The “Don’t Fund it” Option

The latest, and perhaps last, opportunity to toss a few stop sticks in front of Obamacare is coming up with the upcoming 2014 spending bill.  The Tea Party coalition wants to strip Obamacare funding from the spending bill, giving the President the option of either vetoing the bill, and effectively shutting down the government October 1st, or signing the spending bill stripped of Obamacare funding; stopping it in its tracks.  It’s not repeal, but it’s a delay, and delaying Obamacare implementation I would think is worth taking some chances.  Obamacare is bad law and worse public policy, and if there is a clear path to even delaying this bill (hopefully for some future period in which there is a change in political leadership), then that path should be followed.  Of course there are two (at least) problems with this: the House leadership and establishment Republicans want nothing to do with this idea, and it’s not clear there is an effective path to getting Obamacare defunded.

Official portrait of United States Senator Mik...

Official portrait of United States Senator Mike Lee. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The “Don’t Fund it” option is a real organized effort.  It even has a website to track the progress and pledges of the various Republican Senators and Senate candidates. However, as usual, the establishment is opposed to doing anything that might make either Democrats or the Washington media mad at them.  This default bowing to possible media reaction means that they don’t want to take the chance of looking “obstructionist” in front of the national media.  Speaker Boehner is particularly uninterested in anything that would make the House Republicans look confrontational. So I cheer the Tea Party Republicans who are willing to take a risk at slowing down a bad law.

On the other hand…

The House Republicans have failed to impress in follow-through before. Last year’s fiscal cliff disaster was an eye opening view into how dysfunctional the House Republicans can be.  Before Christmas they voted against an option, what was then known as “Plan B” in order to finally agree and vote for a worse plan, as I chronicled last January.  These guys are not master strategists.  This isn’t House of Cards. It’s not even Pee Wee’s Playhouse. I’ve seen no evidence that there are wheels within wheels of planning and maneuvering to accomplish the goal of defunding Obamacare.  Both the debt ceiling fight and the fiscal cliff debacle demonstrated the amateur hour of the GOP and nothing they’ve done since last December has given me any confidence that they have learned from past mistakes and could prevail in this fight.

That’s not to say there aren’t options available to getting Obamacare defunded.  Some ideas include:

The Republicans could fund the government in multiple spending bills, isolating the Obamacare funding into a separate bill, and basically passing everything but that. Then it will be on the Democrats in the Senate to vote against the rest of the clean government funding.

They could just add an amendment to the bill holding off the implementation of Obamacare for one, two, or even three years. Since the exchanges and a lot of other moving parts aren’t ready, this might be tempting for some Senate Democrats. Obama basically did something similar by fiat.

The House Republicans could offer to fund Obama’s infrastructure and jobs bill with the funds that are not spent on Obamacare implementation.

These are just a couple of ideas that I thought of, off the top of my head.  I imagine a skilled parliamentarian would have a much longer, and perhaps more realistic list.  But in reality it seems unlikely that there is either a skilled parliamentarian or a list of options of any kind available. So I’m left to wonder,

-      Is there an actual strategy that has a possible favorable outcome?

-      Are there contingency plans depending on different possible White House or Senate Democrat responses?

-      Is there a united message and talking points for all participants to use in media contacts?

-      Has this scenario been “war-gamed?”

I wouldn’t be surprised if none of these issues had been seriously considered.  And that’s why, although I would love, love, love to throw my whole hearted support behind a “don’t fund it” plan, I would only want to do it if I thought there was at least a reasonable chance of success, rather than the Republicans ending up worse off than if they had just done nothing, and the media spinning the Republicans as both stupid and evil, like with the fiscal cliff.  And there is a possibility that the Republicans could end up worse off than if they hadn’t done anything.  If the President and Senate Democrats stand firm (and why wouldn’t they?), all the blame will be spun in the media as Republicans taking away Social Security from the elderly, paychecks from the military… you get the idea.  At that point the ball will be in the Democratic court, and they may have their own conditions to get government funded again.

Catching a few media interviews with Senator Mike Lee over the past week, I didn’t get any indication that there was a well thought of plan that has a reasonable chance of success.  Instead, it sounded more like a last gasp.

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Fiscal Cliff Hangover

Although we called it the fiscal cliff, I always imagined it as more of a fiscal log flume, in which as we slowly go over the edge we hold our arms out, feel our stomach drop, then scream until we hit the end, with water splashing all over us.  Whee!  That was a blast!  Want to go again?  But we can talk about the debt ceiling later.

As deals go, it wasn’t a terrible one, particularly since the House Republicans had no cards to play, as I had pointed out previously.   What the House Republicans had was the total unpredictability of how they were going to vote on the deal.  Boehner didn’t even bother to whip the House body (easy now, I’m talking about getting a count of yes votes before the actual vote and politic to change some no’s to yeses).  He basically blew on his dice and was probably surprised that the House voted yes.

On the negative side, there were no spending cuts and not all of the tax cuts, particularly for the “rich”  were carried over, as I predicted two weeks ago.  So for all of the weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, among conservatives of all types, we got as good of a deal as we were ever going to get; and easy to predict if you assumed that President Obama really would have liked to have taken us over the cliff, or if you prefer, log flume.  He would have been laughing all the way to the bottom.

On the positive side (yes there is one), the Bush tax cuts for those making under $450,000 for couples are now permanent.  So we don’t have to go through the end of the year farce of renewing these “temporary” cuts.  Same thing for the AMT tax.  They were fixed and made permanent.  The AMT fix, like the Medicare “doc fix” was an end of year ritual that couldn’t be resolved permanently.  Why you may ask?  Because any permanent fix would reflect in the CBO’s deficit and debt estimates for the years going forward.  Fixing the AMT for any one year was considered a cost for that particular year, but the CBO would base their estimates by current law, which would have the AMT not being fixed for the next year and every year afterwards.  Fixing the AMT for one year is a cost of 92 billion dollars.  A permanent fix it for the next ten years costs almost a trillion dollars.  From a purely crass, political position, having the costs of a permanent fix to the AMT and Bush income tax cuts accrued under the Obama administration ( two items that Republicans wanted to do but could never find the money for):

Priceless.

However all is not well in conservative talk radio land.  I made it a point to listen to what I think was a fair cross section of conservative radio for their take on all things fiscal cliffdom, and I must say, it was a muddled mess of incoherence.  They’ve been off their game since the election in my opinion really dropped the ball on the issues related to the fiscal cliff.  To summarize:

Rush:  No last name needed, you know who I mean.  Agreed with me (or is it I with him?) that Obama wanted to go over the cliff.  However he still wanted to oppose any deal that didn’t have the full Bush tax cuts and spending cuts.  And he regarded the deal that cut taxes as one that raised taxes; simply because not all the Bush cuts were included.  The practical result of his stonewalling any deal without the full Bush cuts?  All the tax cuts would have vanished.   Great job Rush!

Neal Boortz:  This odd combination of Paleo-Conservatism and Libertarianism also opposed any deal, however he thought that the Democratic Senate didn’t want to go over the cliff and would prevail upon Obama to accept all the Bush tax cuts rather than let them all expire.  Considering that after the failed vote on Plan B, The Republican House went home for Christmas, and ultimately didn’t vote on the deal until New Years Day, I would say events didn’t prove him correct.

Mark Levin:  Although I only caught his show once during the fiscal cliff debacle, Levin is being credited with organizing a call in campaign that helped bring about the defeat of Plan B.  Considering that from a conservative position Plan B was a better deal than the deal we actually got, I would have to say that turned out to not be a good move.

Sean Hannity:  Hannity has managed to have it both ways.  Before Christmas, he held the Rush position; that Obama wanted to go over the cliff and to oppose any compromise that didn’t have the full Bush tax cuts and spending cuts.  Post House vote, he is equivocating on whether Obama wanted to go over the cliff.  Too late to be even more wrong.

I think talk radio got it wrong on this one.  The deal wasn’t great, but it could have been so much worse considering that for the Democrats, going over the cliff was as close to a political dream situation as they could have hoped for, with Republicans being forced to bear all of the political costs.  I think conservatives should move on to the debt deal, a situation in which they have a bit more leverage.  That’s a situation guaranteed to generate several scowling Obama photos.

No Cards to Play

This is my first post in a month due to some catastrophic computer failures at home.  First, in a ridiculous tugging match over looking at a One Direction video, my son and daughter broke my daughter’s laptop screen.  Then, my son’s laptop just died.  No particular cause, but my tech savvy brother in law examined it and declared it DOA.  Then, the home’s main desktop computer suddenly went wonky (sorry if I’m using technical computer language here).  It was unable to boot up and unable to restore at an earlier point.  Again, another examination by my tech savvy brother in law produced a post mortem; this time with no data retrieval possible.  We had fried hard drive for dinner.

However I did have a backup drive that was set to automatically update on a daily basis only…awww.  It turns out the automatic backup was turned off.  My backup hadn’t been updated in a year.  Not least among catastrophes, I had about a dozen drafts for posts that were lost.  So after losing 3 computers in two weeks, plus a year’s worth of data, my posting took a hiatus.  Particularly since computer time became quite a bit more rationed around the house.  And I do have a back log of amusing cat videos to watch…

And speaking of catastrophic failures, that means missing an entire month of posting on the “fiscal cliff.”   I suppose it’s just as well.  Any prediction that I would have made about how the Republican Congress should have responded would have been wrong.  A month ago I would have assumed they were rational actors who understood the lessons of the election.  A month later it’s clear that isn’t the case.

Speaker Boehner’s Plan B failed a test vote in the House last night which in a way was a proxy vote for whether the Republican Party was smart enough to survive and rebuild (it isn’t).  Republicans have somehow managed to figure out a how to take a bad situation and compound it to make it worse.

Just a couple of points:

  1.  President Obama had no intention of honestly negotiating with Boehner over the fiscal cliff.  Why would he?  The fiscal cliff is exactly what most Democrats, but especially the President want.  You get high taxes plus massive cuts in Defense spending.  What could Boehner ever have offered the President to top that?  By the same token, there were never going to be any spending cuts.  Again, Obama had zero incentive to offer a penny.  His best deal was already agreed to by Congress last year when they fashioned the fiscal cliff suicide pact.  Only, it was really a suicide pact for Republicans only.  Democrats probably couldn’t believe the deal the Republicans were handing them.  Meanwhile House Republicans were trying to finagle entitlement cuts from the President!
  2. Given all that, there was no, and I repeat, no scenario in which taxes were not going up, and there were never going to be spending cuts in this deal.  The fact that the Republicans refused to acknowledge this was one of their biggest mistakes and led to a cascade of other mistakes that led us to this point.  Remarkably, the conservative caucus in the Republican House didn’t seem to get this, and just as bad, the conservative radio complex didn’t get it either.  A sampled a fair amount over the past month (since I’ve been mostly computer-less lately I’ve sampled a fair amount of conservative talk radio).  They were very slow on the uptake, thinking that House Republicans actually had a negotiating position.
  3. Going over the fiscal cliff is not an option for Republicans.  That was supposed to be the one card to encourage coming to some sort of deal, but as I previously mentioned, Democrats want to go over the cliff. But if we actually go over the cliff, Republicans will get the blame on raising taxes on middle class out of spite because they couldn’t save tax cuts for “the rich.”  Two weeks ago that simply would have been the Democrat­­­‑MSM spin.  Now the Republicans are working to make that an actual fact.  And speaking of spin…
  4. The Republicans spun themselves into a trap.  They equated in their own rhetoric that any bill or deal that didn’t include all the Bush tax cuts was a bill to raise taxes.  Since they’ve been saying that for a month (“I will not vote to raise taxes, blah blah blah…”) they’ve fashioned a rhetorical trap in which they do nothing and allow all tax rates to go up, or they vote to cut taxes for some, which they regard as a bill to raise taxes on anyone not getting a cut.  Huh?  Even Grover Norquist doesn’t think that a bill to cut taxes is really a bill to raise taxes.  So why do the House Republicans and the Conservative Radio Complex do?
  5. The tax issue does not resonate with Americans anymore.  In this regard, the Republicans are a victim of their own success.  The modern conservative movement began with a tax revolt which led to the passage of California’s Proposition 13, which rolled back property taxes on California homeowners.  You could argue that without the movement that led to the passage of Prop 13, there would have been no conservative movement and no election of Ronald Reagan.  So over the course of more than two decades taxes were cut, culminating in the Bush tax cuts.  So now, Americans have been comfortable with our tax rates for over a decade.  They just don’t care about the issue anymore, and don’t think any future tax increases will touch them.

House Republicans should have just crafted a tactical withdrawal on this issue.  Since there was no way to win it, they could have at least minimized the damage by passing middle class tax cuts and minimizing the defense sequestration that is scheduled to devastate the defense budget next year.  As we learned from the Debt Ceiling talks, the longer you negotiate with Obama the more things he’s going to think of to throw in to queer the deal. The closer we get to January first, the more knickknacks and doo-dads Obama is going to insist on being thrown in. Any deal done now would require throwing in unemployment insurance; a condition that wasn’t on the radar last month.  At this rate, Obama will have Tea Party Republicans voting for Medicare for all.