness. "There is a clear upward relationship between income and happiness. It’s just logarithmic: the happiness value of the next dollar you earn is always worth less than the one you earned before it...Stevenson and Wolfers also found that happiness fluctuations pretty perfectly tracked changes in the economy. That shouldn’t happen if income doesn’t buy happiness." Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

Music recommendations interlude: Billy Joel, "Tomorrow Is Today," 1971.

Top op-eds

POLLIN AND ASH: A response to Reinhart and Rogoff. "The most important insight for anyone following this debate, and one that Ms. Reinhart and Mr. Rogoff acknowledge, is that there is no evidence supporting the claim that countries will consistently experience a sharp decline in economic growth once public debt levels exceed 90 percent of G.D.P...Ms. Reinhart and Mr. Rogoff stubbornly maintain that “growth is about 1 percentage point lower when debt is 90 percent or more of gross domestic product,” a core finding of their 2010 paper. There are serious problems with this claim." Robert Pollin and Michael Ash in The New York Times.

DELONG: When is government debt risky? "A government that does not tax sufficiently to cover its spending will eventually run into all manner of debt-generated trouble...All of this is bound to happen – eventually – if a government does not tax sufficiently to cover its spending. But can it happen as long as interest rates remain low, stock prices remain buoyant, and inflation remains subdued? I and other economists – including Larry Summers, Laura Tyson, Paul Krugman, and many more – believe that it cannot...[P]rices are flashing green, signaling that markets would prefer government debt to grow at a faster pace than current forecasts indicate." J. Bradford DeLong in Project Syndicate.

KLEIN: Obama wasn't joking at Correspondents' Dinner. "Obama’s speech at the White House correspondents’ dinner was well received, and for good reason — it was very funny. But there were a lot of moments when Obama seemed to be subverting the rules of the evening in order to get away with telling harsh truths that he could later claim were just jokes." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

BARRO: How conservatives are helping Obamacare. "What’s funny about this conversation is that conservatives have been accidentally managing expectations for implementation: By harping constantly on what a disaster the rollout is going to be, they will make what actually happens look good by comparison...This fall, as the exchanges come on line, tens of millions of people are going to find they can get health coverage they never could before. They are likely to be quite happy about that, especially if they’ve been hearing for months in advance that it will be a mess." Josh Barro in Bloomberg.

PONNURU: George W. Bush's legacy in a GOP in denial. "George W. Bush, who united almost all Republicans during most of his time in national politics, now divides them. Most Republicans view his presidency favorably, and cheer his recent rise in the public’s esteem. A vocal group of conservatives, though, thinks of the Bush presidency as a wrong turn -- a turn toward big government that the party needs to repudiate." Ramesh Ponnuru in Bloomberg.

SARGENT: Sequester cherry-picking should stop. "In an interview this morning, Dem Rep. Chris Van Hollen — a top party strategist — was surprisingly frank in conceding that Dems had given away crucial leverage by agreeing to the FAA fix. But he said Dems could still make up some of that lost ground — and called on them not to agree to any more targeted sequester fixes...“But we’re going to have to reclaim some lost ground here. We cannot have a situation where people just cherry-pick the sequester.” Van Hollen bluntly suggested that Dems — in agreeing to just a targeted FAA fix — had sent a message about Congress that it’s only responsive to powerful interests." Greg Sargent in The Washington Post.

SACHS: Why tax havens are a threat. "The curtain has been pulled aside on the once secret world of tax havens, and the scale of abuse is nearly beyond reckoning. Week after week, Americans and Europeans worn down by budget austerity have learnt about the secret accounts of their politicians, tax evasion by leading companies and hot money destabilising the world economy. The darker truth is that these havens are not gaps in the world’s financial system; they are the system." Jeffrey Sachs in The Financial Times.

GERSON: Hey, GOP! There's more to opposition than obstruction. "Some conservative Republicans — convinced that the only duty of an opposition party is to oppose — seem pleased with this turn of events. They would urge their party to finish the job by killing immigration reform and halting budget negotiations. This approach lacks only one element: an actual strategy. Defeating Obama is no longer a sufficient Republican goal." Michael Gerson in The Washington Post.

SUNSTEIN: Guns and the non-existent slippery slope. "Hirschman’s account misses an especially pernicious example of the rhetoric of reaction: the slippery-slope argument. According to that argument, we should reject Reform A, which is admittedly not so terrible, because it would inevitably put us on a slippery slope to Reform B, which is really bad...But the opposite could easily be true. After requiring background checks, the government may be more reluctant to impose other restrictions on gun ownership." Cass R. Sunstein in Bloomberg.

BROOKS: Engaged or detached? "These days most writers land on the engaged side of the continuum. Look at most think tanks. They used to look like detached quasi universities; now some are more like rapid response teams for their partisan masters. If you ever want to get a political appointment, you have to be engaged, working on political campaigns and serving the team. But I would still urge you to slide over toward the detached side of the scale." David Brooks in The New York Times.

Q&A interlude: Ask the wonks! The series continues.

2) Mythbusting on immigration reform

How low-skilled guest workers could become citizens under 'Gang of 8' bill. "Among the more controversial aspects of the Gang of Eight immigration bill (now dubbed S. 744: Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act) is the creation of “W visas.” Hashed out as a compromise between the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce, this program would issue guest worker visas for low-skilled workers, defined in the bill as those whose jobs don’t require a bachelor’s degree." Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

Is it time for open borders? "To prove the economic power of open borders, supporters often turn to the work of Michael Clemens, a development economist and one of the strongest voices for loosening border restrictions...Barriers to emigration may--according to Clemens's paper--"place one of the fattest of all wedges between humankind's current welfare and its potential welfare." Though he affirms that the research on migration's effects is far from complete, what Clemens has found "suggests that the gains from reducing emigration restrictions are likely to be enormous, measured in tens of trillions of dollars."...His research indicates that allowing free movement of all people across international borders could double world GDP." Shaun Raviv in The Atlantic.

...But the U.S. doesn't have a shortage of technical talent. "Colleges, for instance, are already minting far more programmers and engineers than the job market is absorbing. Roughly twice as many American undergraduates earn degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math disciplines than go on to work in those fields. As shown in the EPI graph below, in 2009 less than two thirds of employed computer science grads were working in the IT sector a year after graduation." Jordan Weissmann in The Atlantic.

Immigration splits DeMint, Rubio. "Jim DeMint helped make Marco Rubio a Senate star — and he could be forgiven for regretting it...[P]erhaps for the first time, the two men now find themselves at odds on a major issue. In 2007, Mr. DeMint was instrumental in helping to kill legislation to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, and now, six years later, Mr. Rubio, Republican of Florida, is a pivotal member of a bipartisan Senate group that has written a bill that would do just what Mr. DeMint was fighting to prevent." Ashley Parker in The New York Times.

XKCD interlude: How efficient is looking for efficiency gains?

3) Can we save $1 trillion in health care?

Is there $1 trillion in health savings just waiting for us? "A bevy of healthcare experts released recommendations Monday for cost-conscious reforms to Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance they said could save $1 trillion over two decades. In a Brookings Institution study, the experts urge Washington to embrace small, consensus-driven policy moves to lower healthcare costs rather than wait for a major deficit-reduction deal." Elise Viebeck in The Hill.

Montana may reconsider Medicaid expansion. "Last week I reported on the mistake vote that appeared to have sunk Montana’s efforts to move forward with a Medicaid expansion in 2014. One freshman legislator “pushed the wrong button” and, without his vote, the plan to expand Medicaid to 70,000 Montanans did not have enough support to move forward.To remedy the consequences of that one mistaken vote, Gov. Steve Bullock (D) reportedly is weighing calling the legislature back for a special session to deal with the issue." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Next big challenge for health law: implementation. "N. Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard economist who advised Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, fears that some lower-income job holders will work less under the law, since their government-financed insurance subsidies will phase out at higher earning levels. But he acknowledged that it was an “open question” how large those effects would be. Not large, White House economists say. And to the extent that they do happen, they would be offset by reduced marginal tax rates for others who, under current law, lose their Medicaid health coverage as they earn higher incomes.John Harwood in The New York Times.

Sebelius, at HHS, gets a new chief of staff. "Andrea Palm will assume the role after the departure of Sally Howard, who is leaving the job for a senior position at the Food and Drug Administration. Palm joined the health department in the early days of the Obama administration, working in its legislative office. She has also advised the White House Domestic Policy Council and is currently a counselor to Sebelius." Sam Baker in The Hill.

Medicare releases a 1,424-page rule that’s actually really interesting! "Overall, hospitals seemed pretty happy with the top line number: a 0.8 percent increase in their payments next year. That works out to about $27 million more going to the Medicare program in 2014 than will in 2013. That’s significant when you consider that Medicare costs grew at half that rate — by 0.4 percent — in 2012...At the same time, Medicare is making it harder to earn those dollars by increasing the payments to the very best hospitals — and trimming what it will pay poor performers." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Does austerity hurt our health? "Austerity is having a devastating effect on health in Europe and North America, driving suicide, depression and infectious diseases and reducing access to medicines and care, researchers said on Monday. Detailing a decade of research, Oxford University political economist David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, an assistant professor of medicine and an epidemiologist at Stanford University, said their findings show austerity is seriously bad for health." Kate Kelland in Reuters.

Nerdy political philosophy jokes interlude: "Cosmarxpolitan" magazine

4) Backlash against senators for blocking background checks

Are you a purple-state senator? Did you just vote against Machin-Toomey? Then you might want to check your latest poll. "The backlash appears to be the harshest for Flake, whose standing in Arizona cratered following his “no” vote on background checks. With an approval rating of 32 percent, Flake is already among the least popular senators in the country, according to PPP. Fifty-one percent of Arizona voters said they disapprove of Flake, while a majority of 52 percent said that his opposition to the gun legislation makes them less likely to vote for him in the future." Tom Kludt in Talking Points Memo.

Pediatricians push for gun control. "Gun violence will be back on the agenda Tuesday as members of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) climb Capitol Hill to push for more robust gun control measures. About 110 pediatricians from 40 states will meet with congressional staff during the fly-in, according to the AAP. The group will advocate for stronger background checks, an assault weapons ban, and federal research on gun violence prevention." Elise Viebeck in The Hill.

Sen. Cruz reveals tension in GOP ranks over filibuster strategy on gun control. "Speaking of the recent debate over gun control, Cruz told the audience at a FreedomWorks summit in Texas that the issue “generated more heat” inside the party than any other in recent memory. There were several lunches, he revealed, where fellow Republicans confronted him and his allies “yelling at us at the top of their lungs.”..."They said, ‘Listen, before you did this, the politics of it were great. The [Democrats] were the bad guys, the Republicans were the good guys. Now we all look like a bunch of squishes.’”" Rachel Weiner in The Washington Post.

How Obama has driven up gun sales. "President Barack Obama is arguably the nation's top gun salesman. The "Obama surge," as the Wall Street Journal calls it (others call it the "Obama bubble"), appears to have increased gun sales in the U.S. by millions of units over his presidency...Despite survey data indicating a steady decline in the number of households owning guns, the overall quantity of guns keeps rising." Francis Wilkinson in Bloomberg.

Extraterrestrial interlude: Hexagonal hurricane on Saturn.

5) Shaken to the Common Core

Turmoil swirls over Common Core ed standards. "[A]s the common core shifts from theory to reality, critics are emerging. State lawmakers are concerned about the cost, which the Fordham Institute estimated could run as high as $12 billion nationally. Progressives fret over new exams, saying that the proliferation of standardized tests is damaging public education. Teachers worry that they haven’t had enough training and lack the resources to competently teach to the new standards. And conservatives say the new standards mean a loss of local control over education and amount to a national curriculum." Lyndsey Layton in The Washington Post.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

The government is spending way more on disaster relief than anybody thoughtBrad Plumer.

Ask the wonksWonkblog.

China is using up oil faster than we can produce itBrad Plumer.

Montana may reconsider Medicaid expansionSarah Kliff.

The era of austerity is over (for now)Neil Irwin.

Yes, money really can buy happinessDylan Matthews.

How low-skilled guest workers could become citizens under ‘Gang of 8′ billDylan Matthews.

Obama wasn’t joking at the White House correspondents’ dinnerEzra Klein.

Medicare releases a 1,424-page rule that’s actually really interestingSarah Kliff.

Why the Wall Street Journal is wrong about labor-force participationJim Tankersley.

Et Cetera

Obama’s campaign finance reform plans have fadedJuliet Eilperin in The Washington Post.

Senators urge Obama to help resolve veterans claims backlogSteve Vogel in The Washington Post.

Will spending cuts delay researchAshley Southall in The New York Times.

Schumer wants to tighten regulation on painkiller medsSam Baker in The Hill.

CFTC struggles to keep pace with technology issuesDina ElBoghdady in The Washington Post.

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

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.

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Brad Plumer | April 29, 2013