Wonkbook: The American center is shrinking

June 13

Welcome to Wonkbook, Wonkblog’s morning policy news primer by Puneet Kollipara. To subscribe by e-mail, click here. Send comments, criticism or ideas to Wonkbook at Washpost dot com. To read more by the Wonkblog team, click here.


(AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Wonkbook’s Number of the Day: 2.9 percent. That's the percentage by which state governors have proposed to raise spending next fiscal year, the lowest boost since the Great Recession ended.

Wonkbook’s Chart of the Day: These charts showcase how America lives, breathes and legislates polarization.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: (1) Living and breathing polarization; (2) previewing the Fed meeting; (3) the last health-care act before midterms?; (4) teacher-tenure travails; and (5) behind the scenes of the federal food fight.

1. Top story: Congress doesn't have a monopoly on polarization...

...America lives and breathes it. "Conservatives and liberals don’t just differ in their political views. They like to live in different places, associate with like-minded people, and have opposing views on the value of ethnic and religious diversity in their neighborhoods, according to a major new study by the Pew Research Center. Political polarization is now deeply embedded in the United States — more so than at any time in recent history....Partisan combat has produced rising animosity 'bordering on a sense of alarm' toward the opposite party....Most Americans are not so consistently ideological in their attitudes....The most politically engaged happen to be the most ideologically consistent, and they have made their voices heard." Dan Balz in The Washington Post.

Primary source: "Political Polarization in the American Public." Pew Research Center.

(Related: Read Pew's president's column on the findings.)

Explainers:

7 things to know about polarization in America. Carroll Doherty in Pew Research Center.

Interpret these findings with care. John Sides in The Washington Post.

Charts: How conservatives are driving partisan rancor. "When Democrats and Republicans can't reach consensus on the proper role of government in healthcare, that's partisan polarization. But when Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) says that 'Obamacare is going to destroy everything we know as a nation,' that's partisan warfare. As it turns out, partisan warfare, like polarization, is highly asymmetric. Animosity and ill will are significantly more concentrated at the conservative end of the ideological spectrum." Christopher Ingraham in The Washington Post.

Blame Congress? Sure, but don't forget the people and the system that put Congress there. "There is plenty of data out there showing how polarized Congress is and — accordingly — how little it gets done. But to some extent, Congress is an extension of the polarization that exists in the American people. And as this poll shows, members of the two American political parties increasingly disagree on basically any ideological question you could pose to them. That's not exactly a recipe for political compromise or getting things done." Aaron Blake in The Washington Post.

Background reading: Which came first: The polarization in Congress, or the polarization of Americans?

Why consensus-building will be tougher: The American center is shrinking. "There was a time in the not too distant past when conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans made up significant parts of their respective coalitions. Northeastern Republicans moderated the GOP, while Southern Democrats pulled their party to the right. Those days are over....The Pew Research Center shows that the percentage of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades. At the same time, the ideological overlap between the parties has shrunk to historic lows: Now, 92 percent of Republicans are to the right of the average Democrat, while 94 percent of Democrats are to the left of the average Republican." Reid Wilson in The Washington Post.

Background reading: The ideological center in Congress is pretty much dead. Chris Cillizza in The Washington Post.

Interactive chart: Are state legislatures becoming more partisan? Look at Arizona. "That’s one of many takeaways from a new Sunlight Foundation interactive that charts partisanship, effectiveness at passing bills and cooperation among most of the nation’s state legislators. The chart, posted Tuesday by developer Thom Neale and embedded below, is a pretty good visualization of the increasing partisanship in state capitals." Niraj Chokshi in The Washington Post.

Charts: Give me compromise, as long as it's what I want (especially among liberals). "People who were identified as consistently liberal or consistently conservative, however, were less likely to think that a mixed outcome was the best outcome. Instead, they preferred to see their side have a lopsided victory. About a third of consistently liberal respondents wanted to see a 50/50 division, but 62 percent — almost two-thirds — wanted more of Obama's priorities to be implemented. On the other side, the numbers were similar. A third of consistent conservatives supported an even division, 57 percent wanted the Republicans to get more. At least those conservatives were being consistent." Philip Bump in The Washington Post.

What issues are Americans divided on? Pretty much everything except Social Security. "Among the most highly ideological, most consistent conservative voters in the country most people don't want to see cuts. Moderates don't want cuts. Liberals don't want cuts. Nobody wants cuts. The big gap is that there's a substantial bloc of liberal support for increasing benefits, while conservatives like the status quo better. This is interesting because I think it underscores the limited relevance of public opinion to practical politics. Among policymaking elites, there's near-universal consensus that Social Security should adjust to population aging at least in part through benefit cuts." Matthew Yglesias in Vox.

Despite the ideological divisions, some nuances remain on both sides. "Even among those on the ends of the ideological scale, who hold either consistently liberal or conservative positions generally, there is some nuance to their viewpoint. Among consistent liberals, 81 percent support limits on gun ownership, yet just 16 percent say only law enforcement officers should have guns. Likewise, though 96 percent of consistent conservatives prioritize protecting gun rights over restricting them, just 34 percent said there should be no ownership restrictions at all." Jennifer Agiesta in the Associated Press.

Charts: Here's what your house says about your politics. Emily Badger in The Washington Post.

Other political reads:

Tea party Republicans run away from a chance to lead. Joshua Green in Bloomberg Businessweek.

Conservative pragmatist Kevin McCarthy favored to be next House majority leader. Paul Kane in The Washington Post.

Who will be the conservative pick for majority leader? Matt Fuller in Roll Call.

PONNURU: Democrats are misguided. That doesn't mean I hate them. "I have full confidence in the evidence Pew presents....The trouble with the study is that it can't stop slathering on pejorative descriptions that aren't quite right....I'm one of those people who think the Democratic Party's policies threaten the nation's well-being (and at least once a week I think the Republican Party's policies do, too)....It doesn't mean that I hate all or any Democrats, or that I can't treat them with civility, respect and even affection — in short, it doesn't mean that I bear 'animosity' toward them. I think they are, as the question puts it, 'misguided,' not malevolent. The section of the report on how polarization is affecting personal life is similarly overstated." Ramesh Ponnuru in Bloomberg View.

CHAIT: This survey explains why Cantor lost. "The conservative revolt against compromise expresses itself constantly....The most consistent theme of the attacks on Cantor was that he somehow agreed too much with Democrats....But that, more than any ideology, is the reason Cantor lost, and the reason Republicans have been reportedly forced into legislative strategies — default threats, shutdowns, killing immigration reform — they see as contrary to their own best interest. Even Cantor’s totalistic obstruction is not enough. Conservative Republicans want them to fight, and fight, and fight." Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine.

Top opinion

KRUGMAN: Cantor and the death of movement conservatism? "Before the Virginia upset, there was a widespread media narrative to the effect that the Republican establishment was regaining control from the Tea Party, which was really a claim that good old-fashioned movement conservatism was on its way back. In reality, however, establishment figures who won primaries did so only by reinventing themselves as extremists. And Mr. Cantor’s defeat shows that lip service to extremism isn’t enough; the base needs to believe that you really mean it. In the long run — which probably begins in 2016 — this will be bad news for the G.O.P., because the party is moving right on social issues at a time when the country at large is moving left." Paul Krugman in The New York Times.

McARDLE: It takes a village to lower inequality. "Last year, Harvard economist Raj Chetty published some very important work on income mobility across the U.S....The distance that mattered wasn’t the distance between the bottom and the 1 percent; it was the distance between the bottom and the upper middleclass....A growing body of convincing research bolsters this story. Unfortunately, that research fails to provide one thing: a solution. If you think that the wealth of the 1 percent is the major problem facing America, a plausible solution presents itself: Tax away their money and give it to other people. But if you think that the gap between the bottom and the upper middle class is the main problem, a feasible fix is harder to propose." Megan McArdle in Bloomberg View.

DYNARSKI: Student loans — the new mortgage defaults? "Compared with mortgages, auto loans and credit cards, student loans are loosely regulated, and that regulatory weakness is particularly threatening to consumers because they can’t discharge their debts through bankruptcy and escape lenders who are causing them harm. Borrowers — and the economy at large — are suffering as a result....The parallels with the mortgage crisis are striking. In both cases, the companies managing the loans have been slow to devise loan forgiveness plans for borrowers who run into trouble, hurting both the borrowers and the broader economy. In both cases, it often isn’t clear who even owns the underlying loans, further slowing efforts to restructure them." Susan Dynarski in The New York Times.

ROTHSTEIN: The trouble with taking on teacher tenure. "Everyone agrees that closing the achievement gap should be a high priority. But the remedy should fit the problem. The lack of effective teachers in impoverished schools contributes to that gap, but tenure isn’t the cause. Teaching in those schools is a hard job, and many teachers prefer (slightly) easier jobs in less troubled settings. That leads to high turnover and difficulty in filling positions. Left with a dwindling pool of teachers, principals are unlikely to dismiss them, whether they have tenure or not. Instead, policy makers should continue experiments with bonuses to attract good teachers, as well as ways to reduce the transfer of effective teachers out of schools where they are most needed." Jesse Rothstein in The New York Times.

PETHOKOUKIS: Wake up, Washington, and smell the new economy. "In his speech, Lew said, 'that many today wonder whether something that has always been true in our past will be true in our future.' (Indeed, the 2013 Obama budget declared, 'In the 21st Century, real GDP growth in the United States is likely to be permanently slower than it was in earlier eras….') Signs abound that the answer to that question is, 'No, it won’t.' And while Washington should debate appropriate policy responses, it first needs to accept the reality of trends, both old and recent, that are fundamentally making America’s pursuit of happiness more difficult." James Pethokoukis in AEIdeas.

Prank interlude: The invisible driver prank is back, this time in Europe.

2. Previewing the Fed's meeting

Ahead of the Fed's meeting next week, economists are optimistic about wage growth. "Economists are increasingly looking for wage growth to pick up in coming months, a long-awaited development that would put more money in the pockets of consumers and could spur accelerated growth in the broader economy....The recent acceleration of hiring opens the way for wage growth to increase, a trend sure to be watched at the Federal Reserve. Many Fed officials are leery of raising interest rates until the labor market is closer to full employment. The falling jobless rate is one sign the labor markets are tightening up. Rising wages will be another." Kathleen Madigan in The Wall Street Journal.

Jobless-claims, retail-sales data won't drastically change bigger economic picture. "The Commerce Department said on Thursday that retail sales gained 0.3 percent. While that was below the 0.6 percent rise expected on Wall Street, April sales were revised higher to show a 0.5 percent increase, helping to keep growth forecasts intact....While a few economists trimmed their second-quarter gross domestic product estimates slightly on the retail sales data, most continue to expect a strong rebound with growth estimates ranging between a 3 percent to 4 percent pace. The lofty forecasts were supported by another Commerce Department report showing business inventories recorded their biggest increase in six months in April." Lucia Mutikani in Reuters.

How the Fed may raise rates without a sell-off assets. "Central bankers are stepping back from a three-year-old strategy for an exit from the unprecedented easing they deployed to battle the worst recession since the Great Depression. Minutes of their last meeting in April made no mention of asset sales. Officials worry that such sales would spark an abrupt increase in long-term interest rates, making it more expensive for consumers to buy goods on credit and companies to invest....The Fed is testing new tools that would allow it to keep a large balance sheet even after it raises short-term interest rates, a step policy makers anticipate taking next year. They would use these tools to drain excess reserves temporarily from the banking system." Craig Torres and Matthew Boesler in Bloomberg.

This time, empty seats will be filled. "The Senate on Thursday confirmed President Obama’s nominees to serve on the Federal Reserve’s influential board of governors, just days before the leaders of the nation’s central bank are slated to convene in Washington. Former U.S. Treasury official Lael Brainard was approved 61-31, and lawmakers confirmed private equity manager Jerome Powell for a second term in a vote of 67-24.The law has allowed Powell to continue serving on the board even though his term technically expired in January. In addition, the Senate voted Thursday to appoint Stanley Fischer, former head of the Bank of Israel, as vice chairman of the central bank. He won confirmation to join the board last month." Ylan Q. Mui in The Washington Post.

Could the confirmations strengthen Yellen's dovish hand? "Ms. Brainard has given little public indication of her views on monetary policy, but analysts expect her arrival — alongside Mr. Fischer’s last month — to strengthen the hand of the Fed’s chairwoman, Janet L. Yellen, who has championed the Fed’s focus on job creation and wants to retreat slowly from its stimulus campaign. Some officials favor a faster retreat, citing concerns about financial stability....The arrival of Mr. Fischer and Ms. Brainard also ends a period in which presidential appointees have not held a majority of votes on the powerful policy-making committee." Binyamin Appelbaum in The New York Times.

Fed proposes revising stress tests. "The Federal Reserve wants to keep banks from buying back shares and raising dividends if they don't fulfill their stated goals to shore up financing. The Fed, in a proposal released Thursday, said it would limit banks' ability to distribute dividends or buy back shares if firms don't raise the levels of capital proposed as part of their official capital plan submitted to the central bank. The Fed said some banks, as part of its annual stress tests, 'included issuances of capital instruments in their capital plans, but didn't execute these planned issuances.' The Fed said such behavior has the 'potential to undermine' its ability to evaluate the financial health of banks, a goal of its annual test of lenders' financial strength." Alan Zibel in The Wall Street Journal.

Other economic/financial reads:

New details on Obama's minimum-wage effort for government employees. Dave Jamieson in The Huffington Post.

A job-training program that actually works? Sophie Quinton in National Journal.

Why is the black unemployment rate so high? Jana Kasperkevic in The Guardian.

Insect interlude: Bumblebee hero rescues another bee from a spider's grasp.

3. This year's last health-care act?

In this age of gridlock, Congress moved with lightning speed on VA reform. "Members of Congress say they are confident of sending a unified version of a bill to overhaul veterans' health care to the president by the end of the month. The Senate voted Wednesday to approve the measure, which would make it possible for veterans to get a voucher for private care in their community. It also...makes it easier to fire employees who work for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and cancels performance bonuses. A House version of the measure, which passed Tuesday, makes similar changes." Krishnadev Calamur in NPR.

And no pesky cost projection will stand in their way. "Some senators are questioning an 'astronomical' but preliminary Congressional Budget Office score for the Senate-passed emergency veterans health bill — while promising to find ways to pay for it in conference with the House. The CBO said the VA bill could cost $50 billion a year in expanded health benefits, but there were questions Thursday about how the CBO came to that figure." Niels Lesniewski and Humberto Sanchez in Roll Call.

The provision that you haven't heard about. "Tucked into a Senate-passed bill to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs is language expanding Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits for the husbands and wives of military service members who die in the line of duty. The provision...has received scant notice, even as many have closely followed Congress' response to [the VA] crisis....Because the Sanders-McCain legislation has broad bipartisan support, and because the provision to expand post GI benefits to spouses has wide support too, lawmakers are hopeful that it will remain intact." Sam Stein in The Huffington Post.

Health care's last act before the midterms? "The reforms are being heralded on Capitol Hill as a significant step toward trying to cut down the long wait times for health care that have left veterans languishing in need of medical service for months on end — or unable to even get onto wait lists at all. But it doesn't come close to solving all of the problems facing veterans or the VA, such as the disability-claims backlog which has roughly 300,000 claims pending for 125 days or more and the total inventory of claims hovering just under 1.3 million. It also fails to address several shortcomings in benefits, planning for future veteran needs, and vulnerabilities in its funding structure." Stacy Kaper in National Journal.

Explainer: What are the differences that the House and Senate will need to resolve? Josh Hicks in The Washington Post.

Don't expect action on Obamacare funding legislation. "Legislation funding ObamaCare for 2015 is not likely to come to the Senate floor as a standalone measure open to amendment, the subcommittee chairman in charge of the legislation said Thursday. A fight over a continuing resolution funding the implementation of ObamaCare led to a 16-day government shutdown last October, which only ended when Republicans backed down. A shutdown is not likely this year, but delaying debate on Labor-HHS until after the election would mean delaying a $1.4 billion increase in Health funds to deal with a huge influx in child immigrants." Erik Wasson in The Hill.

Can Congress get its act together on children's care? "The situation for children isn't so dire now as it was in 2009. Now that the state health insurance exchanges exist, many families with children enrolled in CHIP would have access to affordable forms of coverage on the exchange. Not all of them, though. Due to a mistake in the way the Affordable Care Act was written, an estimated two million children will be without affordable coverage if Congress fails to continue CHIP's funding. The mistake...prohibits families with incomes below 400 percent of the federal poverty line from receiving subsidies if one of the parents has health insurance through their employer — even when that coverage won't cover dependent spouses or children." Adrianna McIntyre in Vox.

Other health care reads:

Long read: How Obamacare hit its 8 million number for private exchange enrollments. Sarah Kliff in Vox.

Growing number of insurers add coverage on ACA exchanges. Ferdous Al-Faruque in The Hill.

U.S. appeals court upholds Obamacare birth control mandate. Elise Viebeck in The Hill.

Chart: Medicare growth is really low. Aaron Carroll in The Incidental Economist.

Cute interlude: This rescued bear cub is the most adorable thing ever.

Cheese lovers interlude: Relax, there's no federal ban on artisanal cheeses.

4. Why the teacher tenure battle matters

The importance of teacher quality. "Studies have repeatedly shown that teacher quality is more important than class size, income level or access to high-tech wizardry....Until this week California’s unions had successfully thwarted reform. Teachers in the Golden State received tenure after less than two years on the job; firing bad ones was so costly and arduous that school districts rarely tried. But thanks to a lawsuit brought by Students Matter, an advocacy group formed by David Welch, a telecoms millionaire, this may now change. On June 10th Mr Welch, helped by some expensive lawyers, won a stunning victory in a case he had brought against five state laws governing the hiring and firing of teachers." The Economist.

Will the dominoes start to fall? "Teachers' union presidents have embraced Lewis’s argument that they are waging a populist battle on behalf of urban school students....Still, the judge’s decision undercuts the moral case Lewis and her supporters have been making for tenure....The ruling may embolden conservative politicians to take a tougher line against teachers unions, inspiring lawsuits in additional states to knock down laws that make it hard to fire poor educators....Many districts would gladly raise good teachers’ pay if union leaders would agree to rules making it easier to dismiss ineffective instructors. In many cases, unions have resisted such concessions. That will be be more difficult to do, now that the ground is shifting beneath their feet." Devin Leonard in Bloomberg Businessweek.

States were already rolling back tenure protections. "Even before a judge's scathing ruling against California's teacher tenure policies, the once-sacred protections that make it harder to fire teachers already had been weakened in many states — and even removed altogether in some places. Florida, for example, put all teachers hired after 2011 on an annual teaching contract, which essentially did away with tenure protections. Kansas and North Carolina also are seeking to eliminate tenure or phase it out. The nonpartisan Education Commission of the States...says 16 states — up from 10 in 2011 — now require the results of teacher evaluations be used in determining whether to grant tenure. Not all changes have stuck, and few are without a political fight." Kimberly Hefling in the Associated Press.

Primary source: The Education Commission of the States report.

Other education reads:

Cantor's fall deals a blow to charter-school advocacy. Brendan Bell in AEIdeas.

World Cup interlude: Paralyzed man kicks off the festivities.

5. How one lobbying group's change of heart has scrambled the school-meals debate

One of First Lady Obama's biggest allies has turned on her. "First lady Michelle Obama and school lunch ladies used to be on the same team, but now they’re locked in a political war against each other. For the first three years of Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, the School Nutrition Association, a powerful group that represents 55,000 cafeteria professionals, was a close ally in the White House push to get kids to eat healthier....Fast-forward to today: SNA is standing shoulder to shoulder with House Republicans, pushing to grant schools waivers from the requirements if they are losing money and aiming to relax the standards when the law is reauthorized next year." Helena Bottemiller Evich in Politico.

Behind the lobbyist-filled scenes of the food fight. "The School Nutrition Association — what you might call the national organization for lunch ladies (and gents) — says it was trying to improve the healthfulness of school lunches. But it says the U.S. Agriculture Department didn't help when things got tough, so it went to Congress. House Republicans provided help, but they also put the group in the middle of a partisan battle over what to feed America's school students." Peter Overby in NPR.

Charts: Kids aren't warming to whole-grain tortillas in school lunches. It might be because Americans' home diets aren't very diverse. Olga Khazan in The Atlantic.

Explainer: What's at stake in the school-meals debate? Allison Aubrey and Jessica Pupovac in NPR.

Animal buddies interlude: Dog and mini-horse are best friends for life.

Wonkblog roundup

Want to help the economy? Look to the U.S. soccer team. Jim Tankersley.

Senate confirms Brainard, Powell for Federal Reserve. Ylan Q. Mui.

Five charts that show how conservatives are driving partisan rancor in DC. Christopher Ingraham.

Why economics can’t predict World Cup dominance. Max Ehrenfreund.

Chaos in Iraq is already sending oil prices higher. Steven Mufson.

Conservatives are from McMansions, liberals are from the city. Emily Badger.

Et Cetera

U.S. telecom chief tells industry to lead on cybersecurity. Alina Selyukh in Reuters.

States plan slowest increase in spending since the beginning of the Great Recession. William Selway in Bloomberg.

Audit details problems with federal background check reviews. Josh Hicks in The Washington Post.

The cops are tracking your cell phone use, and the Obama administration doesn't want you to know how. Jack Gillum and Eileen Sullivan in the Associated Press.

Central American migrants overwhelm Border Patrol station in Texas. Nick Miroff and Joshua Partlow in The Washington Post.

Global rules for auditors? Don't hold your breath. Floyd Norris in The New York Times.

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

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams and Ryan McCarthy.

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