The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Wonkbook: House GOP considers trading the flu for septic shock

Placeholder while article actions load

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.

In what has to be the least convincing pitch in modern political memory, House Republican leaders are suggesting to their members that they should forego a government shutdown over Obamacare and instead breach the debt ceiling over Obamacare.

Reuters reports that "the idea is gaining traction among Republican leaders in the House of Representatives, aides said on Wednesday. An aide to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said the debt limit is a 'good leverage point'."

I've written this before but it bears repeating: Trading a government shutdown for a debt-ceiling breach is like trading the flu for septic shock. Anything Republicans might fear about a government shutdown is far more terrifying amidst a debt-ceiling breach. The former is an inconvenience. The latter is a global financial crisis. It's the difference between what happened in 1995, when the government did shutdown, and what happened in 2008, when global markets realized a bedrock investment they thought was safe (housing in that case, U.S. treasuries in this one) was full of risk.

Republicans will effectively be going to the White House and saying, “Delay the health-care law or we will single-handedly cause an unprecedented and unnecessary global financial crisis that everyone will clearly and correctly blame on us, destroying our party for years to come.”

Here's the punchline: Cantor knows all that. So does Boehner and McCarthy and McConnell and all the other top Republicans. Ran-and-file House Republicans may doubt the threat of the debt ceiling. The GOP leadership doesn't. This isn't a hostage they believe they can shoot.

But this is a recurring problem with the House GOP leadership. They can't simply level with their members and say a shutdown is a bad idea, and indeed all of this hostage taking is a bad idea, and House Republicans simply need to recognize that they don't have the power or political support to stop the Obama administration from implementing laws. Being in the minority is a bummer, which is part of why it makes sense for minorities to be tactically disciplined -- that's how they can regain the majority.

That's what the GOP leadership thinks, of course, but they can't say it. if they did say it, they'd be squishes. Appeasers. Traitors, even.

So they have to one-up the crazies. Sure, a government shutdown sounds tough. But Democrats don't care about preventing a government shutdown. They care about preventing a financial crisis. Real tough Republicans would wait for the debt ceiling. It's an insane argument. But it helps them defuse the next crisis.

And so the shutdown threat will come and go. But then they'll have another problem -- and a more dangerous one: They'll somehow have to stop House Republicans from actually breaching the debt ceiling and destroying the economy and the Republican Party. And so they'll start working, aggressively and assiduously, to find someway around that disaster, too. And somehow they'll have to persuade their members then, too, that they have some better, tougher, more uncompromising strategy lurking in the wings.

This strategy of solving today's problems by worsening tomorrow's works until it doesn't. But top House Republicans don't see an alternative.

Wonkbook's Number of the Day: 56,000. That's the annual number of "wholly domestic" communications the National Security Agency had been collecting before a 2011 opinion from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court barred the practice.

Wonkbook's Graph of the Day: This map shows what the United States would look like if life were fair.

Wonkbook's Top 5 Stories: 1) this NSA thing never ends, does it; 2) Michigan's special program for the long-term jobless; 3) how long before Obama is 'evolving' on medical marijuana; 4) immigration reform in your town hall; and 5) will Obama's green push have an impact?

1) Top story: The NSA was reading e-mails

NSA gathered thousands of Americans’ e-mails before court struck down program. "For several years, the National Security Agency unlawfully gathered tens of thousands of e-mails and other electronic communications between Americans as part of a now-revised collection method, according to a 2011 secret court opinion. The redacted 85-page opinion, which was declassified by U.S. intelligence officials on Wednesday, states that, based on NSA estimates, the spy agency may have been collecting as many as 56,000 “wholly domestic” communications each year. In a strongly worded opinion, the chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court expressed consternation at what he saw as a pattern of misleading statements by the government and hinted that the NSA possibly violated a criminal law against spying on Americans." Ellen Nakashima in The Washington Post.

Primary documents: Statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Agency.

The FISA court got really upset when the NSA didn’t tell the truth on surveillance. "In a 2011 court opinion, the FISA court repeatedly accuses the NSA not only of failing to comply with the rules, but of misleading it outright...The footnote amounts to a court admission that it had been allowing the NSA to proceed for years without a full understanding of the surveillance program...This document suggests that the FISA court is not the rigorous check on NSA abuses that the Obama administration has claimed it is." Brian Fung in The Washington Post.

@marcambinder: Irony: just discovered that my Samsung Galaxy phone inadvertently recorded the NSA conference call. In honor, I will retain it for 5 years.

Judge sentences Bradley Manning to 35 years. "A military judge on Wednesday morning sentenced Army Pfc. Bradley Manning to 35 years in prison for leaking hundreds of thousands of classified documents to the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks. Manning, 25, was convicted last month of multiple charges, including violations of the Espionage Act for copying and disseminating the documents while serving as an intelligence analyst at a forward operating base in Iraq. He faced up to 90 years in prison." Julie Tate in The Washington Post.

It could have been worse for Bradley Manning. It probably will be for future leakers. "After serving a total of eight years, Manning will be eligible for parole by the time he’s 33...“This sentence is precedent-setting for all the wrong reasons,” said Elizabeth Goitein, a legal expert at the Brennan Center. “Public servants who come across improperly classified evidence of government misconduct and want to blow the whistle will now think twice.”" Brian Fung in The Washington Post.

@normative: A transparency proposal I haven't seen: When FISC finds NSA or FBI activity unconstitutional, citizens whose rights violated must be told.

Federal court curbs appeal rights for ‘sensitive’ defense jobs. "A federal appeals court on Tuesday curbed the appeal rights of two Defense Department employees in a case that critics say will have broad implications for civil service protections. The 7-3 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit prohibits the Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB) from hearing cases involving “non-critical sensitive” workers, a ruling that alarms labor groups and whistleblower advocates who say it strips away civil due process for employees...The administration proposal refers to a draft rule that would allow the government to brand virtually any federal government position as national security “sensitive” and therefore outside the civil service system rule of law." Josh Hicks in The Washington Post.

Transparency theater: Administration takes questions on NSA docs it hasn’t released yet. "Wednesday afternoon, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) did a 45-minute press call about documents showing the NSA illegally collected thousands of e-mails of American citizens over a period of three years. One problem: The office hadn’t released the documents yet. And officials wouldn’t answer questions about other topics, such as Tuesday’s revelations by the Wall Street Journal about the scope of NSA surveillance." Andrea Peterson in The Washington Post.

@conor64: None of you would put money on the proposition that the NSA is now being honest with us.

Obama intelligence czar’s phone message: ‘Your call may be monitored.’ "This is what happens when you call the office that oversees the NSA: “You have reached the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Please be advised that your call may be monitored.” You don’t say." Brian Fung in The Washington Post.

ROSENTHAL: The drip-drip-drip of NSA revelations. "Every few days, we learn that the government’s constitutionally dubious dragnet of telephone and Internet communications is broader, deeper and even more intrusive than we thought...The N.S.A. also says this is all necessary to protect the nation from terrorists, but that’s what it says about everything. The assurances also ring a bit hollow when you consider that the government won’t even acknowledge the existence of any of these programs unless they’re leaked to the press." Andrew Rosenthal in The New York Times.

Music recommendations interlude: How 'bout some classical?

Top opinion

ROVE: Republicans, the party of health care ideas. "Republicans have plenty of sensible ideas to make health coverage more accessible and more affordable. Many congressional Republicans, such as Oklahoma's Sen. Tom Coburn and Wyoming's Sen. Mike Enzi, have long advocated making health insurance completely portable so workers can take their plans with them from job to job. This means giving individuals who buy coverage for themselves a tax advantage similar to the one that employers enjoy when they cover employees...In the House, Republicans such as Texas Rep. Sam Johnson and Louisiana's Charles Boustany (a cardiovascular surgeon), want to allow smaller companies to pool their risk to get the same discounts from insurance carriers that bigger companies do. Others, including Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, want to spark increased competition by allowing health-insurance policies to be sold across state lines, as are auto insurance policies." Karl Rove in The Wall Street Journal.

YGLESIAS: Obama's radical curriculum for higher-ed. "For decades now, America’s approach to higher-education policy has been a delightful synthesis of left-wing and right-wing ideas...In a speech Thursday morning in Buffalo, N.Y., on ways to enhance college affordability, President Obama will likely lay out policy measures that, while relatively modest on their own terms, propose to radically subvert that bargain on a conceptual level. The president has decided, essentially, that the old bargain has failed. The liberal idea of pumping more federal dollars into the system—something his administration has done enthusiastically—has failed to deliver affordability. More controversially, although America’s elite universities are the envy of the world, the White House views the system of open choice and competition as having essentially failed the marginal college student." Matthew Yglesias in Slate.

SINGER: The man who was treated for $17k less. "[W]e canceled the surgery and started the scheduling process all over again, this time classifying my patient as a "self-pay" (or uninsured) patient. I quoted him a reasonable upfront cash price, as did the anesthesiologist. We contacted a different hospital and they quoted him a reasonable upfront cash price for the outpatient surgical/nursing services. He underwent his operation the very next day, with a total bill of just a little over $3,000, including doctor and hospital fees. He ended up saving $17,000 by not using insurance." Jeffrey Singer in The Wall Street Journal.

POLLACK AND DANZIGER: House Republicans want drug tests for food-stamp recipients. There’s no good reason for that. "The drug testing of SNAP recipients is yet another ideological sideshow that disfigures substance-abuse policy. It falsely implies that substance use disorders are a widespread cause of welfare dependence. It also implies, again falsely, that these disorders are highly concentrated among recipients of public aid...Proposals to drug-test SNAP recipients don’t address the genuine challenges posed by drug and alcohol misuse in American society. Instead, poor families who seek a little help with the food money are being used as stage extras in a different, nasty ideological fight. It’s a depressing sight." Harold Pollack and Sheldon Danziger in The Washington Post.

ROE: Did taxes cause the financial crisis? "After the financial crisis erupted in 2008, many observers blamed the crisis in large part on the fact that too many financial firms had loaded up on debt while relying on only a thin layer of equity...[G]iven the possibility of a major overhaul of US corporate taxation, which President Barack Obama has proposed, we should revisit the conventional wisdom concerning the supposedly weak connection between corporate taxation and the financial crisis. Indeed, in my view, policymakers, academics, and the media have rejected too resolutely the idea that corporate taxation played no more than a minor role." Mark Roe in Project Syndicate.

DIONNE: MLK's dream still echoes. "We forget that the formal name of the great gathering before the Lincoln Memorial was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Jobs came first, an acknowledgement that the ability to enjoy liberty depends upon having the economic wherewithal to exercise our rights" E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post.

TRUMAN: Fed chair should be outsider. "A more relevant question is whether the Fed needs an outsider. The three said to be under consideration – Lawrence Summers, lately an adviser to Mr Obama, Janet Yellen, current Fed vice-chair, and Donald Kohn, a former vice-chair – are all essentially highly competent insiders. But that is not enough to restore the Fed’s credibility." Edwin Truman in The Financial Times.

Handpicked by Wonkblog interlude: Here’s what it’s like to fly over the Arctic all day.

2) How Michigan is helping the jobless

Michigan leads way on helping long-term unemployed. "In Michigan, for example, one pilot program is wrapping up its first year and has connected jobs with 923 people most in need of them. The program, Community Ventures, began as a bullet point in a speech by the state’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder in March 2012 and was fired up that October...So far, CV has placed 923 people with an 87 percent retention rate and an average hourly wage of $11.53. In his budget proposal this year, President Obama called for $4 billion in state grants to be used to help get the long-term unemployed back to work through such programs" Niraj Chokshi in The Washington Post.

Median household income is still 6 percent below 2007 level. "Although median annual household income rose to $52,100 in June, from its recent inflation-adjusted trough of $50,700 in August 2011, it remained $2,400 lower — a 4.4 percent decline — than in June 2009, when the recession ended. This drop, combined with the 1.8 percent decline that occurred during the recession, leaves median household income 6.1 percent — or $3,400 — below its level in December 2007, when the economic slump began." Robert Pear in The New York Times.

Between 2000 and 2012, American wages grew…not at all. "Real hourly wages for people at the middle of the wage distribution were no higher in 2012 than in 2000. While the early 2000s saw some growth, it’s all been wiped out since the recession hit, and hasn’t rebounded at all." Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

Generation Y and Boomers, suffering the most. "Those in the 65- to 74-year-old group are the only demographic in the entire study — which also included breakdowns by race, family status, gender, education and work status — to have incomes rise by a statistically significant amount in inflation-adjusted terms." Catherine Rampell in The New York Times.

US home sales near 4-yr. high. "Existing-home sales rose 6.5% in July from a month earlier to an annual rate of 5.39 million, the National Association of Realtors said Wednesday, and were 17.2% higher than a year ago. The increase was the best month of sales since November 2009, when a home-buyer tax credit spurred activity. Prices also continued to climb, notching a year-over-year gain for 17 consecutive months..."Today's report is about a 'rush to buy' ahead of higher rates and higher rate expectations," Jonathan Basile, director of U.S. economics at Credit Suisse, said in a research note. "Higher rates should cool sales in coming months."" Jeffrey Sparshott and Eric Morath in The Wall Street Journal.

Fed debated ways to prolong easy-money policies. "The minutes of the Fed’s policy-setting meeting in July show that officials discussed at length for the first time whether they should alter the terms of their landmark promise to keep short-term rates near zero at least until inflation reaches 2.5 percent or the unemployment rate hits 6.5 percent. The ideas broached included lowering the target for unemployment and establishing a floor for inflation. The Fed also considered providing more detail about what it would do once its existing thresholds are met." Ylan Q. Mui in The Washington Post.

No clarity from Fed on exit. "The confusion over exactly when the Federal Reserve will begin scaling back its huge economic stimulus efforts only deepened Wednesday, with the release of a summary of the deliberations at the central bank’s last meeting in late July. There were hints that some members of the divided committee are comfortable with beginning to ease the Fed’s program of buying $85 billion a month in government bonds and mortgage securities as soon as their next meeting in mid-September. But there were also indications that another camp within the policy-setting group favors waiting until December, or even later. The only thing that was clear is that the Fed intends to keep Wall Street — and the rest of the world — guessing." Nelson D. Schwartz in The New York Times.

Primary documents: Fed minutes from July 30-31 meeting.

This one photo from 1998 includes everybody involved in the Fed chair decision. "Take a look at the photo above. President Bill Clinton was talking about the economy in the White House Rose Garden in 1998. Just behind him, his face partly blocked, is Larry Summers, then the deputy Treasury secretary. The woman on the right is Janet Yellen, who was the White House chief economist. On the front right edge of the photo are Jack Lew and Gene Sperling, who are key advisers helping the current president decide whether to appoint Summers, Yellen or a dark horse candidate to be the next chairman of the Federal Reserve." Neil Irwin in The Washington Post.

CFPB finds continuing problems in mortgage servicing. "[A] report released Wednesday by the CFPB shows that many companies have not cleaned up their acts. Examiners at the bureau found that mortgage servicers, which collect loan payments and handle loan modifications and foreclosures, engage in sloppy payment processing that can result in extra fees for homeowners. They also uncovered instances in which servicers failed to tell homeowners that their loans were transferred to another company or gave consumers conflicting information on the process for reworking the terms of their mortgage. The CFPB also discovered that many non-bank servicing firms, which previously were not subject to state or federal examinations, lacked “robust” systems for compliance management." Danielle Douglas in The Washington Post.

1912 interlude: How would you fare on this century-old standardized test?

3) How long before Obama is 'evolving' on medical marijuana?

White House: Obama doesn’t favor medical marijuana 'at this point.' "White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday that President Obama doesn’t favor changing medical marijuana laws “at this point.”...Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, creating a conflict in states that have moved to legalize it. Earnest said the Obama administration is not targeting individual users in those states. “The priority in terms of the dedication of law enforcement resources should be targeted toward our drug kingpins, drug traffickers and others who perpetrate violence in the conduct of the drug trade,” Earnest said. “But at the same time, the president does not, you know, at this point advocate a change in the law.”" Aaron Blake in The Washington Post.

Obama to conference with state officials on Obamacare. "Obama and senior administration officials are planning a teleconference with the managers of state-based insurance exchanges — new marketplaces established by the Affordable Care Act where consumers can compare and purchase healthcare plans." Sam Baker and Justin Sink in The Hill.

Helpful explainer: How states are promoting health-insurance exchanges, in one tableKelsey Miller in Kaiser Health News.

Tacking health costs onto California farm produce. "Farm labor contractors across California, the nation’s biggest agricultural engine, are increasingly nervous about a provision of the Affordable Care Act that will require hundreds of thousands of field workers to be covered by health insurance...Insurance brokers and health providers familiar with California’s $43.5 billion agricultural industry estimate that meeting the law’s minimum health plan requirement will cost about $1 per hour per employee worked in the field...Farm labor contractors generally rely on a 2 percent profit, and they say they will have to pass the added health care costs required by the law on to growers." Sarah Varney in The New York Times.

This is why controlling health-care costs is almost impossible. "A Kaiser Family Foundation survey finds that a majority of Americans think health-care costs are rising faster than normal. The reality is precisely the opposite. From 2000 to 2007, national health expenditures grew, on average, by 7.5 percent a year. From 2008 to 2011 — the most recent data we have — they grew, on average, by 4.1 percent a year. This is historically slow growth." Ezra Klein in The Washington Post.

University of Virginia cuts some health benefits, citing Obamacare. "The University of Virginia said Wednesday that it will stop offering health insurance to some employees' spouses because of rising costs under ObamaCare. The university said the Affordable Care Act will add $7.3 million to its healthcare costs next year. It indicated that it could face additional costs in the future because of the law's tax on especially generous insurance policies." Sam Baker in The Hill.

There’s an Obamacare program that Republicans use more than Democrats. "The Commonwealth Foundation estimates that of the 15 million young adults that have  insurance coverage through a parent, 7.8 million would not have qualified without this policy...The Commonwealth Fund wanted to dig beyond that and figure out who these people were, the ones who had gained coverage under this health law provision. That’s where they found that since 2011, young Republicans have had a higher rate of enrollment in their parents’ health insurance plans than young Democrats. Right now, 45 percent of young Democrats receive coverage through their parents’ plan, compared to 63 percent of young Republicans." Sarah Kliff in The Washington Post.

Today I learned interlude: The reason you can't print anything if you don't have yellow ink is because your printer adds a secret, tiny code. No, this isn't some crackpot conspiracy theory.

4) Can town halls help immigration reform?

On immigration reform roadmap, bipartisan group pinpoints small business concerns. "A bipartisan coalition of former government officials has outlined several recommendations for comprehensive immigration reform, including some it believes would help businesses — particularly small ones. The report was released this week by the Bipartisan Policy Center, a nonprofit think tank in Washington, in an attempt to reignite interest in an immigration overhaul, which has stalled in the House of Representatives after legislation passed rather swiftly through the Senate." J.D. Harrison in The Washington Post.

Catholic Church turns up support for immigration reform. "The Catholic Church is ramping up support for immigration reform with plans to mobilize up to two dozen dioceses in key states in hopes of convincing House Republicans to support a comprehensive bill, organizers said. The church is planning a series of loosely coordinated events, including an immigration-focused Mass at some churches Sept. 8 — the day before Congress returns from a five-week summer recess — and pilgrimages of church members to regional offices of lawmakers." David Nakamura in The Washington Post.

Watch what happens when Republican congressmen have to explain their immigration position to actual immigrants. "Last Thursday, 11-year-old Josie Molina, whose father is undocumented, asked her Congressman — the embattled Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN) — what he would do to help her father stay in the U.S. DesJarlais answered, basically, “Nothing."...Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), for example, got a question from a six-year-old girl who is a U.S. citizen but who has relatives who are undocumented." Dylan Matthews in The Washington Post.

‘The universes of Latino voters and vulnerable House Republicans hardly overlap.’ "[T]here are actually only about 19 GOP-held districts, give or take, where those Hispanic voters could plausibly swing an election, as shown in the map below. And, as Sargent notes, citing David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, only five of those are thought to be potential Democratic pickups in the 2014 midterms." Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

1946 interlude: Democracy and despotism film.

5) Will Obama's green push make a difference?

Obama’s climate plan could cut power-plant emissions 26 percent. Or just 1 percent. "As part of its big push to address climate change, the Obama administration is crafting rules to cut carbon-dioxide emissions from the nation’s power plants. One big unknown, however, is how much these regulations will actually do. A lot? A little? No one really knows for sure until the rules come out. But there seem to be a couple different schools of thought among observers." Brad Plumer in The Washington Post.

Interview: Al Gore explains why he’s optimistic about stopping global warmingEzra Klein in The Washington Post.

Thousands weigh in on proposed fracking rule. "The Obama administration has received more than 5,000 comments on its proposed regulation for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on public and Native American lands...The current proposal, unveiled in May, requires developers to disclose the chemicals they use in fracking, which uses a mixture of chemicals, sand and water to release oil and gas from rock formations. It also calls for companies to make sure that those liquids used do not escape into the groundwater." Julian Hattem in The Hill.

Dems urge UN to keep official in charge of ozone treaty. "Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said Marco Gonzalez has played an integral role in helping curb pollutants as executive secretary of the Montreal Protocol. They want Ban to let Gonzalez stay on through 2015 to help secure broader international agreements to ramp down production, use and emissions of a short-lived, potent pollutant called hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)." Zack Colman in The Hill.

Wind farms take root at sea. "Although onshore wind is a larger business, offshore is growing faster, and the contracts often come with long-term maintenance deals...The turbines are formidably expensive and tricky to install and maintain, but countries blessed with ample sea breezes, like Britain and Germany, are coming to view them as a major part of their efforts to curb the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that scientists say contribute to climate change...“Power plants” are the important words here. Wind farms are no longer engineering experiments or small pilot schemes. They have grown very large, to the point where they are of the same scale as gas- or coal-fired power stations." Stanley Reed in The New York Times.

Lawmakers want answers on 'social cost of carbon' decision. "[T]he Obama administration increased the estimated monetary costs of emissions. Known as the social cost of carbon (SCC), the revised estimate factors in changes in human health and agricultural productivity, property damage from greater flood risks and several others...The letter contains 17 pointed questions about how the working group arrived at the estimate and whether input was sought from the public." Ben Goad in The Hill.

Reading material interlude: The best sentences Wonkblog read today.

Wonkblog Roundup

This map shows what the United States would look like if life were fairDylan Matthews.

How a secretive trade deal could help American tobacco companies hook new smokersLydia DePillis.

Watch what happens when Republican congressmen have to explain their immigration position to actual immigrantsDylan Matthews.

The universes of Latino voters and vulnerable House Republicans hardly overlap.’ Brad Plumer.

This one photo from 1998 includes everybody involved in the Fed chair decisionNeil Irwin.

Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Offer to teach a man to code and you’re kind of a jerkEzra Klein.

There’s an Obamacare program that Republicans use more than DemocratsSarah Kliff.

This is why controlling health-care costs is almost impossibleEzra Klein.

House Republicans want drug tests for food-stamp recipients. There’s no good reason for thatHarold Pollack and Sheldon Danziger.

Obama’s climate plan could cut power-plant emissions 26 percent. Or just 1 percentBrad Plumer.

Between 2000 and 2012, American wages grew…not at allDylan Matthews.

Al Gore explains why he’s optimistic about stopping global warmingEzra Klein.

Et Cetera

Obama speech coming 50 years after 'I have a dream.' Michael D. Shear in The New York Times.

New Mexico begins issuing same-sex marriage licensesThe Associated Press.

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

Wonkbook is produced with help from Michelle Williams.