The Washington Post

Wonkbook: Ding-dong, Bin Laden’s dead


A South Korean soldier watches a live TV broadcast of U.S. President Barack Obama speaking about Osama bin Laden at Seoul train station in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, May 2, 2011. The Korean caption reads: " Obama officially announces death of bin Laden." (Lee Jin-man/AP)

But will it be a different place because bin Laden is dead? Iraq and Afghanistan have a logic and momentum all their own, and it is hard to imagine that either venture will be substantially affected by bin Laden’s death. The government is not likely to give up its powers, and the airports show little interest in rolling back their security routines. Hopefully, America will be safer because al Qaeda will degrade, but I’m not an expert on the internal dynamics of al Qaeda, so I’m not the guy to make that prediction.

There is relief in bin Laden’s death. Justice, too. And I felt a swell of patriotism when I read that “U.S. officials said they would ensure bin Laden’s body would be handled in accordance with Islamic practice and tradition.” Somehow, that’s a nice, final touch. But it speaks to what bin Laden was: a bag of bones and meat. A body, like any other. Most of what changed in this country after 9/11 was our choice, not his. And his death is a reminder that changing it back -- or revising it to better fit our future -- is, similarly, our choice, not his. We’ve killed him, but we haven’t revisited the ways in which he changed us, or the ways in which wechanged us in response to his attack. Maybe it’s time we did.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled Wonkbook programming.

Five in the morning

1) The break’s over, the budget battle is back, reports Paul Kane: “While Congress begins taking up proposals that are designed more to score political points than seriously address the national debt, the critical action will be happening behind closed doors. President Obama starts it off Monday night by hosting a dinner party for a bipartisan collection of congressional leaders and top lawmakers from various House and Senate committees. Then on Thursday, Vice President Biden brings congressional leaders to Blair House for the first of what could be many discussions about how to reach a deal on the debt limit and then about an even longer-term issue: Medicare and Medicaid. Congress must consider whether to raise the federal debt ceiling beyond $14.3 trillion in exchange for still-undefined budget-tightening -- a debate that is certain to linger well past the preliminary deadline of May 16.”

2) Nothing was more responsible for turning the budget from black to red than the Bush tax cuts, reports Lori Montogmery: “The nation’s unnerving descent into debt began a decade ago with a choice, not a crisis. In January 2001, with the budget balanced and clear sailing ahead, the Congressional Budget Office forecast ever-larger annual surpluses indefinitely....Now, instead of tending a nest egg of more than $2 trillion, the federal government expects to owe more than $10 trillion to outside investors by the end of this year... The biggest culprit, by far, has been an erosion of tax revenue triggered largely by two recessions and multiple rounds of tax cuts. Together, the economy and the tax bills enacted under former president George W. Bush, and to a lesser extent by President Obama, wiped out $6.3 trillion in anticipated revenue. That’s nearly half of the $12.7 trillion swing from projected surpluses to real debt.”

3) The Gang of Six is still chugging along, report Naftali Bendavid and Damian Paletta: “Sen. Mark Warner brings a buzzer to meetings of the ‘Gang of Six’ senators who are working to craft a grand deficit-cutting deal. If talks get too tense, Mr. Warner, a Virginia Democrat, hits the button, which intones: ‘Bull-- detected. Take precautions.’... The Gang of Six is converging on a proposal that would cut the deficit by roughly $4 trillion over 10 years through spending cuts, a tax-code overhaul, and reductions in the interest the U.S. would have to pay on its debt. A key element: The plan likely would give Congress a specific window of time to make deficit-cutting changes--locking in a commitment to reach the goal but giving lawmakers time to decide how best to do it. Getting here wasn’t easy. Talks nearly broke down several times, aides say. When details leaked in February, participants almost walked out.”

4) Rank and file Republicans ain’t scared of no debt limit, report Jake Sherman and Marin Cogan: “Republican leaders have a lot of work to do in the next couple of weeks to stay in control of message and policy. The effort to rally their members in support of raising the debt limit begins in earnest Tuesday morning at 9 a.m., when GOP leaders face their conference in the Capitol basement over breakfast. It continues through May 13, when listening sessions between GOP leaders and rank-and-file members end and debt limit legislation will be rolled out...But in HC-5, the meeting room where Republicans huddle, they’ll find hordes of skeptics about the seriousness of failing to raise the debt ceiling. Many Republicans simply don’t believe the situation is as dire as it’s being presented.”

5) Expect a lot of Congressional grandstanding on gas prices, reports Darren Goode: “Congress returns Monday after a two-week spring break during which members faced constituent angst back home over high gas prices, and lawmakers are ready to make some noise of their own. ‘It’s the single most subject that people talk about to me,’ said Rep. Lou Barletta, a Republican freshman from eastern Pennsylvania...But there is scant evidence the timeworn ideas that House and Senate leaders are putting on the table will do anything other than score political points. The GOP will continue its campaign to blame President Barack Obama and limited offshore drilling since the gulf spill, and Democrats will point to Big Oil’s high profits and market speculators and suggest tapping the nation’s oil reserve.”

Summer-y pop interlude: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart play “My Terrible Friend” live at Coachella.

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

Still to come: Implementation of financial reform is going slowly; Republicans are kicking around the idea of temporary debt-ceiling hikes; RyanCare is not like the care that members of Congress receive; all manner of farm subsidies are coming in for cuts; a top House Democrat is calling for Obama to open the Strategic Petroleum Reserve; and a primer on voting reform, for cats.

Economy

Implementation of financial reform is lagging, reports Jean Eaglesham: “Getting the legislation through that political thicket was easy compared with the slog now under way to turn Dodd-Frank into regulations. The process has produced more than three million words in the Federal Register--or more than 3,500 11-inch-high pages that would stretch end-to-end more than a third of the way from the Capitol to the White House. And about 62% of the 387 sets of rules required by the law haven’t even been proposed, according to law firm Davis Polk Wardwell. In April, not a single U.S. agency met any of the 26 Dodd-Frank-related deadlines set for April under the law. Just 21 rules are finished, including a new requirement for say-on-pay votes for shareholders and a permanent increase in bank-deposit insurance to $250,000.”

Republicans are considering two-month debt ceiling hikes, reports Russell Berman: “House Republicans are considering a plan to grant only incremental increases to the federal debt limit in a bid to extract more concessions on spending cuts and budgetary reform from the Obama administration. The idea has a champion in Grover Norquist, the conservative activist and president of Americans for Tax Reform, who says he is ‘building allies’ in the House Republican Conference to push for extending the debt limit every two months. ‘My argument is, you give them two months at a time, because each time you could get something reasonable,’ Norquist told The Hill in an interview this week at his downtown offices.”

Household incomes are ticking up, report Conor Dougherty and Jeff Bater: “Consumers’ paychecks continued to inch up in March, but rising gas and food prices have individuals spending more on staples. Americans’ incomes grew 0.5% in March--and are up 5.0% from a year ago--as the economy has recovered and started adding jobs at a faster pace, the Commerce Department said Friday. They also had more to spend: Their after-tax income increased 0.6% from a month earlier. But those gains were largely undermined by the recent run-up in prices. Consumer spending increased 0.6% in March, the report said, but was up just 0.2% when adjusted for inflation--less than half the 0.5% gain in February. The saving rate--the amount consumers have left after taxes and monthly spending--held steady at 5.5% in March.”

Those holding the debt ceiling hostage could worsen the deficit problem, writes EJ Dionne: “Republicans, joined, it seems, by some terrified Democrats, are trying to use the debt-limit vote to force cuts in spending that they could not win on the merits. If the debt ceiling isn’t raised, the government could face the possibility of defaulting. Even if default doesn’t happen, global markets could punish us by demanding higher interest rates on our debt. Thus the first reason why this fight is counterproductive: Those who would use the debt limit as a way of reducing spending risk increasing the deficit by forcing our debt-service costs upward. Moreover, conservatives show little actual interest in decreasing the deficit. Yes, you read that right. What they really care about is reducing government outlays and keeping tax rates on the wealthy low.”

Republicans are in the tank for the banks, writes Paul Krugman: “Back in February G.O.P. legislators admitted frankly that they were trying to cripple financial reform by cutting off funding. And the recent House budget proposal, which calls for privatizing and voucherizing Medicare, also calls for eliminating resolution authority, in effect setting things up so that the bankers will get as good a deal in the next crisis as they got in 2008...To see what’s really going on, follow the money. Wall Street used to favor Democrats, perhaps because financiers tend to be liberal on social issues. But greed trumps gay rights, and financial industry contributions swung sharply toward the Republicans in the 2010 elections. Apparently Wall Street, unlike the voters, had no trouble divining the party’s real intentions.”

Banks are quietly trying to undermine financial reform, writes Steven Pearlstein: “One fight concerns trading of swaps and other derivatives, which until now was either loosely regulated or not at all. Under the new Dodd-Frank law, this trading is supposed to migrate to regulated exchanges where prices will be posted, position limits will be set, traders will be required to post collateral and dealers will have to maintain minimum capital requirements. In Congress, banks and other dealers bitterly resisted these common-sense reforms for one simple reason: They would cut into what have been sizable profits...The second slugfest concerns the question of which financial institutions will be judged to be so ‘systemically important’ -- SIFIs in the new argot -- that they will be subject to heightened regulation by the Federal Reserve...As you might expect, those institutions have lobbied furiously to avoid being inducted into this ‘exclusive’ club, apparently to good effect.”

Jello is crazy interlude: Slow-motion video of gelatin cubes bouncing off a solid surface.

Health Care

Ryancare is not “just like” the coverage members of Congress receive, writes Glenn Kessler: “Ryan, in his quote, said the new Medicare would be ‘working like a system just like members of Congress and federal employees have.’ But the comparison begins to break down once you consider the premium support payments. Ryan would peg the premium support to the consumer price index, a broad gauge that has been rising more slowly than have health-care costs. The Congressional Budget Office, the nonpartisan arm of Congress, analyzed Ryan’s plan and estimated that, by 2030, the government would pay just 32 percent of the health-care costs, less than half of what it currently pays. The other 68 percent of the plan would have to be shouldered by the retiree.”

Paul Ryan contradicts himself on Medicare, writes Neera Tanden: “Now, more than a year after health care reform passed, Paul Ryan, facing stiff opposition to his plan to end Medicare as we know it, has taken to attacking the IPAB as a way to rebut his critics...]This] runs into direct conflict to the vote the House took mere days ago on the overall Ryan budget, which passed thanks to broad Republican support. Indeed, the budget, which the co-sponsors voted for, changes Medicare into a voucher program in which seniors can only choose from among private insurance options, eliminating the public insurance that is currently at the heart of Medicare...So, after all of their complaining about how the IPAB moved too far away from public accountability, they’ve just proposed eliminating all such accountability, insisting instead that private insurance companies know best.

Domestic Policy

All kinds of farm subsidies are under the knife now, reports Kimberly Kindy: “This debate over conservation vs. subsidy cuts is at the heart of discussions on Capitol Hill as lawmakers begin to shape the 2012 budget and begin talks about the next Farm Bill -- a critical document because it sets funding priorities for the next decade. Conservation programs were cut by nearly $500 million last month for the 2011 budget, and the House budget for 2012 calls for another $18 million in conservation cuts. What’s unclear is how many of those cuts will come out of the USDA’s budget. The Obama administration’s push to spread some of the pain to the wealthiest, most profitable farms, however, is also gaining momentum. The House budget calls for $30 billion in subsidy cuts over the next 10 years.”

An appeals court reversed a ban on stem cell research funding, report Brent Kendall and Gautam Naik: “A federal appeals court said the federal government can continue to fund research involving human embryonic stem cells, a victory for the Obama administration in an area of medical and ethical debate. The 2-1 ruling overturned a trial judge’s injunction in August 2010 that barred funding for the research...Since 1996, Congress has barred federal funds for research in which human embryos are destroyed. The Obama administration argues it can fund research on stem cells derived from embryonic stem-cell lines that were created with private money. The two-judge majority on the U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit agreed with that view, saying the National Institutes of Health made a reasonable interpretation of an ambiguous law.”

Teachers need bigger paychecks, write Dave Eggers and Ninive Clements Calegari: “The consulting firm McKinsey recently examined how we might attract and retain a talented teaching force. The study compared the treatment of teachers here and in the three countries that perform best on standardized tests: Finland, Singapore and South Korea. Turns out these countries have an entirely different approach to the profession. First, the governments in these countries recruit top graduates to the profession. (We don’t.) In Finland and Singapore they pay for training. (We don’t.) In terms of purchasing power, South Korea pays teachers on average 250 percent of what we do. And most of all, they trust their teachers. They are rightly seen as the solution, not the problem, and when improvement is needed, the school receives support and development, not punishment. Accordingly, turnover in these countries is startlingly low.”

We should assess teacher quality by counting the hours of teaching they actually get done, writes R. Barker Bausell: http://nyti.ms/jdUAGG

The visa system is broken, writes Michael Bloomberg: “Creating a visa for entrepreneurs who already have funding to start their businesses will lead directly and immediately to American jobs. Visa reforms to improve temporary and permanent pathways for companies to fill the current shortages of engineers, scientists and other specialists--whose annual visa caps are often exhausted within days of becoming available--will spur growth at existing U.S. companies. Providing visas to the brightest foreign graduates of our universities will allow our economy to reap the rewards of their work. At the same time, allowing immigrants who succeed in college, or serve in our military, the chance to pursue a career and build their lives here legally will strengthen the long-term health of the American economy.”

We need universal retirement accounts in addition to Social Security, writes Martin Feldstein: “In short, while slowing the growth of Social Security is a necessary response to the changing age structure, it is possible to do it in a way that protects overall retirement incomes by creating universal supplemental personal retirement accounts that generate an annuity for retirees. Such universal accounts can also help future retirees deal with the cutbacks in Medicare that will inevitably occur because the aging of the population and the increasing cost of health care per retiree will make the current system far too expensive to finance... With a 3% payroll deduction, someone with $50,000 of real annual earnings during his working years could accumulate enough to fund an annual payout of about $22,000 after age 67, essentially doubling the current Social Security benefit.

Adorable animals learning about politics interlude: An explanation of the British voting system referendum, targeted at cats.

Energy

Rep. Chris Van Hollen wants to tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, reports Byron Tau: “Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, floated on Sunday the idea of tapping the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve to help bring down gasoline prices in the short-term. ‘We’ve seen a supply disruption as a result of Libya which has helped feed a speculative bubble,’ Van Hollen said on CNN’s State of the Union. ‘The only way to address that in the very short term is to consider releasing some of the oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.’ ‘It’s about 1.5 million barrels of oil a day from Libya - but that has then fed the speculative bubble,’ Van Hollen said. ‘If you want to pop that bubble, you have to take some action.’”

California is unveiling a carbon market on January 1, reports Rory Carroll: “California is putting its reputation as a pioneering environmental heavyweight on the line as it prepares to establish a carbon market in eight months. State regulators are battling the clock, the courts and their own empty pockets as they prepare to oversee the start of the multibillion-dollar market Jan. 1. The idea of capping greenhouse gas emissions and providing cleaner companies with the potential for profit from their success is not new, but it has never been tried in the United States on this scale. ‘This is by far the most ambitious program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in North America, and by some measures the world,’ said Franz Litz, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute.”

Democrats are fighting cuts to energy statistics spending, reports Andrew Restuccia: “Key Democrats decried cuts included in the fiscal 2011 spending bill Friday that will result in less analysis of key energy data on gas prices and other issues. The Energy Information Administration (EIA) -- which gathers and analyzes data on a wide range of key energy issues including gasoline prices and U.S. oil production -- saw its budget reduced by 14 percent from fiscal 2010 levels in the spending bill. EIA Administrator Richard Newell said Thursday that the agency will have to eliminate or cut back analysis on key energy issues like gas prices and oil reserves at a time when the topics are at the forefront of the political debate.”

Closing credits: Wonkbook is compiled and produced with help from Dylan Matthews and Michelle Williams.

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