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Speaker Boehner’s Latest Gimmick December 11, 2011

Posted by Afflatus in Politics.
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Yet again the United States Congress is approaching crucial deadlines before which it must act in order to prevent devastating consequences from resulting. After averting a government shutdown by mere minutes in April, avoiding a default on its Treasury bonds in August, the federal government is once again on the edge of an abyss.┬áThis time the issues at hand are whether to re-extend a host of provisions that expire at the end of the year, and how to pay them. The expiring payroll tax cut, the expiring “doc-fix” which temporarily appropriates money to pay Medicare doctors, and the expiring unemployment insurance provisions are the main provisions at stake. Cue the political brinksmanship, backroom deal-making, and late-night Congressional sessions! Far from the best way to form policy, comprehensive, last-minute grand bargains appear to be the only way American “leaders” do it nowadays.

Goldman-Sachs economists estimate that letting the current payroll tax cut expire at the end of this month would reduce economic growth by as much as two-thirds of a percentage point in early 2012. The most recent data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis shows that in the third quarter of 2011 the economy grew at a rate of 2.0 percent. Letting unemployment insurance expire would remove money from the economy causing a further hit to America’s economic output and additional hardship for millions of American families.

After much wrangling in the Senate, Speaker Boehner on Friday unveiled H.R. 3630, comprehensive legislation that would extend the payroll tax cut at its current rate, extend (some) unemployment insurance, and extend the “doc-fix” for two years. This is all good and fine. The problem is how Speaker Boehner proposes to pay for the measures, which will cost roughly $166.8 billion in fiscal year 2012 according to the Congressional Budget Office. H.R. 3630 would accumulate $38.4 billion from Medicare spending cuts; $36.7 billion from increased federal employee retirement contributions; $35.7 billion from increased Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac mortgage insurance rates; $33.4 billion from other health care offsets, such as cuts in the Affordable Care Act’s prevention fund; $16.5 billion from FCC spectrum auction; and an additional $36.6 billion from many small and miscellaneous cuts, many of which are problematic.

There a whole host of major problems with Speaker Boehner’s proposal. In addition to how the bill would weaken unemployment insurance, the bill contains all sorts of harmful policy-riders. The most brazen provision is one that requires the President to approve within 60 days the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. If the President does not approve the permit, H.R. 3630 would automatically trigger its approval on day 60. As a result of widespread protests against the Keystone XL pipeline, President Obama in early November delayed a decision on its permit until 2013. The President has said he veto any bill that contained a Keystone XL pipeline policy-rider such as this one. What’s more, the bill would delay new pollution standards for industrial boilers, extending a deadline for five years for companies to comply. The Environmental Protection Agency has completed the rule-making process on these standards and says the rules would cut pollution of mercury and soot. In October, House Republicans passed a bill that would have repealed these same EPA boiler standards, and once again, President Obama threatened to veto it if it reached his desk.

While the two policy-riders I just mentioned are perhaps the most flagrant, there are other deplorable provisions in the bill. One would restrict the Federal Communications Commission’s ability to impose net-neutrality conditions on wireless companies that purchase spectrum leases at auction. The bill also seeks to eliminate certain tax credits that illegal immigrants may be currently taking advantage of. While this bill is supposed to be about 3 important expiring tax provisions, House Republicans are attempting to use this opportunity to make significant policy changes to totally unrelated programs. One provision even makes substantial reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program.

Speaker Boehner is lining up the Republican Conference behind the measure, and it will almost surely pass the House before Thursday. However, there are so many provisions that cross red-lines for Democrats from all persuasions that it is almost guaranteed to fail in the Senate (assuming Majority Leader Reid even brings it up for a vote). President Obama has reiterated his veto, and called the legislation what it is: classic political maneuvering. Speaker Boehner used this exact same tactic during the April budget negotiations and the summer’s debt ceiling talks. In all three cases he has crafted legislation that his party can support, and that no Democrat will, and quickly passes it through his body of Congress, daring the President and Senate Democrats to reject it while they struggle to find a bi-partisan solution.

Speaker Boehner will pass this bill, which he has called “the Middle Class Tax Relief & Job Creation Act” in an attempt to gain bargaining power over Democrats. He knows this wont be the final solution to the expiring tax provisions, but by passing it through the House he gains leverage and helps guide the negotiations towards his preferred policy-outcomes. Will he get what he wants? For America’s sake, I sure hope not.

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Libyan “Hostilities” Revisited June 20, 2011

Posted by Afflatus in Politics, World Affairs.
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It’s already time for me to revisit the debate over Libyan “hostilities.” I’m not happy with my post last week, and a lot has happened since then. The House of Representatives is likely to consider two measures this week (probably on Thursday) relating to the US Libyan operation: an amendment to the FY2012 DOD appropriations bill offered by Rep. Kucinich to defund the entire operation, and some sort of Republican alternative, the exact language of which is still being worked out by GOP leadership. There are really three questions at stake here, which I feel like my last post did not delineate clearly:

1: Are American military operations in Libya justified?

2: Is the President legally bound to receive authorization from Congress in order to conduct these operations?

3: Regardless of the answer to question 2, should the President seek authorization from Congress?

In my last post, I only really answered question 1, and I did so indirectly. I fully support US military operations in Libyan and believe they are justified. The United States and its allies prevented a massacre, upholding the R2P norm, at little cost. While the US took the lead at first, we did so in conjunction with a broad coalition that included Arab and African countries. Qaddafi’s regime was causing insecurity in North Africa and the world, and there was a serious threat to the stability of Arab Spring hopefuls Tunisia and Egypt, which Libya borders. The alternative, withdrawing our support for the NATO mission, would undermine whatever levels of trust we have with our allies. While the mission of the NATO military operation is not regime change, that is the stated political goal. Establishing a new regime in Libya (one of the most tribal countries in Africa) will certainly be messy, but I agree with the administration’s decision to make regime change the explicit political goal. This is a very low-cost way for the US to achieve a desired long-term goal.

Regarding question 2, there is really no clear answer. The controversy over this particular question intensified over the weekend when it was reported that President Obama overruled the legal advice of his Attorney General and the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department. These two offices are charged with providing the Oval Office legal counsel, and to overrule them both is a major statement. Admittedly, the President knows a thing or two about the constitution, and he does have the final say. The statute in question, the War Powers Act, is extremely ambiguous, and the judicial branch has not, and seemingly will not, issue a formal ruling. Thus, Congress could clarify the law, or it could use its tools to make Obama suffer for this politically. It will definitely do the latter, and it may attempt to do the former. While Obama may suffer political consequences, he will not suffer legal ones.

Ideally the answer to question 3 is yes. The more debate and oversight that takes place in Congress, the more democratic America becomes. However, things are not that simple when politics are involved. My former professor, and respected Arab world commenter, Marc Lynch posits that the administration did not seek Congressional authorization early on in its Libyan operation because it correctly believed there would be significant, unwanted riders attached to the legislation like repealing health care reform, reinstating “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, or more budget cuts. I think he is right. The truth is, nobody knows what would have happened had the administration tried to receive authorization from Congress last week before the 90 day threshold expired. The administration judged the wiser choice was to claim it does not need Congressional authorization because the War Powers Act does not apply to its current Libyan operations.

Marc Lynch also wishes that the administration would seek Congressional authorization and make a “full-throated case for the Libya intervention– why it was launched, what it accomplished, where it fits into the broader unfolding Arab transformation, and how its success will advance American interests.” Now that is has made it official policy that the administration does not need Congress’ approval, this will not happen. I am satisfied that the 30 page memo to Congress fulfills this explanation on the part of the administration. While it may not be the unabashed defense of the Libyan “hostilities” that Lynch desires, it persuasively answers the questions of “why it was launched, what it accomplished, where it fits into the broader unfolding Arab transformation, and how its success will advance American interests.”