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Cracker Squire


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Location: Douglas, Coffee Co., The Other Georgia, United States

Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Afghanistan -- What we’re getting for risking thousands of U.S. soldiers and having spent $200 billion already.

Thomas L. Friedman won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, his third Pulitzer for The New York Times. He became the paper's foreign-affairs columnist in 1995.

Tom Friedman writes in The New York Times:

This newspaper carried a very troubling article on the front page on Monday. It detailed how President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan had invited Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Kabul — in order to stick a thumb in the eye of the Obama administration — after the White House had rescinded an invitation to Mr. Karzai to come to Washington because the Afghan president had gutted an independent panel that had discovered widespread fraud in his re-election last year. [See 3-30-10 post.]

The article, written by two of our best reporters, Dexter Filkins and Mark Landler, noted that “according to Afghan associates, Mr. Karzai recently told lunch guests at the presidential palace that he believes the Americans are in Afghanistan because they want to dominate his country and the region, and that they pose an obstacle to striking a peace deal with the Taliban.”

The article added about Karzai: “ ‘He has developed a complete theory of American power,’ said an Afghan who attended the lunch and who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. ‘He believes that America is trying to dominate the region, and that he is the only one who can stand up to them.’ ”

That is what we’re getting for risking thousands of U.S. soldiers and having spent $200 billion already. This news is a flashing red light, warning that the Obama team is violating at least three cardinal rules of Middle East diplomacy.

Rule No. 1: When you don’t call things by their real name, you always get in trouble. Karzai brazenly stole last year’s presidential election. But the Obama foreign policy team turned a blind eye, basically saying, he’s the best we could get, so just let it go. See dictionary for Vietnam: Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky.

When you can steal an election, you can steal anything. How will we get this guy to curb corruption when his whole election, and previous tour in office, were built on corruption? How can we be operating a clear, build-and-hold strategy that depends on us bringing good governance to Afghans when the head of the government is so duplicitous?

Our envoy in Kabul warned us of this before the election, but in his case, too, we were told to look the other way. On Nov. 6, the ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, wrote to Washington in a cable that was leaked: “President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner,” he warned. “Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development. He and much of his circle do not want the U.S. to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further. They assume we covet their territory for a never-ending ‘war on terror’ and for military bases to use against surrounding powers.”

One reason you violate Rule No. 1 is because you’ve already violated Rule No. 2: “Never want it more than they do.”

If we want good governance in Afghanistan more than Karzai, he will sell us that carpet over and over. How many U.S. officials have flown to Kabul — the latest being President Obama himself — to lecture Karzai on the need to root out corruption in his administration? Do we think he has a hearing problem? Or do we think he believes he has us over a barrel and, in the end, he can and will do whatever serves his personal power needs because he believes that we believe that he is indispensable for confronting Al Qaeda?

This rule applies equally to the Israeli prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. There is something wrong when we are chasing them — two men who live in biking distance from one another — begging, cajoling and pressuring them to come to a peace negotiation that should ostensibly serve their interests as much as our own.

Which leads to Rule No. 3: In the Middle East, what leaders tell you in private in English is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public in their own language.

When Karzai believes that the way to punish America for snubbing him is by inviting Iran’s president to Kabul — who delivered a virulently anti-U.S. speech from inside the presidential palace — you have to pay close attention to that. It means Karzai must think that anti-Americanism plays well on the streets of Afghanistan and that by dabbling in it himself — as he did during his presidential campaign — he will strengthen himself politically. That is not a good sign.

As Filkins and Landler noted, “During the recent American-dominated military offensive in the town of Marja — the largest of the war — Mr. Karzai stood mostly in the shadows.” And if Karzai behaves like this when he needs us, when we’re there fighting for him, how is he going to treat our interests when we’re gone?

We have thousands of U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan and more heading there. Love it or hate it, we’re now deep in it, so you have to want our engagement there to build something that is both decent and self-sustaining — so we can get out. But I still fear that Karzai is ready to fight to the last U.S. soldier. And once we clear, hold and build Afghanistan for him, he is going to break our hearts.

Omaba: Return to the middle where you ran! -- Good move: Obama to Open Offshore Areas to Oil Drilling for First Time

A 11-4-09 post entitled "Omaba, please return to the middle where you ran! Contests serve as warning to Democrats: It's not 2008 anymore," provides:

Republicans have the more energized constituency heading into next year's midterm elections.

The most significant change came among independent voters, who solidly backed Democrats in 2006 and 2008 but moved decisively to the Republicans on Tuesday, according to exit polls.

For months, polls have shown that independents were increasingly disaffected with some of Obama's domestic policies. They have expressed reservations about the president's health-care efforts and have shown concerns about the growth in government spending and the federal deficit under his leadership.

Tuesday's elections provided the first tangible evidence that Republicans can win their support with the right kind of candidates and the right messages. That is an ominous development for Democrats if it continues unabated into next year. But Republicans could squander that opportunity if they demand candidates who are too conservative to appeal to the middle.

The following discussed announcement -- intended to reduce dependence on oil imports, generate revenue from the sale of offshore leases and help win political support for comprehensive energy and climate legislation -- along with Obama's support for nuclear power, will help the perception of Obama moving from the left where he has governed to the middle where he ran.

The New York Times notes:

The Obama administration is proposing to open vast expanses of water along the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska to oil and natural gas drilling, much of it for the first time, officials said Tuesday.

The proposal — a compromise that will please oil companies and domestic drilling advocates but anger some residents of affected states and many environmental organizations — would end a longstanding moratorium on oil exploration along the East Coast from the northern tip of Delaware to the central coast of Florida, covering 167 million acres of ocean.

Under the plan, the coastline from New Jersey northward would remain closed to all oil and gas activity. So would the Pacific Coast, from Mexico to the Canadian border.

The environmentally sensitive Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska would be protected and no drilling would be allowed under the plan, officials said. But large tracts in the Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska — nearly 130 million acres — would be eligible for exploration and drilling after extensive studies.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Afghan Leader Is Seen to Flout Influence of U.S. -- Mr. Karzai now often voices the view that his interests & the United States’ no longer coincide.

From The New York Times:

This month, with President Hamid Karzai looking ahead to a visit to the White House, he received a terse note from aides to President Obama: Your invitation has been revoked.

The reason, according to American officials, was Mr. Karzai’s announcement that he was emasculating an independent panel that had discovered widespread fraud in Mr. Karzai’s re-election last year.

Incensed, Mr. Karzai extended an invitation of his own — to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, who flew to Kabul and delivered a fiery anti-American speech inside Afghanistan’s presidential palace.

The dispute was smoothed over only this week, when Mr. Obama flew to Kabul for a surprise dinner with Mr. Karzai. White House officials emphasized that the most important purpose of Mr. Obama’s trip to Afghanistan was to visit American troops there.

But the red carpet treatment of Mr. Ahmadinejad is just one example of how Mr. Karzai is putting distance between himself and his American sponsors, prominent Afghans and American officials here said. Even as Mr. Obama pours tens of thousands of additional American troops into the country to help defend Mr. Karzai’s government, Mr. Karzai now often voices the view that his interests and the United States’ no longer coincide.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Americans are shaking in their boots upon reading that Democrats are furious to learn that some insurers disagree with their interpretation of the law

The New York Times reports that despite the new health law, some insurers say they do not have to cover some children with pre-existing conditions yet.

The devil is always in the details, and this is a good reason to have something thoroughly vetted before rather than after the fact.

According to the Times article:

Just days after President Obama signed the new health care law, insurance companies are already arguing that, at least for now, they do not have to provide one of the benefits that the president calls a centerpiece of the law: coverage for certain children with pre-existing conditions.

Insurers say they often limit coverage of pre-existing conditions under policies sold in the individual insurance market. Thus, for example, an insurer might cover a family of four, including a child with a heart defect, but exclude treatment of that condition from the policy.

The new law says that health plans and insurers offering individual or group coverage “may not impose any pre-existing condition exclusion with respect to such plan or coverage” for children under 19, starting in “plan years” that begin on or after Sept. 23, 2010.

But, insurers say, until 2014, the law does not require them to write insurance at all for the child or the family. In the language of insurance, the law does not include a “guaranteed issue” requirement before then.

Starting in January 2014, health plans will be required to accept everyone who applies for coverage.

Until then, people with pre-existing conditions could seek coverage in high-risk insurance pools run by states or by the secretary of health and human services. The new law provides $5 billion to help pay claims filed by people in those pools.

As originally conceived, most of the new federal requirements would have taken effect at the same time, in three or four years. The requirements for people to carry insurance, for employers to offer it and for insurers to accept all applicants were tied together.

But as criticism of their proposal grew, Democrats wanted to show that the legislation would produce immediate, tangible benefits. So they accelerated the ban on “pre-existing condition exclusions” for children.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The thought occurred to me: Did Reid do this for his friend Pelosi? - One of the obscure revenue-generating provisions in the health care legislation.

From The New York Times:

The botax is out. The tan tax is in.

One of the little-discussed changes that the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, made to the Democrats’ big health care legislation was to eliminate a proposed 5 percent tax on cosmetic medical procedures and to replace it with a 10 percent tax on indoor tanning salons.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) officials set quotas to deport more illegal immigrants

From The Washington Post:

Seeking to reverse a steep drop in deportations, U.S. immigration authorities have set controversial new quotas for agents. At the same time, officials have stepped back from an Obama administration commitment to focus enforcement efforts primarily on illegal immigrants who are dangerous or have violent criminal backgrounds.

White House says the new health insurance law would be a boon to Hispanic-Americans.

From The New York Times:

Members of Congress headed home on Friday for a two-week recess during which they will try to shape public opinion and defend their votes for or against the new health insurance law.

Some Democrats who supported the overhaul said they knew they would need to defend it in meetings with constituents.

Cecilia Muñoz, director of intergovernmental affairs at the White House, said the law would be a boon to Hispanic-Americans.

Of the 32 million uninsured people expected to gain coverage under the law, Ms. Munoz said, 9 million are Latinos. About 14 million Latinos are now uninsured, she said, and more than 60 percent of them will gain access to coverage.

In enacting health insurance plan, Massachusetts deferred any serious discussion about controlling health care costs.

From The New York Times:

Here in the cradle of health reform, where universal coverage was pioneered, this year’s tightening race for governor is focused on the question that now confronts the nation: how to keep spiraling costs from bankrupting the experiment.

Four years ago, when Massachusetts enacted a health insurance plan that became a national template, state leaders deferred any serious discussion about controlling health care costs, with predictable results. While the law succeeded in insuring nearly all residents, the state had to raise taxes and trim benefits to preserve its essential contours.

Some States Find Burdens in Health Law

From The New York Times:

Across the country, state officials are wading through the minutiae of the health care overhaul to understand just how their governments will be affected. Even with much still to be digested, it is clear the law may be as much of a burden to some state budgets as it is a boon to uninsured consumers.

States with the largest uninsured populations, like Texas and California, might be considered by its backers the biggest winners to emerge from the law, because so many additional residents will have access to health insurance. But because those states are being required to significantly expand their Medicaid programs, they are precisely the ones that will face the biggest financial strains, in many cases magnified by existing budget shortfalls.

In contrast, states like Massachusetts and Wisconsin, which already have extensive health care safety nets, do not expect to spend much more money, while still taking in billions in federal grants.

In Massachusetts, for example, which already has a form of universal coverage, the federal government will wind up taking over from the state a significantly larger share of the costs of Medicaid coverage for adults without children, officials said.

Supporters of the new law have argued that states will benefit from efforts to slow health care inflation and billions of dollars in new federal spending on subsidies for the uninsured and on an array of programs like community health centers.

But even with more federal help, the challenge for states like Alabama, Arkansas and Texas that now offer only limited Medicaid coverage will be substantial. In these states, Medicaid has been mostly restricted to low-income families with children, pregnant women, certain people with disabilities and some elderly. The income cutoffs have also been extremely low.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Social Security to See Payout Exceed Pay-In This Year

From The New York Times:

The bursting of the real estate bubble and the ensuing recession have hurt jobs, home prices and now Social Security.

This year, the system will pay out more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes, an important threshold it was not expected to cross until at least 2016, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Analysts have long tried to predict the year when Social Security would pay out more than it took in because they view it as a tipping point — the first step of a long, slow march to insolvency, unless Congress strengthens the program’s finances.

“When the level of the trust fund gets to zero, you have to cut benefits,” Alan Greenspan, architect of the plan to rescue the Social Security program the last time it got into trouble, in the early 1980s, said on Wednesday.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

J.P. Morgan in Talks for $1.4 Billion; Stimulus Gives $12 Billion to 250 Firms - 'Public borrowing to pay off private debt.'

From The Wall Street Journal:

J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. is nearing a deal that would allow it to benefit from a tax refund of as much as $1.4 billion, becoming the latest company to tap a little-noticed plank in an economic stimulus bill.

That law let companies apply losses from 2008 or '09 against taxes paid in the previous five years, instead of the previous two years.

Many other companies have benefited from the 2009 tax-refund law already. According to an analysis of securities filings by The Wall Street Journal, more than 250 companies have so far said they expect to get about $12 billion in federal tax refunds under the law.

Some critics have found the corporate-tax-refund technique wanting as a stimulus or job-creation move. Prior to Congress's passage of the $787 billion stimulus law in early 2009, the Congressional Budget Office looked at six possible stimulus approaches and ranked this one least effective, saying each corporate tax dollar refunded would generate at most 40 cents of boost to gross domestic product. The corporate-tax-refund approach wasn't included in the big stimulus bill early in the year, but was part of legislation in November that extended jobless benefits.

Douglas Shackelford, a tax professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said using federal tax receipts to shore up corporate balance sheets amounts to "public borrowing to pay off private debt.... It's not clear to me that's a good use of money at all."

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

David Brooks describes my upbringing and states my feelings and concerns (as reflected in my past posts) so very, very well -- The Democrats Rejoice

David Brooks's Op-Ed column in The New York Times started in September 2003. He is currently a commentator on PBS's "The Newshour with Jim Lehrer."

David Brooks writes a keeper if he ever did in The New York Times:

Parties come to embody causes. For the past 90 years or so, the Republican Party has, at its best, come to embody the cause of personal freedom and economic dynamism. For a similar period, the Democratic Party has, at its best, come to embody the cause of fairness and family security. Over the past century, they have built a welfare system, brick by brick, to guard against the injuries of fate.

If you grew up, as I did, with a Hubert Humphrey poster on your wall and a tradition of Democratic Party activism in your family, you recognize the Democratic DNA in the content of this bill and in the way it was passed. There was the inevitable fractiousness, the neuroticism, the petty logrolling, but also the basic concern for the vulnerable and the high idealism.

And there was also the faith in the grand liberal project. Democrats protected the unemployed starting with the New Deal, then the old, then the poor. Now, thanks to health care reform, millions of working families will go to bed at night knowing that they are not an illness away from financial ruin.

For apostates like me, watching this bill go through the meat grinder was like watching an old family reunion. One glimpse and you got the whole panoply of what you loved and found annoying about these people.

Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi were fit to play the leading roles. They both embody the two great wings of the party, the high-minded aspirations of the educated class and the machinelike toughness of the party apparatus. Obama and Pelosi both possess the political tenaciousness that you only get if you live for government and believe ruthlessly in its possibilities. They could have scaled back their aspirations at any time but they hung tough.

Members of the Obama-Pelosi team have spent the past year on a wandering, tortuous quest — enduring the exasperating pettiness of small-minded members, hostile public opinion, just criticism and gross misinformation, a swarm of cockeyed ideas and the erroneous predictions of people like me who thought the odds were against them. For sheer resilience, they deserve the honor of posterity.

Yet I confess, watching all this, I feel again why I’m no longer spiritually attached to the Democratic Party. The essence of America is energy — the vibrancy of the market, the mobility of the people and the disruptive creativity of the entrepreneurs. This vibrancy grew up accidentally, out of a cocktail of religious fervor and material abundance, but it was nurtured by choice. It was nurtured by our founders, who created national capital markets to disrupt the ossifying grip of the agricultural landholders. It was nurtured by 19th-century Republicans who built the railroads and the land-grant colleges to weave free markets across great distances. It was nurtured by Progressives who broke the stultifying grip of the trusts.

Today, America’s vigor is challenged on two fronts. First, the country is becoming geriatric. Other nations spend 10 percent or so of their G.D.P. on health care. We spend 17 percent and are predicted to soon spend 20 percent and then 25 percent. This legislation was supposed to end that asphyxiating growth, which will crowd out investments in innovation, education and everything else. It will not.

With the word security engraved on its heart, the Democratic Party is just not structured to cut spending that would enhance health and safety. The party nurtures; it does not say, “No more.”

The second biggest threat to America’s vibrancy is the exploding federal debt. Again, Democrats can utter the words of fiscal restraint, but they don’t feel the passion. This bill is full of gimmicks designed to get a good score from the Congressional Budget Office but not to really balance the budget. Democrats did enough to solve their political problem (not looking fiscally reckless) but not enough to solve the genuine problem.

Nobody knows how this bill will work out. It is an undertaking exponentially more complex than the Iraq war, for example. But to me, it feels like the end of something, not the beginning of something. It feels like the noble completion of the great liberal project to build a comprehensive welfare system.

The task ahead is to save this country from stagnation and fiscal ruin. We know what it will take. We will have to raise a consumption tax. We will have to preserve benefits for the poor and cut them for the middle and upper classes. We will have to invest more in innovation and human capital.

The Democratic Party, as it revealed of itself over the past year, does not seem to be up to that coming challenge (neither is the Republican Party). This country is in the position of a free-spending family careening toward bankruptcy that at the last moment announced that it was giving a gigantic new gift to charity. You admire the act of generosity, but you wish they had sold a few of the Mercedes to pay for it.

Next Big Issue? Social Security Pops Up Again -- By 2016, Social Security will begin paying more in benefits than it collects in payroll taxes

From The New York Times:

Now that landmark legislation overhauling the health insurance system is about to become law, addressing Social Security’s solvency could well become the next big thing for President Obama and Congressional Democrats.

Central to the health care changes are hundreds of billions of dollars in reductions in Medicare spending over time and expansions of Medicaid. As some administration officials acknowledge, that effectively takes those fast-growing entitlement programs off the table for deficit reduction just as Mr. Obama’s bipartisan commission to reduce the mounting national debt gets to work.

That leaves Social Security, the other big entitlement benefits program and one that Mr. Obama has suggested in the past that he is willing to tackle. While its looming problems are not of the scale of those afflicting Medicare, it now stands as the likeliest source of the sort of large savings needed to bring projected annual deficits to sustainable levels, many budget analysts agree.

And, they say, packaging future reductions in the retirement program that Democrats zealously defend with tax increases that Republicans typically oppose would have the makings of a grand compromise to shrink the debt.

In Congress, the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, and other Democratic leaders, who last year quashed White House talk of forming a Social Security task force, are not likely to be eager after the 14-month battle over health care to confront so controversial an issue, certainly not before November’s elections.

Early signs of disagreement have also been evident in the White House between members of the economic team, who generally favor addressing Social Security’s finances, and the political advisers, who resist it.

The president’s debt-reduction commission is likely to force the issue, even though it is not required to report its recommendations to Congress until Dec. 1, weeks after this year’s midterm Congressional elections.

Because 14 of the 18 commission members are required to agree on any recommendation to Congress, few people think the panel’s Democrats and Republicans will succeed in coalescing around a package of both short-term and long-range deficit reductions, as Mr. Obama directed. Yet some Democrats in the administration and in Congress say they privately expect that some proposals, including on Social Security, could well end up in Mr. Obama’s budget early next year.

By 2016, Social Security will begin paying more in benefits than it collects in payroll taxes, according to the annual report of government trustees; reserves in the form of government i.o.u.’s will be exhausted by 2037, after which incoming taxes will cover three-quarters of benefits.

Next Step on Health Care Reform

From The Wall Street Journal:

Any success by the Republicans in blocking or modifying the measure containing changes could cause political problems for Democrats. That is because it erases some of the less-popular parts of the main bill, such as a deal the Senate made to help Nebraska, alone, with Medicaid costs.

The second bill would also close the "doughnut hole," a gap in Medicare prescription-drug coverage; increase insurance subsides for low-income Americans; narrow and delay a tax on high-value plans; and help states pay for Medicaid.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) plans to pass this bill under a process called reconciliation, which needs just a majority of 51 votes. Democrats say they can fend off changes and pass it.

But reconciliation, which is permitted only for budgetary moves, gives Republicans tools for objecting to items in the bill. If parliamentary or legislative challenges change even one word, the measure will have to go back to the House. That could be another headache for Democrats. "Each day spent talking about health care and not about jobs and the economy is a bad day for Democrats," said Kenneth Duberstein, a former Reagan White House chief of staff.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Democrats are afraid of failure & nervous about what success could bring. They fear substantial losses in November.

Dan Balz writes in The Washington Post:

As the final round of the battle over health-care reform begins Sunday, President Obama and the Democrats are in reach of a historic legislative achievement that has eluded presidents dating back a century. The question is at what cost.

By almost any measure, enactment of comprehensive health-care legislation would rank as one of the most significant pieces of social welfare legislation in the country's history, a goal set as far back as the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and pursued since by many other presidents. But unlike Social Security or Medicare, Obama's health-care bill would pass over the Republican Party's unanimous opposition.

The lengthy and rancorous debate has inflicted considerable damage on the president and his party.

Democrats are afraid of failure and nervous about what success could bring. They fear substantial losses in November, with their majorities in the House and Senate possibly at risk if the country turns even more negative toward the administration and its policies.

Regardless of the political fallout, historians say health-care reform will take its place in the same category as the enactment of Social Security in 1935 and Medicare in 1965, and only a rung or two below passage of the major civil rights bills of the 1950s and 1960s.

[T]here is a major difference between this health-care battle and the debates that preceded passage of Social Security and Medicare. Although there was opposition to those measures -- conservative opponents called Medicare socialized medicine -- in the end they passed with overwhelming, bipartisan majorities.

The House approved the Medicare bill on a vote of 313 to 115, including 65 Republicans -- nearly half the GOP caucus at the time. The Senate approved the measure by 68 to 21, including 13 of the 27 Republicans.

Social Security passed the House in 1935 by 372 to 77. On that vote, 77 Republicans joined the majority and 18 Republicans opposed it. In the Senate, the vote was 77 to 6, with five of 19 Republicans in opposition.

[T]he health-care battle has divided the country in ways that the Medicare debate of the 1960s did not. One reason is that partisanship and political polarization are measurably worse today. Another factor is that trust in government is far lower than in the 1960s. Finally, the political parties are far more homogenous, particularly the Republican Party, whose members decidedly identify themselves as conservative or very conservative.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Peggy Noonan on Now for the Slaughter - Memo to future presidents: Never take the country down the road to Demon Pass.

Peggy Noonan notes in The Wall Street Journal that the so-called Slaughter rule, alternatively known as "deem and pass," which would avoid a straight up-or-down House vote on the Senate health reform bill, sounds like "demon pass." She writes:

And so it ends, with a health-care vote expected this weekend. I wonder at what point the administration will realize it wasn't worth it—worth the discord, worth the diminution in popularity and prestige, worth the deepening of the great divide. What has been lost is so vivid, what has been gained so amorphous, blurry and likely illusory. Memo to future presidents: Never stake your entire survival on the painful passing of a bad bill. Never take the country down the road to Demon Pass.

Arcane tactics (and torture) of getting a bill up the Hill: An inevitable part of legislative process?

From The Washington Post:

If House Democrats pass a health-care bill this weekend, it would be the latest step in a legislative process that has included a Saturday night vote, shortly before midnight, on the original version of the bill in November; Senate approval on Christmas Eve; and a week in which "deem and pass" and "self-executing rule" replaced "reconciliation" as the latest bit of inexplicable arcana from inside the Beltway.

Why does Congress pass bills in such tortured ways?

The Democrats' primary response has been "They did it, too," referring to legislative maneuvers that Republicans used to get bills approved when they controlled Congress.

Republicans "were FOR deeming before they OPPOSED IT," the Democrats on the House Rules Committee wrote in a memo Friday. In 2003, House Republicans extended the usual length of a vote from 15 minutes to almost three hours, to pass a Medicare bill, as Democrats cried foul. The measure was finally approved at 5:53 a.m. on a Saturday.

Rep. John A. Boehner (Ohio), current leader of the House Republicans, said that although deem and pass -- a procedure through which the House effectively deems a measure passed by approving a related bill -- "has been around for a long time . . . it's never been used for a bill so controversial and so massive in scope."

Congressional leaders often use such tactics to provide cover to lawmakers who oppose a measure pushed by their party's leadership but are being strongly urged to follow the party line.

Even so, leaders can sometimes persuade reluctant lawmakers to support a bill only on the day of the vote, or even in the midst of the vote, as Republicans did in 2003 on the Medicare bill. Party leaders on both sides tried to woo lawmakers on the floor during the 15-minute House vote on health care in November.

Votes on weekends, when people might be paying less attention to Washington, seem to be coming more frequently. But that is not necessarily because of Congress gimmicking with the schedule.

Rather, a grass-roots campaign led by good-government activists after the Wall Street bailout vote in 2008 led Congress to commit to posting bills online for 72 hours before any key vote. That policy pushed the current vote to the weekend, as the legislative text was released Thursday.

The Christmas Eve vote on health care in the Senate, meanwhile, came in part because Republicans in that chamber used a variety of legislative tactics there to delay the process and make Democrats feel the pressure of the oncoming holiday.

And what about the public? Do voters really care about all this process?

President Obama suggested this week that the answer is no, and polling and recent developments seem to back him up.

The 2003 vote over the Medicare bill prompted a huge outcry against the extended vote. Democrats tried to make it an election issue, but Republicans nevertheless kept control of Congress the next year.

"We screamed and yelled about the fact that they held it open for five hours. I don't think anybody cared," Elmendorf said.

And the prescription drug benefit created by the bill has proved so popular Democrats are trying to strengthen it in the current health-care legislation.

Recent polling suggests that, as Washington Post polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta wrote earlier this week, "The public's take on parliamentary procedure is based more on the result than the process."

But Republicans are seizing on the way the Democrats are passing the bill as much as the legislation. They say polls that show declining approval for Congress illustrate that Democrats' tactics are annoying voters.

"Lawmakers may think this gives [deem and pass] an out," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wrote Friday in an essay on AOL News. "In reality, it guarantees that they will forever be remembered for trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the public, by claiming not to vote for something they did. This will be a career-defining and a Congress-defining vote that Americans won't forget."

China’s Growth Shifts the Geopolitics of Oil -- All the growth comes from the east and all the security comes from the west.

From The New York Times:

[F]or the first time in more than a decade, the world has more oil than it needs.

As demand slumped because of the global recession, Saudi Arabia was forced to shut about a quarter of its production. After raising its capacity to 12.5 million barrels a day, Saudi Arabia is now pumping about 8.5 million barrels a day, its lowest level since the early 1990s.

Saudi Arabia exported more oil to China than to the United States last year.

The Saudis stopped striving to be the top foreign supplier to the United States years ago. The kingdom now trails Canada, Mexico and Venezuela for exports to the United States.

Last year, Saudi exports to the United States fell to 989,000 barrels a day, the lowest level in 22 years, from 1.5 million barrels a day the previous year, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Meanwhile, Saudi sales to China surged above a million barrels a day last year, nearly doubling from the previous year. The kingdom now accounts for a quarter of Chinese oil imports.

India is also courting Saudi attention.

Some energy and security experts have pointed out that the Saudi government is keen on displacing Iranian oil sales to China to persuade Beijing authorities to back tougher sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program, a position that has the support of the United States.

“We know the Saudis and others have delivered the message to the Chinese that instability in the gulf is not in their interest,” Douglas C. Hengel, the deputy assistant secretary for energy, sanctions and commodities at the State Department, said last week during a conference in Houston.

But Jon B. Alterman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that the falling dependence of the United States on Saudi oil could turn into a problem for the Saudis, because the United States guarantees their security in the Persian Gulf.

While China is by far the fastest-growing oil market in the world, the United States is still the top consumer: despite the slump, Americans consumed 18.5 million barrels a day in 2009. That amounts to 22 barrels of oil a year for each American, compared with 2.4 barrels for each Chinese.

Friday, March 19, 2010

UPDATED: I find this more troubling than the Cornhusker Kickback: Democrats plan doc fix after health care reform is passed

UPDATE FROM: A headline in Politico reads "Democrats question credibility of memo." The article notes:

POLITICO circled back to the multiple Republican sources that had sent along the memo and asked if they could authenticate its Democratic origins. They could not, so POLITICO pulled the item from the website.

The original post follows.

From Politico:

Democrats are planning to introduce legislation later this spring that would permanently repeal annual Medicare cuts to doctors, but are warning lawmakers not to talk about it for fear that it will complicate their push to pass comprehensive health reform. The plans undercut the party's message that reform lowers the deficit, according to a memo obtained by POLITICO.

Democrats removed the so-called doc fix from the reform legislation last year because its $371-billion price tag would have made it impossible for Democrats to claim that their bill reduces the deficit. Republicans have argued for months that by stripping the doc fix from the bill, Democrats were playing a shell game.

“Most health staff are already aware that our health proposal does not contain a 'doc fix.' … The inclusion of a full SGR repeal would undermine reform’s budget neutrality. So again, do not allow yourself (or your boss) to get into a discussion of the details of CBO scores and textual narrative. Instead, focus only on the deficit reduction and number of Americans covered,” the memo, sent Thursday to Democratic staff, said.

“As most health staff knows, leadership and the White House are working with the AMA to rally physicians for a full SGR repeal later this spring. However, both health and communications staff should understand we do not want that policy discussion discussed at this time, lest (it) complicate the last critical push to pass health reform,” according to the memo.

The memo helps explains why the American Medical Association has supported reform even though their top legislative priority, the doc fix, was left out. The group is working behind the scenes with Democratic leadership and the White House to fix the cuts later this year.

5 questions about the health-care legislation

From The Washington Post:

As the House prepares to vote this weekend on the Senate's health-care bill and a reconciliation package of changes, we answer five questions about the bill, the process and what it ultimately means to the American people.

#1 What is the House voting on?

The House will probably vote Sunday on the health-care reform bill approved by the Senate in December, plus a separate package of changes negotiated by the two chambers that is designed to make the bill more palatable to House Democrats. The measure would cover more than 32 million uninsured Americans, expand Medicaid eligibility, set up new insurance exchanges and require nearly everyone to carry insurance or pay a fine. The bill would prevent the denial of insurance coverage for those with preexisting conditions, limit insurers' ability to enact large rate increases and provide subsidies to help lower-income people purchase insurance. The measure also closes the "doughnut hole" in Medicare prescription drug coverage, cuts subsidies for Medicare Advantage plans and allows children to stay on their parents' insurance plans up to age 26.

#2 How does this differ from the bill the House approved in December?

While the original House bill was funded mostly with a surcharge on individuals making more than $500,000 per year ($1 million per family), the Senate bill uses a tax on high-cost insurance plans. The reconciliation package would keep the Senate's tax but scale it back, while adding a new Medicare tax on wealthy taxpayers' interest and dividend earnings. The original House bill also included a government-run insurance option, which the Senate bill does not. The Senate bill imposes less strict requirements on employers, charging fees to companies with more than 50 employees if their workers receive government-subsidized insurance. And the House bill set up a national insurance exchange, while the Senate measure makes the exchanges state-based.

#3 How do the changes affect the politics of the bill?

No Republicans are expected to vote for the bill, so backers must find enough votes -- 216 are needed -- from House Democrats. The final version is more centrist than the one that narrowly passed the House in December, because it lacks a public insurance option and includes a tax on high-priced insurance plans that is anathema to organized labor. The final bill provoked grumbling from many liberal House Democrats, but they have mostly fallen in line behind it. Also falling in line were Hispanic members upset about a provision that would exclude illegal immigrants from using their own money to buy insurance in a new government-sponsored marketplace.

The biggest challenge remains getting enough votes from Blue Dogs and other moderate Democrats. Despite the Congressional Budget Office's finding that the bill would achieve tens of billions in deficit reductions, they remain concerned about its cost. There are also about half a dozen Democrats who voted for the last House bill who argue that this version is not sufficiently restrictive in banning federal funding for abortion.

#4 Why is the process so confusing?

The parliamentary route on this legislation is a far cry from the civics lesson enshrined in the old "School House Rock" song "I'm Just a Bill." Unable to overcome the likelihood of a GOP filibuster in the Senate since Sen. Scott Brown's Jan. 19 special election victory in Massachusetts, Democrats are using an obscure but commonly used tactic known as "reconciliation" to get the legislation through both chambers.

House Democrats are trying to approve the Senate legislation exactly as it is, which would send it to President Obama for his signature. At the same time, they are working on revisions to the Senate bill that involve compromises between Democrats in the Senate and the House. That legislation is using the reconciliation process so that, if the House passes it, Senate Democrats can approve those changes with just 51 votes and avoid a filibuster by Senate Republicans.

Confusing the process more, House Democrats will not actually vote on the Senate legislation. Instead, they will wrap the Senate bill and the revision legislation into one vote, "deeming" the first one approved without a specific vote on it if the overall vote succeeds. Republicans have protested these parliamentary maneuvers, although they have used them on other bills in the past.

#5 What happens now?

The final 48 hours before this vote is known as the "whip count," in which Democratic leaders send around a one-page sheet to each of the 253 Democrats asking where they stand on the issue. Those remaining undecided votes will get calls from Obama and his Cabinet secretaries, and have meetings with the House leadership.

If the Democrats prevail in what is expected to be a razor-thin vote, Obama will sign the legislation into law and the Senate will spend the next week trying to navigate its own parliamentary maze to enact the reconciliation bill. If the Senate does not enact those changes, the original Senate legislation would be the law of the land, because the House and Senate approved identical language. If the Senate made any changes to the reconciliation legislation, it would go back to the House for another vote.

Five myths about the health-care reform battle

Chris Cillizza, a national politics reporter for The Washington Post, writes in The Washington Post:

After more than a year of proposals, protests and political rhetoric, President Obama's health-care plan is headed to a final showdown in the House this weekend. And although most Americans -- and probably a few members of Congress -- have little idea of what exactly is in the bill, the mythology about how we got here is already well on its way to being constructed. Here are a few misconceptions about the health-care reform battle that should be busted before the history is written:

1. This could have been a bipartisan bill.

Very unlikely. Bipartisanship in politics is built on two pillars: trust and mutual benefit. And from the start it was apparent that both were in short supply in the 111th Congress.

While Obama's election -- and Democratic gains in the House and the Senate -- in 2008 were heralded as a new beginning in politics, the distrust and partisanship that had typified Congress in the recent past left a bitterness that no election could heal. Obama's efforts to bridge those gaps (often more personality-driven than policy-focused) came up short, with Republicans wary of being made into political pawns.

Nowhere was that wariness on better display than during last month's televised health-care summit at Blair House. Republicans came armed for rhetorical battle -- complete with copies of the massive bill as props -- rather than bipartisan compromise. That meeting also made plain the wide policy gap between the two parties; Democrats were focused primarily on expanding coverage, while Republicans were fixated on controlling costs.

Congressional Republicans also made an early strategic calculation that unified opposition to the president's overall agenda was their best course of action. The fact that just three Senate Republicans -- including one, Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, who later become a Democrat -- backed Obama's economic stimulus package was an omen that bipartisanship on health care was a pipe dream.

2. Democrats gave up on the public option too soon.

To this day, the left insists that if the White House and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stood strongly behind the creation of a public option -- a government-run health-care plan -- it could muster the necessary votes in the Senate. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee is even sponsoring an ad that plucks public statements from a handful of Senate Democrats -- Mark Warner (Va.), Jim Webb (Va.) and Kay Hagan (N.C.) among them -- to prove that a majority could be built around the measure.

But the fact is that expressing support for the public option is a consequence-free win-win situation for Senate Democrats. Politicians know that a vote on the controversial measure simply won't happen because neither the White House nor the congressional leadership has any desire to bring it back up. As a result, these lawmakers are free to voice their strong support for the public option while never having to worry about the political consequences of casting a vote in favor of it.

3. Scott Brown changed everything.

Yes and no. From a procedural standpoint, the stunning upset by Brown, a Republican, in the Jan. 19 Massachusetts special election forced Democrats to reassess their plan for passing the health-care overhaul; they drew a road map heavy on parliamentary procedures that led us down the current path. Without 60 seats, Democrats are unable to break Republican filibusters and therefore have been forced to slow-walk legislation that they had been on the precipice of passing before Brown's win.

But the meat of the bill -- an attempt at broad reform -- never really changed. From the start, the president made clear that nibbling around the edges of health care didn't interest him. Brown's victory did little to change Obama's "go big or go home" approach, even if it did raise the electoral stakes heading into the midterm elections this fall.

The psychological effect on Democrats of Brown winning the late Ted Kennedy's seat is harder to gauge. Democratic strategists fretted that the loss of the seat would lead to a rush of retirements on their side, a fear that hasn't been entirely borne out as the retirements have come more in drips and drabs.

4. The public is undecided about health-care reform.

Divided? Yes. Undecided? No. Poll after poll shows that people, by and large, have made up their minds about where they come down on this bill. In the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, released this week, 36 percent said they believed Obama's health-care plan was a good idea while 48 percent called it a bad one, leaving just 15 percent without an opinion.

A broad look at the survey data on the support and opposition for overhauling health care -- helpfully compiled by the good folks at Pollster.com -- shows a similar, steady trend line. Opposition runs in the upper 40s, support in the low to mid-40s and undecided respondents in the low single digits. Those numbers haven't moved much since August 2009, when the raucous receptions that members of Congress received at town hall meetings across the country signaled growing leeriness toward the legislation.

The American public is deeply divided over this bill -- what's in it, what it will do, whether it's the right thing -- but not at all unclear on how they feel about it.

5. How lawmakers vote on health-care reform will be the top issue in the 2010 midterm elections.

Health care will indeed be an important issue in November, but it will be secondary to Americans' concerns about jobs and the economy. In a Gallup poll conducted this month, 31 percent of people identified unemployment as the most pressing issue facing the country, while 24 percent named the "economy in general." Twenty percent chose health care.

In the immediate aftermath of passage (or failure) of a reform bill, health care is likely to experience a bit of a bump in terms of voter priorities in polls, but it will probably recede as anxiety about the economy and the job market reasserts itself. Historically, when the economy is struggling (or is perceived to be struggling), all other issues take a back seat -- hence the successful "it's the economy, stupid" slogan of Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992.

Democrats will try to sell the health-care legislation as a jobs bill by emphasizing the benefits it offers for small businesses. Republicans will cast health-care reform as the biggest piece of evidence that the Obama administration took its eye off the economy at a critical time. Either way, they'll be talking economy first and second (and probably third) on the campaign trail this fall.

Tom Crawford requests that I post his "email that points out the falsehoods in David Brooks' column" that I posted.

Yesterday my friend Tom Crawford of Capitol Impact wrote to me:

I noticed that you posted an excerpt earlier this week on your website from a David Brooks column in the New York Times on the plans by the U.S. Senate to use the reconciliation procedure to possibly achieve final passage of the healthcare bill. I wanted to point out that Mr. Brooks is using false information in several places to bolster his argument against reconciliation.

Brooks wrote (and you posted on your website):

"Until recently, the Senate leaders couldn’t just ram things through on party-line votes. Because a simple majority did not rule, and because one senator had the ability to bring the whole body to a halt, senators had an incentive, every day, to develop alliances and relationships with people in the other party."

That statement is not true. There are instances on record -- verifiable, historical record -- where the Senate leadership was able to get a bill passed on a party line vote. I cite as just one example the 1993 vote on President Clinton's deficit reduction act. The vote was 50-50, along party lines, and Vice President Al Gore broke the tie to pass the bill. That was a party line vote and it happened 17 years ago.

Brooks also wrote (and you again posted on your website):

"Reconciliation has been used with increasing frequency. That was bad enough. But at least for the Bush tax cuts or the prescription drug bill, there was significant bipartisan support. Now we have pure reconciliation mixed with pure partisanship."

That also is not true. The budget reconciliation process was used six times between 1980 and 1989. It was used four times between 1990 and 1999. It was used five times between 2000 and 2009. It has been used zero times since 2010. This data has been published by the New York Times -- which also runs Brooks' column. The peak period for the use of the reconciliation procedure was in the 1980s. Brooks is making a false statement when he says reconciliation has been used with "increasing frequency."

Brooks is also making false statements when he writes that reconciliation has been limited to bills with "significant bipartisan support." President Bush's 2003 tax cuts passed the Senate on a 50-50 vote, with Vice President Cheney required to cast the tie-breaking vote. Two Democrats joined with the Republicans on that vote: Zell Miller, who by that time had become a Bush advocate and was not really a Democrat anymore (although you might disagree with me on that point) and Nebraska's Ben Nelson. That's it: one real Democrat and one Democrat in name only. Sid, you cannot honestly describe that as "significant bipartisan support."

Brooks' statement that Bush's Medicare prescription drug bill was passed through the reconciliation procedure is also false. The prescription drug benefit was not passed through reconciliation. It was passed with a normal Senate vote.

This is not a matter of me disagreeing with Brooks philosophically. This is an instance where he is making statements that are not true, and the falsity of these statements is quite easily proven through a cursory examination of official records. David Brooks is certainly entitled to his own opinion. He is not entitled to his own facts. What he wrote -- and what you posted on your website -- is as bogus as if he had written, "Franklin Roosevelt was an ineffective president, as shown by his inability to win a third term in office. Roosevelt's defeat in 1940 was a key factor in America losing World War II to Germany and Japan." If Brooks wrote a column stating that, you would laugh at him for making such an absurd argument based on falsehoods. But that is precisely what he did in the New York Times column you cited.

As a service to your readers, Sid, I hope that you will post this email that points out the falsehoods in David Brooks' column.

Thanks for listening. I hope all is well with you down in Coffee County.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

Note the words 'Georgia Democrat.' This week I am not proud of what my Party is about.

If the current proposed legislation seeking to expand coverage without first attacking the cost aspect of health care becomes law -- and regardless of what the progressives in the Party say about passing something rather than nothing so President Obama appears not to have failed and for other reasons -- the health-care fight is heading toward a political referendum in November, and the results are going to be disastrous for the Democrats.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Understanding the 'self-executing rule'

From The Washington Post:

As the House moves toward a vote on health-care legislation, one possible route to passage involves a procedural measure called a "self-executing rule," or "deem and pass." It would allow House members to pass the Senate's bill by voting not on the measure itself, but rather a "fixes package." Here's a look at the self-executing rule and its role in Congress:

What is it?

A self-executing rule, which exists only in the House, allows for a "two for one" procedure: When the House adopts such a rule, it simultaneously agrees to dispose of a separate matter, a "self-executed provision," which is specified in the rule itself.

According to a Congressional Research Service report, this basically means that lawmakers have no opportunity to amend or vote separately on the self-executed provision. It is automatically agreed to upon passage of a related measure.

So the procedural vote on the rule is often, but not always, to change the substance of the bill before it is even called up.

When did it originate?

The self-executing rule dates to the Great Depression. It was first used on March 16, 1933, in H.R. 2820 -- "To maintain the credit of the U.S. Government." (H.Res. 63).

When and how is it used?

Self-executing rules have been used by both parties throughout the years in a number of ways. One recent example is employing it to increase the federal debt ceiling.

These rules can be as minor as making a technical correction to a bill or as major as adopting an entirely new substitute for the measure. They can be used in all kinds of instances, such as saving time on debating and voting on a minor amendment, avoiding a politically embarrassing floor vote, and ensuring majority support and passage of a bill. They have never been used to pass legislation as momentous as the $875 billion health-care package, however.

How much is it really used?

Of the 80 rules adopted by the current Congress, a third (26) have been self-executing rules.

What does it mean for the health-care legislation?

The self-executing rule is being considered by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as one way to get a bill passed. Under that proposal, the House would prepare for a vote on a package of changes to the Senate measure by adopting a rule: Passage of the fixes signifies that lawmakers "deem" the underlying legislation to be passed.

"It's more insider and process-oriented than most people want to know," Pelosi said in a roundtable discussion with bloggers Monday. "But I like it," she said, "because people don't have to vote on the Senate bill."

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Geez: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: "It's more insider and process-oriented than most people want to know."

From The Washington Post:

After laying the groundwork for a decisive vote this week on the Senate's health-care bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggested Monday that she might attempt to pass the measure without having members vote on it.

Instead, Pelosi (D-Calif.) would rely on a procedural sleight of hand: The House would vote on a more popular package of fixes to the Senate bill; under the House rule for that vote, passage would signify that lawmakers "deem" the health-care bill to be passed.

The tactic -- known as a "self-executing rule" or a "deem and pass" -- has been commonly used, although never to pass legislation as momentous as the $875 billion health-care bill. It is one of three options that Pelosi said she is considering for a late-week House vote, but she added that she prefers it because it would politically protect lawmakers who are reluctant to publicly support the measure.

"It's more insider and process-oriented than most people want to know," the speaker said in a roundtable discussion with bloggers Monday. "But I like it," she said, "because people don't have to vote on the Senate bill."

David Brooks: "We have a political culture in which the word 'reconciliation' has come to mean 'bitter division.'"

David Brooks writes in The New York Times:

Human beings, the philosophers tell us, are social animals. We emerge into the world ready to connect with mom and dad. We go through life jibbering and jabbering with each other, grouping and regrouping. When you get a crowd of people in a room, the problem is not getting them to talk to each other; the problem is getting them to shut up.

To help us in this social world, God, nature and culture have equipped us with a spirit of sympathy. We instinctively feel a tinge of pain when we observe another in pain (at least most of us do). We instinctively mimic, even to a small extent, the mood, manners, yawns and actions of the people around us.

To help us bond and commit, we have been equipped with a suite of moral sentiments. We have an innate sense of fairness. Children from an early age have a sense that everybody should be treated fairly. We have an innate sense of duty. We admire people who sacrifice for the group. We are naturally embarrassed when we’ve been caught violating some social code. We blush uncontrollably.

As a result of this sympathy and these sentiments, people are usually pretty decent to one another when they relate person to person. The odd thing is that when people relate group to group, none of this applies. When a group or a nation thinks about another group or nation, there doesn’t seem to be much natural sympathy, natural mimicry or a natural desire for attachment. It’s as if an entirely different part of the brain has been activated, utilizing a different mode of thinking.

Group-to-group relations are more often marked by calculation, rivalry and coldness. Members of one group sometimes see members of another group as less than human: Nazi and Jew, Hutu and Tutsi, Sunni and Shiite.

Political leaders have an incentive to get their followers to use the group mode of cognition, not the person-to-person. People who are thinking in the group mode are loyal, disciplined and vicious against foes. People in the person-to-person mode are soft, unpredictable and hard to organize.

There’s a scene in Anthony Trollope’s political novel, “Phineas Finn,” in which young Phineas, about to enter Parliament, tells a party leader that he is going to think for himself and decide issues as he sees best. The leader, Barrington Erle, looks at him with utter disgust. To Erle, anybody who thinks that way is “unstable as water and dishonest as the wind.”

In the United States, leaders in the House of Representatives have done an effective job in getting their members to think in group, not person-to-person, terms. Members usually vote as party blocs. Individuals have very little power. That’s why representatives are often subtle and smart as individuals, but crude and partisan as a collective. The social psychology of the House is a clan psychology, not an interpersonal psychology.

The Senate, on the other hand, has historically been home to more person-to-person thinking. This is because the Senate is smaller and because of Senate rules. Until recently, the Senate leaders couldn’t just ram things through on party-line votes. Because a simple majority did not rule, and because one senator had the ability to bring the whole body to a halt, senators had an incentive, every day, to develop alliances and relationships with people in the other party.

For decades, individual senators have resisted their leaders’ attempts to run the Senate like the House and destroy these relationships and these humane customs. A few years ago, when Republican leaders tried to pass judicial nominations on party-line votes, rank-and-file members like Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton spoke out forcefully against rule by simple majority.

But power trumps principle. In nearly every arena of political life, group relationships have replaced person-to-person relationships. The tempo of the Senate is now set by partisan lunches every Tuesday, whereas the body almost never meets for conversation as a whole. The Senate is now in the process of using reconciliation — rule by simple majority — to try to pass health care.

Reconciliation has been used with increasing frequency. That was bad enough. But at least for the Bush tax cuts or the prescription drug bill, there was significant bipartisan support. Now we have pure reconciliation mixed with pure partisanship.

Once partisan reconciliation is used for this bill, it will be used for everything, now and forever. The Senate will be the House. The remnants of person-to-person relationships, with their sympathy and sentiment, will be snuffed out. We will live amid the relationships of group versus group, party versus party, inhumanity versus inhumanity.

We have a political culture in which the word “reconciliation” has come to mean “bitter division.” With increasing effectiveness, the system bleaches out normal behavior and the normal instincts of human sympathy.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Employers plan to shift more health-care costs to workers, survey reports

A 11-20-09 post provides in part:

My law office provides health insurance for our employees. Many, many small businesses do not. It is expensive, very expensive. Although my office has fewer than 50 workers and thus would be exempt under the Senate bill, a $750 annual fine hardly has me shacking in my boots considering my firm pays $900 or so a month per employee for an employee's health insurance.

In the proposed legislation the $750 has changed. In my case so has the "$900 or so." I just reviewed the figures the other day, and the most expensive employee -- not an attorney -- was costing $1,096. Small wonder for the reasons behind the remainder of this post.

The Washington Post notes:

Most big employers plan to shift a larger share of health-care costs to their workers next year, according to a survey released Thursday.

Many say they may charge more to cover spouses, tighten eligibility standards for their health plans and dispense financial rewards or penalties based on the results of certain lab tests. At some companies, overweight employees could be excluded from the most desirable plans.

Meanwhile, employees at many companies can expect significantly higher premiums, deductibles and co-payments, according to the annual survey by the National Business Group on Health, a coalition of big employers, and Towers Watson, a consulting firm that advises companies on employee benefits.

People who work for large corporations have some of the most stable and comprehensive medical coverage in the nation. They are insulated from insurance industry practices at the heart of the Washington health-care debate, such as having their policies rescinded after getting sick or being denied coverage based on preexisting conditions. However, the new survey is a reminder that even people who are satisfied with their insurance plans cannot count on a continuation of the status quo.

With or without reform, coverage at big corporations is likely to become less affordable, and it could become more restrictive.

The "with or without reform" certainly applies to the current proposed legislation since it unfortunately seeks to expand coverage without first attacking the cost aspect of health care.

Friday, March 12, 2010

GOP (Sen. Lindsey Graham) tells Obama that if you want our support on immigration reform, forget cramming down health reform using reconciliation.

From The New York Times:

President Obama said Thursday that he would proceed with an overhaul of the immigration system this year if he could attract substantial Republican support. But a leading Republican [U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina] who supports an overhaul said an immigration bill could not go forward if the president used a legislative shortcut sidestepping Republicans to pass his health care bill.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Now deceased U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen from Illinois supposedly said: "A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you're talking real money."

The Wall Street Journal reports that the U.S. government ran its largest ever monthly budget deficit in February as the country's fiscal year-to-date deficit ballooned more than 10% to a record of $651.60 billion.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Hitler on Oxendine

David Brooks: The Emotion of Reform

David Brooks writes in The New York Times:

For the Democrats, expanding health care coverage is an emotional hot spot. Over the past year, Democrats have fought passionately for universal coverage. They have fought for it even while the country is more concerned about the economy, and in the face of serial political defeats. They have fought for it even though it has crowded out other items on their agenda and may even cost them their majority in the House.

And they’ve done it for almost no votes. The 30 million who would be covered under the Democratic proposals are not big voters, while the millions who would pay for the coverage are strikingly unhappy.

There is something morally impressive in the Democrats’ passion on this issue. At the same time, it’s interesting to compare it to their behavior on other issues in which they have no emotional investment.

For example, Democrats say the right thing when it comes to helping small businesses create jobs, but there’s no passion there. For the past year, small business owners have been screaming that they can’t hire people because they don’t know what the rules will be on health care, finance or energy. Democrats hear them, but those concerns take a back seat to other priorities.

Small business owners have been screaming about the health care bill that forces them to offer coverage or pay a $2,000-per-employee fine but doesn’t substantially control rising costs. Democrats hear their concerns, but push ahead because getting a health care bill is more important.

Then there is the larger issue of exploding federal deficits. A few Democrats are genuinely passionate about this, President Obama among them. He has fought tenaciously to preserve a commission that might restrain Medicare spending. But 90 percent of the people in Congress have no emotional investment in this issue.

They’re going through the motions. They’ve stuffed the legislation with gimmicks and dodges designed to get a good score from the Congressional Budget Office but don’t genuinely control runaway spending.

There is the doc fix dodge. The legislation pretends that Congress is about to cut Medicare reimbursements by 21 percent. Everyone knows that will never happen, so over the next decade actual spending will be $300 billion higher than paper projections.

There is the long-term care dodge. The bill creates a $72 billion trust fund to pay for a new long-term care program. The sponsors count that money as cost-saving, even though it will eventually be paid back out when the program comes on line.

There is the subsidy dodge. Workers making $60,000 and in the health exchanges would receive $4,500 more in subsidies in 2016 than workers making $60,000 and not in the exchanges. There is no way future Congresses will allow that disparity to persist. Soon, everybody will get the subsidy.

There is the excise tax dodge. The primary cost-control mechanism and long-term revenue source for the program is the tax on high-cost plans. But Democrats aren’t willing to levy this tax for eight years. The fiscal sustainability of the whole bill rests on the naïve hope that a future Congress will have the guts to accept a trillion-dollar tax when the current Congress wouldn’t accept an increase of a few billion.

There is the 10-6 dodge. One of the reasons the bill appears deficit-neutral in the first decade is that it begins collecting revenue right away but doesn’t have to pay for most benefits until 2014. That’s 10 years of revenues to pay for 6 years of benefits, something unlikely to happen again unless the country agrees to go without health care for four years every decade.

There is the Social Security dodge. The bill uses $52 billion in higher Social Security taxes to pay for health care expansion. But if Social Security taxes pay for health care, what pays for Social Security?

There is the pilot program dodge. Admirably, the bill includes pilot programs designed to help find ways to control costs. But it’s not clear that the bill includes mechanisms to actually implement the results. This is exactly what happened to undermine previous pilot program efforts.

The Democrats have not been completely irresponsible. It’s just that as the health fight has gone on, their passion for coverage has swamped their less visceral commitment to reducing debt. The result is a bill that is fundamentally imbalanced.

This past year, we’ve seen how hard it is to even pass legislation that expands benefits. To actually reduce benefits and raise taxes, we’re going to need legislators who wake up in the morning passionate about fiscal sanity. The ones we have now are just making things worse.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Peggy Noonan: Obama's essential mistake was to choose health-care expansion over health-care reform.

Peggy Noonan writes in The Wall Street Journal:

It is now exactly a year since President Obama unveiled his health-care push and his decision to devote his inaugural year to it—his branding year, his first, vivid year.

What a disaster it has been.

At best it was a waste of history's time, a struggle that will not in the end yield something big and helpful but will in fact make future progress more difficult. At worst it may prove to have fatally undermined a new presidency at a time when America desperately needs a successful one.

In terms of policy, his essential mistake was to choose health-care expansion over health-care reform. This at the exact moment voters were growing more anxious about the cost and reach of government. The practical mistake was that he did not include or envelop congressional Republicans from the outset, but handed the bill's creation over to a Democratic Congress that was becoming a runaway train. This at the exact moment Americans were coming to be concerned that Washington was broken, incapable of progress, frozen in partisanship.

His political mistakes were myriad and perhaps can be reduced to this:

There are all sorts of harm a new president can do to his presidency. Right now, part of the job of a new president in a hypermediaized environment is harm avoidance. This sounds defensive, and is at odds with the wisdom that presidents in times of crisis must boldly go forth and break through. But it all depends on what you're being bold about. Why, in 2009, create a new crisis over an important but secondary issue when we already have the Great Recession and two wars? Prudence and soundness of judgment are more greatly needed at the moment.

New presidents should never, ever, court any problem that isn't already banging at the door. They should never summon trouble. Mr. Obama did, boldly, perhaps even madly. And this is perhaps the oddest thing about No Drama Obama: In his first year as president he created unneeded political drama, and wound up seen by many Americans not as the hero but the villain.

[Obama has] a growing credibility gap. In his speech Wednesday, demanding an "up or down" vote, the president seemed convinced and committed—but nothing he said sounded true. His bill will "bring down the cost of health care for millions," it is "fully paid for," it will lower the long term deficit by a trillion dollars.

Does anyone believe this? Does anyone who knows the ways of government, the compulsions of Congress, and how history has played out in the past, believe this? Even a little? . . . It would be a relief to have a president who could weigh in believably and make clear what his own bill says. But he seems to devote more words to obscuring than clarifying.

Sunnis Go to Polls, This Time, to Retain a Voice

The New York Times reports that Sunni Arabs largely sat out Iraqi national elections in 2005, but the need to protect their interests brought them out in droves on Sunday.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

From the Cracker Squire Archives -- "Living-room ambience maybe; or was it the charming and disarming Susan Hoffman?"

Emmy-award winning Susan Hoffman is Co-Anchor of GPB's Lawmakers

Today my friend from South Georgia who authors Drifting Through the Grift wrote in a post "Love the necklace Susan. More fashion."

For some reason his comment reminded me of my very first post on this blog almost six years ago that was entitled in part "Living-room ambience maybe; or was it the charming and disarming Susan Hoffman?"

Prior to doing the post I had met and been most impressed with Ms. Hoffman and her considerable skills, and forwarded her a copy of my post reviewing one of her interviews. Maybe she did not appreciate my public compliment; maybe she did not appreciate receiving an unsolicited email; regardless, I never heard from Ms. Hoffman.

I mentioned my first post several months later when discussing the birth of Cracker Squire in a 3-18-05 post entitled "Who among us doesn't love to receive a compliment? -- Thanks DPG Chairman Bobby Kahn," that read in part as follows:

I began this blog last fall at the urging of a couple of e-mail friends. Knowing that blog was short for Web log was the extent of my knowledge of blogs at the time.

After watching Susan Hoffman in the "Georgia Week in Review" studio at Georgia Public Broadcasting one Friday night and knowing there were a couple of things I just had to share with "somebody," I got on the computer the following Sunday afternoon and after several hours of trial and error, Cracker Squire was born.

My first post entitled "Living-room ambience maybe; or was it the charming and disarming Susan Hoffman?" was posted shortly before midnight on August 1. It took me that long to figure out how to do what.

I found the many welcomings to blogsphere and compliments both overwhelming and humbling. All were most appreciated. They ran the gamut from "Great blog," "Fabulous blog," "The blog title is fabulous," to a rather recent "You're the Voice of the Democratic Party of Georgia."

Of all the comments, still my favorite came early and from a great friend who no doubt had no idea how her comment pleased me so, "You're so southern Sid -- It kills me."

Also deeply appreciated have been all the compliments and remarks so many of you have made in person and in private e-mails. To all of you, thanks seven times seventy, and the pleasure of this joint effort with you on behalf of our Party and our upcoming day is all mine I assure you. Is this a great country or what?

Sea Island falls on hard times

Georgia’s crown jewel of coastal resorts is sinking in a sea of red ink and the enitre area will likely be impacted.

“Somebody said he [CEO Bill Jones III, whose family has run the resort for four generations] was so busy running off the millionaires to chase the billionaires that he lost sight of what Sea Island was all about.”

An editorial from The Washington Post: In search of Plan C ("I don't believe in insuring more people till you attack the cost aspect of this.")

I heard the noted conversation this past week, and for those of you who may not know, like yours truly, the Oracle of Omaha is now and always have been a big supporter of President Obama.

The following is from an editorial in The Washington Post:

The dilemma posed by President Obama's health-care proposal was aptly captured by Berkshire Hathaway chief executive Warren Buffett last week during an interview on CNBC. The status quo is unacceptable, the noted investor said; the proposal is deficient. "If it was a choice today between Plan A, which is what we've got, or Plan B, what is in front of -- the Senate bill, I would vote for the Senate bill," Mr. Buffett said. "But I would much rather see a Plan C that really attacks costs."

The United States is in trouble: Its federal debt, slated to grow year by year, could sap economic growth, endangering prosperity at home and leadership abroad. Rising health costs are one of two major causes of that projected debt (the other is the aging of the population). A year ago, Mr. Obama promised health-care reform that would expand access for the uninsured while reducing costs and not worsening the federal deficit.

He says he's delivered. But the proposal that he's asked Congress to approve raises serious questions. Why? One big reason is his decision to postpone until after his presidency, even if he serves two terms, the implementation of a "Cadillac tax" on expensive health plans -- "a key bipartisan measure to contain health-care costs over time," as two senior administration officials wrote in a Post opinion piece on Friday. That postponement, budget director Peter Orszag and health policy adviser Nancy-Ann DeParle acknowledged, has been taken by "skeptics" as "further evidence of the administration's wavering fiscal resolve."

Count us among the worriers.

Mr. Obama's unwillingness to fight for the tax now, even at a reduced level, raises the danger that it will never be imposed. By 2018, an expensive new entitlement will be draining funds from the Treasury; there will be no turning back on that.

"We have to have something that will end the constant increase in medical costs as a percentage of GDP," Mr. Buffett said. "I would try to get a unified effort, say this is a national emergency to do something about this. We need the Republicans, we need the Democrats . . . I believe in insuring more people. But I don't believe in insuring more people till you attack the cost aspect of this."

As Mr. Obama scrambles to assemble majorities in the House and Senate, some legislators continue to explore options for more fiscal soundness, including some kind of fail-safe mechanism that would push Congress to act if projected savings do not materialize. Those who care about both access and fiscal responsibility could even now insist on a Plan C.

Herein lies the problem; if Axelrod & Obama would just recognize it & listen to Emanuel, they can fix it - Message Maven Finds Fingers Pointing at Him

David Axelrod oversees how the president is portrayed.

From The New York Times:

Recent news reports have cast the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, as the administration’s chief pragmatist, and Mr. Axelrod, by implication, as something of a swooning loyalist.

Mr. Axelrod . . . as White House senior adviser oversees every aspect of how Mr. Obama is presented.

Mr. Axelrod would not discuss what counsel he offered to Mr. Obama, though he denies any “fissure with my buddy Rahm” and any charge that he is too infatuated with the president to recognize the political risks of his ambitious agenda.

Unlike other presidential alter egos, Mr. Axelrod is not viewed as a surrogate “brain” (like Karl Rove), a suspicious outsider (like Dick Morris in the Clinton White House) or a co-president (James Baker in the first Bush White House).

Mr. Axelrod is often at the president’s side; he sits in on policy and national security meetings and is routinely the last person he talks to before making a decision. He directs the administration’s external presentation, overseeing polls, focus groups and speeches and appearing on the Sunday shows. Mr. Emanuel describes Mr. Axelrod as “an integrator of the three P’s” — press, policy and politics — “and how they make a whole.”

White House officials describe Mr. Axelrod’s focus as big themes rather than day-to-day sound bites. There has been no shortage of Democrats willing to second-guess his messaging approach.

“They made a big mistake right out of the box with the Inaugural Address,” said former Senator Bob Kerrey, adding that a president pledging bipartisanship should not have disparaged the previous administration in his speech, as many listeners believed Mr. Obama did.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Democrats' ethical lapses could threaten hold on power

From The Washington Post:

Congressional Democrats reclaimed control of Congress in 2006 by pledging to "drain the swamp" after Republican ethics scandals rocked Capitol Hill. Now, a series of controversies involving Democratic members has robbed the party of its claim to hold the higher moral ground -- and could threaten its hold on power in this fall's elections.

The announcement Friday by Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) that he will resign amid allegations that he sexually harassed a male staffer capped a week of near-daily ethical distractions for a party struggling to pass heath-care reform legislation.

A few days earlier, congressional Democrats forced Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) to step down temporarily from the chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee. The House ethics committee had admonished Rangel for accepting corporate-sponsored trips, and he remains under investigation for other alleged violations. Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.) is under investigation by the Justice Department in a lobbying case.

The controversies have increased Republican attacks on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), who pledged in 2006 that Democrats would run "the most ethical Congress in history."

While not yet as severe, the Democrats' ethics controversies resemble those of the Republicans when they held the majority in 2006. Connections to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff led to resignations and even prison; House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Tex.) resigned his post amid investigations of his staff, and Rep. Mark Foley (Fla.) resigned after sending sexually suggestive Internet messages to congressional pages. Exit polls showed that those ethics controversies played a role in the GOP losing control of Congress.

"Ethics really matter to voters; they matter almost more than any other issue," said Melanie Sloane, head of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonpartisan group. "And you would think that both parties would know that, because Democrats lost in 1994 and Republicans lost in 2006 because of it."

Secular Shiite Ayad Allawi is staging a surprising political comeback by pushing a secular & nationalist agenda & drawing support from Sunnis.

Ayad Allawi, a former Iraqi prime minister and leader of the Iraqiya coalition in Sunday's elections, greeted supporters at a rally in Baghdad

From The New York Times:

The serpentine career of Ayad Allawi, who served briefly as Iraq’s interim prime minister five years ago, has taken another unlikely turn: a secular Shiite with little taste for campaigning, he stands a strong chance of winning the most votes in Sunday’s parliamentary elections as the leader of a coalition that is attracting deep support from Sunni Muslims.

He has a history of blurring expected lines: Once a staunch Baathist, he survived an assassination attempt by ax ordered by Saddam Hussein and later developed deep ties to the Central Intelligence Agency. Now he is staging a surprising political comeback by pushing a secular and nationalist agenda that has made him the most formidable alternative to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

His candidacy also pricks the nerve centers of some Iraqis nostalgic for the return of strong, even dictatorial, leaders.

“To us, Allawi is a second Saddam Hussein,” said Abu Sara Ahmed, 35, speaking on a street corner in Karada, an upper-middle-class Baghdad neighborhood. “The Iraqi people are always in need of someone who can bring fear and respect for authority.

“We don’t want someone who is afraid to kill, someone who is a coward. You have to kill a criminal; you can’t just put him in prison.”

Sunnis in this country fear that the planned withdrawal of American troops, scheduled to begin in earnest after the elections, could increase sectarian violence. The government’s disqualification of many Sunni candidates as Baathists, and its failure to prevent several major bomb blasts, have cut into Mr. Maliki’s Sunni support.

Sunnis also cite the widespread belief that Mr. Maliki, a Shiite, is loyal to Iran, which like Iraq is majority Shiite.

Mr. Allawi has positioned himself as an Arab leader who can work with regional governments. He recently visited Saudi Arabia, Syria and Lebanon, trips that unnerved some in Iraq, where worries over foreign influence fester.

While in exile during the 1980s and 1990s, Mr. Allawi worked with the C.I.A. to undermine Saddam Hussein’s government, in operations that included undertaking acts of sabotage, according to former intelligence agents.

Despite his reputation as a strong leader, Mr. Allawi is criticized as failing to campaign hard enough.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Pandering to Sen. Harry Reid? -- Nuclear power: one step forward one day; two steps back the next.

Site of proposed federal nuclear-waste vault beneath Yucca Mountain, Nevada

From The Wall Street Journal:

On Thursday, big utility operators and some state officials blasted the administration's formal announcement that it would drop plans for a federal nuclear-waste vault beneath Yucca Mountain, Nev., and instead consider what it believes are better options.

The Energy Department's move to formally drop its application for the Yucca Mountain waste site could hobble efforts to build more nuclear power plants—a strategy the Obama administration has promoted as a way to reduce U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions. Without a permanent solution to the waste-storage problem, several states, including California, won't let new nuclear plants be built.

Michael Morris, chief executive of American Electric Power Co., said on Thursday that "there has to be a reaction," because Yucca is the only site that's been vetted and deemed capable of storing waste from the nation's 104 operating power reactors. Speaking at a Wall Street Journal conference, he blasted the "idiocy of Yucca Mountain" being terminated as a repository and said the government will have wasted $10 billion on the project if it doesn't proceed.

Under federal law, Yucca is the designated site for the nation's spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste. But the repository is more than a decade behind schedule. As a result, the waste generally remains at the nuclear reactors and DOE sites where it was generated.

[The] exclusive focus on Yucca assured nearly unanimous opposition from Nevada officials, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has long challenged the safety and security of the site. Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently convened a blue-ribbon panel to study new options for managing nuclear waste.

The administration has said it believes there are better options than Yucca Mountain. It cites increased understanding of technical issues surrounding nuclear-waste disposal than was the case in the late 1980s. Critics accuse the administration of pandering to Mr. Reid. They also note that three months before Mr. Obama's election, Dr. Chu joined nine other scientists in co-signing a paper advocating Yucca's use.

Obama advisers set to recommend military tribunals for alleged 9/11 plotters, but I predict (and hope) this won't lead to the closing of Guantanamo.

From The Washington Post:

President Obama's advisers are nearing a recommendation that Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, be prosecuted in a military tribunal, administration officials said, a step that would reverse Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.'s plan to try him in civilian court in New York City.

If Obama accepts the likely recommendation of his advisers, the White House may be able to secure from Congress the funding and legal authority it needs to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and replace it with a facility within the United States.

To close the detention center at Guantanamo, the administration needs funding to acquire and refurbish a prison in the United States, probably a state-owned maximum-security facility in Thomson, Ill. Because Congress has barred the transfer to the United States of all detainees except those destined for prosecution, the White House needs legal authority to move prisoners it plans to hold in some form of indefinite detention.