Opinion

The Great Debate

Policy debates in the Internet Age

Technology is changing how power struggles are waged between the White House and Congress. For the last few years, negotiations between Democratic and Republican leaders have too often led to stalemate. The battle over how to avert the “fiscal cliff” is the latest example.

Since President Barack Obama’s reelection, he has begun to shift strategies — taking his case directly to the American people as a way to pressure Congress. After all, members of Congress ignore their president without penalty, but ignoring the opinions of their constituents can cost them their jobs.

Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both effectively used television to address the nation when facing off against a House of Representatives controlled by the opposing party. While TV will remain important, going directly to the American people continue to morph in the era of the Internet. Political messages can be customized and narrowly targeted.

Much of the political broadcasting of the past may ultimately be replaced by political narrowcasting. We saw this already during the 2012 presidential campaign — candidates began with broad appeals to the nation and ended up focusing on a relatively few undecided and therefore persuadable groups living in key swing states like Ohio and Virginia.

We may even see specific groups of American citizens playing the role of jury, as they are bombarded with carefully tailored appeals from both sides, while the rest of us remain apart from all the sound and fury.

Fighting the filibuster

President Barack Obama recently said Congress should “seize the moment” and summon a majority to push immigration reform. There is only one problem – Congress already did that.

Majorities in the House and Senate backed the DREAM Act, a bill creating a path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children, during Obama’s first term. The bill died, however, when a minority of Republicans filibustered it. So even if a new immigration majority materializes next year, Republicans can just filibuster again. Unless Erika Andiola gets her way.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is due to hear arguments  Dec. 10 in Andiola’s case – an ambitious and erudite lawsuit from Common Cause – which argues that a small band of senators have turned the filibuster into an unconstitutional assault on our democratic government.

Fighting off the counterrevolution

The conventional wisdom has arrived: 2012 was a status quo election.  President Barack Obama was reelected.  Democrats continue to have a majority in the Senate.  Republicans still control the House.  Only two states changed their presidential votes from 2008 to 2012 (North Carolina and Indiana).  Six billion dollars were spent and almost nothing changed!

The conventional wisdom is wrong.  Things have indeed changed.  Voters came out to defend the revolution of 2008.  They rejected a return to the old order.

The status quo candidate in this election was Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.  Romney represented the old order that’s been in power since 1980: the Reagan regime with its power base of older white men.  Bill Clinton, the only Democrat to win the White House during that regime, tried to make accommodations with it.  They impeached him.

First step in ending DC dysfunction

 

After the sound and the fury, the public disdain for government — particularly for Congress — the high stakes and looming fiscal disaster and $6 billion, we end up where we began — with Barack Obama in the White House, Democrats with a modest majority in the Senate, and Republicans retaining control of the House.

It appears we are back to the same ingredients that produced the least productive and most destructive Congress in memory, whose public approval plummeted to historic lows. That reality is reinforced by House Speaker John Boehner’s claim of a mandate for House Republicans even as Obama won a sweeping electoral victory for a second term.

But appearances can be deceiving. In this case, they are.

The Republican approach for Obama’s first term was simple — use every available tool of obstruction to hamper and delegitimize his presidency. They opposed anything and everything he proposed, even policies they had recently embraced. The GOP used the filibuster to defeat, obstruct or discredit his every initiative. They took the debt ceiling hostage after their 2010 election victory, which lowered America’s credit rating and slowed the economic recovery, and gave us the “fiscal cliff.” They killed every serious effort in Congress to strengthen the economy, increase jobs and pass a balanced package of deficit reduction and debt stabilization.

The fast track to a balanced budget

The state of the union, fiscally speaking, is perilous. Despite record deficits and dire warnings from Europe as to the consequences of sustained fiscal imbalance, our leaders have been unable to find common ground. The Simpson-Bowles Commission in 2010, the Gang of Six last summer and the misnamed Super Committee of this past fall were all bipartisan efforts to cut through the Gordian knot of budgetary gridlock. And all of them failed. Miserably.

Yet despite these failures, Congress now has the opportunity to move us onto a path toward prompt national consensus on fiscal reform. Congressional leaders are this week debating legislation to extend the payroll tax cut. If they are smart, they will include in that bill a small, but important, provision that grants the winner of the 2012 presidential election something called fast-track authority. This authority would allow the president — whoever he is — to submit fiscal reform legislation for an up-or-down vote in both the House and Senate on Jan. 21, 2013, the day after Inauguration Day. Indeed, fast-track authority would be a worthy quid pro quo for members of Congress reluctant to sign off on extending the payroll tax cut without some assurance of future progress on deficit reduction.

What’s promising about this proposal is not just what fast-track authority might deliver in 2013, but what its very existence could do to the presidential race. With fast-track authority granted, President Obama and his Republican challenger could each be expected to put forward during the presidential race a coherent and credible plan to move toward a balanced budget.

Keystone XL’s organizing principle

In October 2011, National Journal surveyed energy experts about whether Obama was likely to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry Canadian tar-sands oil through the U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico. Ninety-one percent of the “energy and environment insiders” believed he would.

On Wednesday, Obama proved them wrong.

How could the experts have gotten it so wrong? The answer is twofold: Grassroots environmentalists were stronger, and congressional Republicans dumber, than anyone predicted.

Back in August of 2011, when author and activist Bill McKibben staged the first anti-Keystone rallies around the White House, political observers scoffed. These were, after all, the same environmentalists who had been rendered irrelevant by their cap-and-trade defeat and the stress of economic recession. No way they could stop a fossil fuel infrastructure project with big money behind it.

from David Cay Johnston:

Time to junk income taxes?

This is America's 100th year for individual income tax, a system as out of touch with our era as digital music is with the hand-cranked Victrola music players of 1912. It is also the 26th year of the Reagan-era reform for both personal and corporate tax, a grand design now buried under special-interest favors.

With U.S. elections in November, and the George W. Bush tax cuts due to expire at the end of 2012, it's time for a debate that goes beyond ginning up anger over taxes and the superficial issue of tax rates.

It's time to consider whether to get rid of income taxes, personal and corporate. What are the strengths and weaknesses of our current system? Should we tax individual and corporate income -- or something else?

Stopping the Stop Online Piracy Act

Now that Congress has hit pause on its controversial Stop Online Piracy Act and nearly every argument about the merits and failings of the piece of copyright legislation has been made, it’s a good time to ask: what, in 2012, will it take to actually stop a bill like this?

Because despite the delay, the situation still isn’t looking so hot for those looking to bring down SOPA. Amendments to tone down the bill’s more disliked points have been routinely defeated in the House Judiciary Committee by numbers sufficient to pass the bill to the full House floor.

But, at this point in the process, numbers aren’t everything. In the wake of the Arab Spring, talk of censoring technology hits the ears differently. More important is that in SOPA’s short two-month life, opposition to it has catalyzed online and off. But to succeed, its opponents will have to both boost the volume of their public alarm and convince Congress that, in an Internet-soaked 2012, questioning SOPA needn’t be politically fatal.

Fed up with Bernanke

By Nicholas Wapshott
The views expressed are his own.

There is one thing every Republican candidate agrees on. Once in the White House, the first thing they’d do is fire Ben Bernanke. His crime is to follow the legal brief of the Federal Reserve to maximize jobs and keep prices stable. To this end he has been printing money to keep interest rates low to boost business confidence to invest and thereby create more American jobs. For many conservatives and libertarians, who dominate the early GOP caucuses and primaries, Bernanke’s cheap money policy has dangerously devalued the dollar’s worth.

Guaranteeing cheap money is a Keynesian way of restoring health to an economy in recession, though Keynes himself was aware that low interest rates do not automatically lead to jobs. However cheap money is, you can’t force people to invest. Or, as he put it, “You can’t push on a string.” He compared it to buying a bigger belt to gain weight. The fact that Keynes backed easy credit is enough to make the policy treacherous in the eyes of many con-libs. (They are far more tolerant of another Keynesian remedy–slashing taxes.)

Bernanke, however, owes his allegiance not to Keynes but to Milton Friedman. To encourage growth without hyper-inflation, Friedman prescribed gradually increasing the money supply. That way, prices would rise slowly and predictably. Bernanke is also an expert on the 1929 Crash and the Great Depression, catastrophes he, like Friedman, attribute to the 1920′s Fed keeping money too tight for too long. As Bernanke told Friedman on the father of monetarism’s 90th birthday, “You’re right. We did it. We’re very sorry. But, thanks to you, we won’t do it again.”

If only Congress were less ambitious

By David Gordon and Sean West
The opinions expressed are their own.

There’s a good reason that only paid staffers and blood relatives seem to approve of Congress, as Senator John McCain recently quipped. But it is not the simple reason that Congress continues to fail, as witnessed in the implosion of the supercommittee. Rather it’s that Congress continuously promises unachievable historic fixes when it should instead be focused on slow progress.

There’s nothing wrong with small-scale fixes when they are the best achievable outcome. Congress is hyperpolarized and both sides are fighting for a mandate to reform the entire economy in line with their competing visions. As underwhelming as the August debt limit deal was, in the current political environment, saving over $2 trillion one way or another was a positive result. The fact that Congress could agree to something this large this year is actually quite stunning.

Failure – and the ensuing loss of respect in the eyes of voters – is largely due to leaders on both sides pretending that massive overhauls are in reach when they clearly aren’t. The problem is that Congress isn’t content to just do its job — it can’t help itself but to overpromise and then underdeliver.

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