Opinion

The Great Debate

Boehner resurrects the antebellum South

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is now in Williamsburg, Virginia, meeting with his House Republican conference at their annual retreat. The GOP House members have likely gotten over the initial shock of the November elections – in which President Barack Obama won more than 51 percent of the vote and the Democratic majority swelled in the Senate.

Though the Republicans lost House seats and their candidates collected more than a million fewer votes than their Democratic rivals, the GOP retained a majority in the House of Representatives. This consolation prize has allowed Boehner to claim that House Republicans have a mandate every bit as compelling as that earned by the president. Conservative champions Grover Norquist and Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) echoed this claim.

“It’s very wrong to suggest that only the president has a mandate,” asserted former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who knows from congressional mandates. “The House Republicans also have a mandate, and it’s a much more conservative mandate than the president’s.”

Many commentators lament the political dynamics that encourage House Republicans to resist the newly re-elected president – even when he proposes exactly what he promised during the campaign. Politicians can, of course, read election results however they please.

Political scientists, meanwhile, have long exposed the functional emptiness of electoral “mandates” in the American system. The father of modern presidential studies, Richard Neustadt, ridiculed the very notion two generations ago. Unlike parliamentary systems, where the majority party actually governs, U.S. policymakers inhabit a heavily constrained political environment – even when one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress.

The sham of Simpson-Bowles

Erskine Bowles and former Senator Alan Simpson deserve some kind of medal for creating the widely held perception that their plan for reducing the deficit and debt is anything other than a bad proposal.

It has been nearly two years since the commission they chaired, which I served on, finished its work. The duo’s proposal has attained almost mythical status in Washington as the epitome of what a “grand bargain” should look like.

But everyone look again. They will discover that it is far less than meets the eye.

The neocons’ war against Obama

The neoconservatives who rebuffed the Republican establishment’s warnings about the perils of war in Iraq have now opened another front —against President Barack Obama.

The neocons, unlike the muscular Democrats who led the U.S. into the Vietnam War—including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk— are not reflecting about what went wrong in Iraq. Nor are they dodging the public spotlight.

They have instead signed on as foreign policy advisers for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.  He is now strongly denouncing Obama as an abject failure, intent on appeasing the world’s dictators. Romney, who has scant foreign policy experience, is now championing a new “American Century,” featuring a pre-emptive foreign policy agenda, a $2-trillion increase in the Defense budget and, most likely, hostilities with Iran — not to mention skirmishes with China and Russia.

Paul Ryan: a VP with a mandate

The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza rightly called Mitt Romney’s bold selection of Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) as his running mate, “the most daring decision of his political career.”

Until this weekend, most observers expected Romney to proceed cautiously by selecting a vice-presidential nominee who would neither shake up the race nor introduce new risk into the campaign.

Mitt Romney, we hardly knew ye.

This is the most consequential presidential election in a generation. It deserves a campaign on big ideas and contrasting visions, not petty personal attacks, small ball and obfuscation.

Paul Ryan and the rich man’s burden

Mitt Romney’s decision to name Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin as his running mate says quite a lot about what Romney thinks about America and its workers, and none of it is good. In recent years, Ryan has earned a reputation as the intellectual of the conservative movement. He’s a gutsy guy who has been willing to transparently share his vision for America through a detailed budget proposal that leads inescapably to this conclusion: He believes that American workers are slackers and freeloaders.

Ryan hasn’t written a book, but his defining work is “A Roadmap For America’s Future,” where he was admirably honest about his plans for dealing with the long aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

But his diagnosis of the problem should make taxpayers who go to work every day wonder what the potential vice-president of the United States really thinks about them. Summing up the problem, he writes:

Ryan’s budget frames 2012 election around Medicare

This week, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan released what amounts to the most substantive roadmap for fiscal policy that any Republican is likely to offer in 2012. Many political pundits and policy analysts, especially those on the left, are eager to dig into the details to alert the public about the potential (negative) impacts of a budget that slices off $5 trillion in total federal spending compared with the plan offered by President Obama in February.

Providing 100 pages of budget and policy detail in an election year is considered political suicide by many. Democrats fully intend to use the plan to campaign against Republicans in the fall, hoping to gain an advantage not only in select House or Senate races but also in the presidential contest.

Ryan, though, sees this as the only responsible path forward: So what if his plan won’t get enacted into law this year. Should Ryan’s House colleagues, or the candidates for president, avoid taking a detailed position on our country’s fiscal future? As Ryan explains: “If we simply operate based on political fear, nothing is ever going to get done.”

Paul Ryan’s weak case for a strong defense

One aspect of Paul Ryan’s new budget that hasn’t drawn much attention is that it is a big love letter to the Pentagon. Ryan rejects the idea that budgetary pressures should have any effect on defense spending, which he argues should be dictated purely by “strategic” calculations. Among other things, the Ryan budget would reverse $55 billion in defense cuts mandated for 2013 by the “trigger” agreed to in last year’s budget ceiling deal – and cut this same amount from domestic programs instead.

Ryan says we shouldn’t worry about military spending, even amid a supposed fiscal emergency, because such outlays are “shrinking as a share of government spending and as a share of the national economy.” America may have a spending problem, Ryan and the House Budget Committee believe, but the Pentagon is not part of that problem: “This category of spending is clearly not driving the unsustainable fiscal trajectory that is threatening the nation’s future.”

That’s strange to hear, since soaring security costs since 9/11 have been a key driver of deficits – accounting for about $1.4 trillion in new debt since 2001 by one widely cited non-partisan estimate. And, looking ahead, it’s hard to see a path to fiscal discipline that doesn’t include sharp cuts to the defense budget, which constitutes over half of all discretionary federal spending.

Will conservatives embrace a consumption tax?

Headlines over the past couple of weeks have been dominated by reactions to President Obama’s new proposal for corporate tax reform. The optimism stems from the realization that practically all the major plans by Democrats and Republicans would move the U.S. tax code in the direction of a territorial-based system (in which a corporation is taxed on domestic, not foreign, income). Moreover, these plans all accept the premise that to make the U.S. code more competitive globally, the tax base must be broadened, and that means cutting deductions and preferences in exchange for lowering the top-line rate (i.e., down to between 25 percent and 28 percent from today’s 35 percent rate).

Even with this apparent consensus, however, it seems inevitable that actual reform will not occur until 2013. Perhaps more important, the way these issues play out in the coming months could very well shift the reform discussion from how to tax income to how to tax consumption for both individuals and corporations. Here are three developments to watch.

The politics require more “tax winners.” To get the corporate tax rate down to the new target range, Congress might have to cut both accelerated depreciation and the expensing of research and development. The difficult truth is that any revenue-neutral tax reform proposal would likely create as many (and maybe even more) losers than winners. In essence, a rate reduction to 28 percent might help a few industries, but slashing the deductions for capital spending or investment could end up raising the effective tax rate for even more companies.  The net effect could be a slightly smaller economy relative to its full potential, as new investment and the growth of the available capital stock could be restrained. In an effort to broaden the coalition and create more winners, Congress will probably have to consider cutting the top rate even further, then redefining what’s actually counted as corporate income.

A simpler way to pay taxes

 Diana Furchtgott-Roth– Diana Furchtgott-Roth, dfr@hudson.org, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. The views expressed are her own.  –

It’s April 15, and you’ve finished the arduous task of filing your taxes. You’ve found your W-2 form from your employer, your pennies of interest income from your checking account. If you itemize, you’ve tracked down the acknowledgement of your charitable contributions to the church, the Sierra Club, and the local anti-poverty organization.

The system is so complex that it may have contributed to the tax delinquencies of four Cabinet-level Obama appointees (or their spouses) who had to pay up to win Senate confirmation. At least two other Obama choices withdrew because of their tax problems.

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