Thursday, December 09, 2010

Salvaging Something

I know, your comments will range along the lines of "Yea, if he had testicles," but there are some things President Obama could throw into the tax compromise that both make sense and can make him buff his Democratic credentials a little now by forcing the Republicans to deal with some issues they'd prefer to take up next year:
What do I think Democrats should ask for?

First, I agree with Fernholz's last suggestion, the debt ceiling — although what I'd suggest is what Ezra Klein has argued for some time now, that they should just toss it into the agreement now, rather than just get some positive public statements. I wouldn't be surprised if that couldn't get done; from what John Boehner has said I don't think he's looking forward to a debt ceiling fight with a caucus he probably can't control on that issue, and I've argued that it's quite dangerous to his position as Speaker.

Second, I think the Democrats should bargain for whatever they can get on other, unrelated legislation — for example, allowing the food safety bill to get through whatever parliamentary fix is necessary for it to advance to the president. Ideally, that would include the three big remaining items on Barack Obama's lame duck agenda — DADT repeal, DREAM, and New START (and yes, that's a lot of all-caps items). I'm not sure whether there's any bargaining room in there at all, but remember that for the most part Democrats wouldn't be asking for Republicans to vote yes; they're just asking for less obstruction. If, as is likely, there's no give on those, at least perhaps Democrats could bargain for the Senate to clear some lower-level, less controversial measures, with food safety probably at the front of the line.

Third, there are still quite a few uncontroversial executive branch and judicial branch nominations pending. There's no way that conservatives are going to clear liberal Goodwin Liu for the 9th Circuit as part of this deal. But there are nominees for Under Secretary of Management at Homeland Security, Under Secretary of Export Administration at Commerce, Deputy US Trade Representative, General Counsel to the Army, and 
many others that as far as I know just didn't happen yet, and probably won't without Republican cooperation.

Let's analyze Bernstein's analysis a little more, since I have the column space.
First, the debt ceiling. We're going to bump up hard against the debt ceiling early next year. Congress needs to authorize an increase or the government will have no capacity to borrow more money. Since we'll run deficits for the foreseeable future, this is pretty important. Unlike the limit on your credit card, we don't just pay a fee and keep spending. The government shuts down.
There was some bluster on the campaign trail earlier this year that, indeed, the Teabaggers would do exactly that, especially if spending wasn't reined in, yaddayaddayadda. In truth, it was a scare tactic designed, I feel, to force the Bush tax cuts to be extended, at least temporarily.
The obstacle to what seems like a simple matter of tit for tat is Boehner. He's going to want to bring the ceiling up in his Congress so he can mock Democrats and liberals as tax and spend automatons. Given the distinct lack of message cohesion from the Democrats, he'll have an unobstructed field to work with, and can safely ignore all but the most strident Republicans the point that it has been REPUBLICANS over the past thirty years who have really run up the charge account.
Assuming Obama did not include this in his negotiations (which seems likely, but who knows what hasn't and won't be announced) the Democrats would be right to point out that the Bush tax cuts will hugely inflate the debt over the next two years and so we ought to tidy up this piece of business now.
Small potatoes, but it's a small victory, which is all Obama and the Dems seem capable of.
On unrelated legislation...well, careful readers of my column will know that I felt it was an huge mistake to allow the terrorist Republicans to hold the American people hostage to tax cuts for the poor, deprived wealthiest among us. Obama may have been ham-fisted in his use of that term, altho I'd argue it was more about timing than use, but it's an accurate assessment of what happened, and had to sting a little.
Me, I would have been all over the "hostage" trope from day one. It would take a lot of the teeth out of Republican scare-mongering.
So to throw a bunch of unrelated business into the bill sounds silly, on face, but given that this bill is far from comprehensive and will likely be laden down with earmarks rushed through by Republicans before they take over the House, why not?
This, I think, is the more serious gain that Obama and the Dems can win in passing this bill, not that extension of unemployment benefits, the holiday from a portion of our Social Security taxes and an extension of EITC is unserious. But it's in there already, and we're talking about improving a piss-poor bill.
It's like redesigning your kitchen: there's always a list of "you may as wells".
The pending appointments could be decoupled to be certain, by why not get this done and say it's done by the end of the year?
Look, this "compromise" or capitulation on the part of Obama highlighted and exposed some really horrible weaknesses in his administration. I'm infuriated by what has happened, and I consider myself enough of a realpolitiker to know that sometimes you have to give up a rook to take a queen.
He just gave up the queen in exchange for a pawn and a bishop to be named later. If at all.
This was a pile of shit. We might as well try to grow a couple of mushrooms from it.