James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

Maybe Cantor should have stormed out instead

Jul 14, 2011 12:44 UTC

Here is how Reuters delicately describes the tense budget meeting:

The U.S. talks on Wednesday lasted nearly two hours and were the stormiest yet. They ended with Obama telling Republicans that “enough’s enough.”

Politico adds a bit more of the flavor:

When Cantor said the two sides were too far apart to get a deal that could pass the House by the Treasury Department’s Aug. 2 deadline — and that he would consider moving a short-term debt-limit increase alongside smaller spending cuts — Obama began to lecture him. “Eric, don’t call my bluff,” the president said, warning Cantor that he would take his case “to the American people.” He told Cantor that no other president — not Ronald Reagan, the president said — would sit through such negotiations. Democratic sources dispute Cantor’s version of Obama’s walk out, but all sides agree that the two had a blow up. The sources described Obama as “impassioned” but said he didn’t exactly storm out of the room.

And here how a GOP aide describes it to me:

Over the last several days the White House has been walking back the savings on the Biden number.  Thursday it was $2 trillion, Monday it was $1.7-1.8 trillion, Tuesday it was $1.6-1.7-1.8 trillion.  This morning our staff met with White House folks and the wrap up from that meeting said that the WH is now at $1.5 trillion.

Given those figures, [Cantor] pointed out that wherever we are-  it’s a long way from the $2.4 trillion needed to meet House GOP goals of dollar for dollar so he suggested a possible short-term goal in order to avoid default.  He then said to the President that since we can only reach so much in savings and you (President) keep moving the goalposts, I will move off my position of only doing one vote in order to avoid default.

And that’s when Obama started to “lecture” the House Republican majority leader. But either way, it sounds to me like  a final deal might be $1.5 trillion in cuts for a debt ceiling extension through the election. In exchange for no tax hikes, Republicans give on their “dollar for dollar” demand. Maybe this even gets somehow combined with the McConnell plan. Good enough to pass the spending-hawk House Republicans? Given the growing Republican perception that they are dealing with a president with no interest in cutting debt — or even one who wants a debt crisis to help him win reelection in a repeat of 2008 — I think  they just might.





It is about time that the President shows some passion. His negotiating tactic has met a recalcitrant Republican, and he needs to change tactics. A little bullying cannot hurt.

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Can the Ryan plan rescue Republicans?

Jul 13, 2011 20:42 UTC

So what are Republicans, particularly those in the House, going to do? Debt ceiling deadlines are fast approaching. And many in the GOP leadership, particularly in the Senate, think the party’s anti-tax resolve will dissolve if markets start to tumble, resulting in a deal far less appetizing than any discussed during the Biden talks. Certainly no hard spending caps or structural changes to entitlements or any other of the big things on the tea party wishlist.

It now looks like somewhat of a strategic error for Republicans to have pushed for so much in exchange for a hike in the debt limit. The Obama White House seems perfectly willing to take negotiations right up to — and past – the Aug. 2 deadline because it thinks it can win the political fight. And certainly many GOP leaders agree, including Mitch McConnell who told Laura Ingraham today:

[W]e knew shutting down the government in 1995 was not going to work for us. It helped Bill Clinton get reelected. I refuse to help Barack Obama get reelected by marching Republicans into a position where we have co-ownership of a bad economy. …  What will happen is the administration will send out to 80 million Social Security recipients and to military families and they will all start attacking members of Congress. That is not a useful place to take us. And the president will have the bully pulpit to blame Republicans for all this disruption. If we go into default he will say Republicans are making the economy worse. … My first choice was to do something important for the country. But my second obligation is to my party and my conference to prevent them from being sucked into a horrible position politically that would allow the president, probably, to get reelected because we didn’t handle this difficult situation correctly.”

Not only did the GOP likely overplay its hand – Republicans control just one house of Congress, after all – but it opened the door for Obama to push for a “grand bargain” that almost resulted in agreement on a big tax increase. House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor deserve great credit for standing firm against those tax hikes.

But perhaps it’s not too late for Republicans to salvage something significant. Stop pushing unpopular – for the moment – entitlement reform and out-year spending cuts that may never happen. (All of which will get relitigated in 2013 anyway.)

Instead, just try to sharply cut discretionary spending next year. House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s bold and visionary Path to Prosperity calls for non-security discretionary spending cuts of $1.8 trillion over ten years, starting with an $76 billion cut in 2012 vs. the CBO’s baseline. Those cuts would then be incorporated in the CBO baseline, helping create big savings as the years go by and an institutional bulwark against new Democratic spending plans. (As of right now, remember, the Obama White House is proposing just $2 billion in cuts for 2012.) Certainly plenty of Democrats wants to be seen as tough on spending, too, in exchange for raising the debt limit which is highly unpopular. Indeed, “just 37% of Americans favor raising the debt ceiling vs. 56% opposed, according to the July IBD/TIPP poll.”

And perhaps Republicans could go even further. The Ryan plan calls for a total of $111 billion in 2012 cuts. Up that by $1 billion and you have a slogan: “Let’s cut $112 billion in 2012!”








The so-called ‘big tax increases’ being talked about are actually just a return to normalcy, i.e. rolling back the ill conceived Bush tax cuts. Bush claimed his tax cuts were going to stimulate the economy so much that it would more than make up for the lost revenue. It’s the old Reagan scam; Supply side economics don’t work. If you cut taxes, you run up deficits. It happened under Reagan, it happened under Bush, and its still happening now. Besides, no one is talking about raising taxes on the poor, only people making over $250 thousand a year. So, please, before you throw around phrases like ‘big taxes increases’ like your hair is on fire, please give some perspective on the matter.

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The McConnell Plan and the GOP House

Jul 13, 2011 17:30 UTC

So just how hostile  is the GOP House toward McConnell’s new debt ceiling gambit (not to mention tax increases)?  Here are some excerpts from a chat I had early yesterday evening with a GOP Hill source with good knowledge of the caucus. I think it gives some pretty good color:

Members are really, really dug in. Even a deal with $2 trillion in cuts would be a tough sell.  Obama going on TV and repeatedly and being the champion of America’s debt crisis has resulted in members getting frustrated. They have sort of latched onto Obama’s $4-5 trillion [debt cut] number, they just don’t want to do it with tax increases. They longer Obama plays that, the more likely it is we end up not getting anything done.  It might have been possible to sell members on the [$2-2.5 trillion] deal two weeks ago but I don’t think that is the case right now.  He raised the stakes. The White House does not seem to be taking [Boehner and Cantor] at their word when they say tax increases won’t pass the House.  They think it’s a negotiating ploy.

The [McConnell plan] is shrewd but it doesn’t help the House majority. I don’t see how members could vote for that — tough enough selling them on a $2 trillion cut with no tax increases. If markets start reacting, it’s more likely Republicans  will get blamed. But even in that scenario, there would be trouble getting a tax increase through the House. Someone will blink if markets start tumbling, but I don’t see House members voting for a tax increase. If Obama puts out a detailed policy proposal, his own party will revolt against him.

But the ball is now in the House’s court. What will it do? Bill Kristol sees some options:

Plan A: They pass their optimal version of a debt ceiling increase—some version of the Cut/Cap/Balance proposal, with major domestic discretionary and entitlement spending cuts, spending caps, and at least a vote on a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Voting for this, like passing the Ryan budget, puts House Republicans in the position of claiming to have a serious and comprehensive governing plan

Plan B: The House (also?) passes a short-term debt ceiling increase of “only” several hundred billion dollars, accompanied by several hundred billion dollars of domestic discretionary cuts.  …

Plan C: The problem with both Plans A and B is that they do involve voting for an increase in the debt limit, which many House Republicans don’t want to do in the first place. … So why, some of them will say, ever vote for any debt ceiling increase at all? What’s in it for Republicans to be part of any process whose ultimate effect will be to authorize the federal government, under the management of President Obama, to plunge the nation ever deeper and more dangerously into debt?

One could answer that voters did send House Republicans to Washington to at least try to govern responsibly, and that Plans A and B embody such an effort. And that in voting for the Ryan budget, the House GOP has in effect voted to raise the debt ceiling. But that leads us to Plan C, which could either stand alone (i.e., one could skip Plans A and B) or be a follow-on to Plans A and B if they fail.  … House Republicans could allow Democrats to pass a no-tax-hike, no-gutting-of-defense version of a debt ceiling hike in the House. Speaker Boehner would have to round up (if I’ve done the math correctly) 48 Republican members who would agree to vote present on such a debt limit increase. The other 192 GOP members would vote no. The 193 Democrats would be welcome to vote yes and to pass the bill.



Defense is a CORE responsibility of government per the Constitution. Education, health care, Social Security, Medicare, all the various bloodsucking departments and agencies (NEA, EPA, Energy, most cabinet positions/depts., etc., ARE NOT. Make cuts in defense but only if making commensurate cuts in all other areas. And survival of the republic likely will require defunding and abolishing most of the Death Star size of the socialist state created in the past 80+ years.

Your entire dogma is crumbling and you along with it, Unsympathetic. I was probably far more lefty than you for 26 years. It’s a fraud and a nihilistic way to live, and its endgame is elimination of humanity. But none of you is willing to live in reality and SEE what you are doing. We are.

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The issue isn’t default but government shutdown

Jul 12, 2011 18:27 UTC

Here’s a great chart from Goldman Sachs that shows how government revenues and obligations will likely match up in August:

As is clearly shown, there is enough cumulative money coming to pay interest, SS, Medicare and defense. Not that there wouldn’t be cash managements issues. That and several other issues are addressed in a Q&A from a GS report last week.  Some excerpts (bold is mine):

Q: What happens on August 3 if the debt limit is not increased?

A:  …  Using August 2010 spending and receipts as a proxy, the Treasury will probably take in $5-$10 bn in revenue on August 3, leaving insufficient revenues to make Social Security payments partly unfunded even if all other spending is deferred. Since the Treasury has carried a minimum cash balance of about $20 bn since 2009, and currently carries a balance of $74 bn, Social Security payments might still be made by drawing down the Treasury’s cash balance.

Q: Are Treasury interest payments at risk?

A: We do not think so. … There are two basic reasons that interest payments should not be called into question: First, if the August 2 deadline is missed, it is very difficult to see the debate dragging to August 15, when interest payments are made, since we doubt there will much congressional appetite for a protracted lapse in borrowing authority.  … Second, the Treasury is likely to prioritize payments. While the sharp fiscal contraction that would result from prioritization would have negative short-term economic consequences and would be difficult to implement, it nevertheless seems likely if necessary.

Q: If other non-interest payments are missed, would that constitute a default?

A: Probably not, at least from the rating agency perspective. The rating agencies have not been entirely clear on this point, but S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch all appear to view a failure to pay other obligations to be different from a default. S&P has already put the US on negative outlook due to longer-term fiscal issues, and the other two rating agencies have indicated they will move to a negative outlook if no agreement is reached by August 2.








Is the other government spending, things like the FBI, CIA, CDC, FAA, and Homeland security? We ok with all these things going away instantly so we can still issue Social Security, Medicare,and interest on the debt? No air traffic controllers and not FBI agents?

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Goldman Sachs: Debt default is “extremely unlikely”

Jul 11, 2011 23:31 UTC

Here is what President Obama said this morning:

As all of you know, I met with congressional leaders yesterday. We’re going to be meeting again today, and we’re going to meet every single day until we get this thing resolved.

The good news is that all the leaders continue to believe, rightly, that it is not acceptable for us not to raise the debt ceiling and to allow the U.S. government to default. We cannot threaten the United States’ full faith and credit for the first time in our history.

But markets don’t seem concerned. Interest rates remain at rock-bottom levels. Why? Investors know the financial and budgetary math makes a default the longest of long shots. Here is a bit from a research note just out from Goldman Sachs (bold is mine):

There are essentially two plausible outcomes. One is that the two sides agree on a deal in coming weeks, with headline cuts of $2+ trillion over a 10-year horizon, probably mostly composed of discretionary spending caps that gradually squeeze projected outlays in a highly back-end loaded fashion. The other outcome – whose probability has unfortunately risen in recent weeks – is that there is no deal by August 2. Even in this case, we continue to believe a default is extremely unlikely, as the Treasury would likely prioritize interest payments, Social Security and Medicare payments, and “essential” defense payments over other types of spending, and should have enough revenues to cover the essentials. But make no mistake: the negative consequences of failing to make other payments would be very severe. In the month of August, projected outflows exceed projected inflows by about $150bn (not annualized), or about 12% of GDP. Even if we allow for a further decline in cash holdings in the Treasury’s account with the Fed, this means that a failure to reach a deal would imply a huge, immediate fiscal retrenchment. The economic consequences of such a retrenchment would likely force a deal within a few days.

Again, the issue is a government shutdown, not a default.


“the Treasury would likely prioritize interest payments, Social Security and Medicare payments, and “essential” defense payments over other types of spending, and should have enough revenues to cover the essentials. But make no mistake: the negative consequences of failing to make other payments would be very severe.”

Yes, I’m sure making the government prioritize spending and quit spending 150% of revenue every month is “severe” to government officials.

It’s like taking a crack pipe away form an addict… let me tell you he’s convinced he’ll die if you do that, it’ll be the worst thing ever… and just give him back his pipe.

Some important questions to consider:

Do you think the government can keeps spending 150% of it’s revenue forever without prioritizing spending?

Do you think that the government will really make meaningful steps to reduce spending and stop the continued waste?

Do you think prioritizing your spending and reducing it to your income when you’re in dire financial straits is a bad thing?

I don’t see which of these is even a negative, much less something we shouldn’t consider letting happen… they all look like pretty good things to be doing to me.

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Eat our peas? When will government eat its peas?

Jul 11, 2011 18:24 UTC

The President of the United States, this morning:

It’s not going to get easier; it’s gonna to get harder. So we might as well do it now, pull off the Band-Aid, eat our peas

In Obama’s most recent 10-year budget plan, according to the CBO, federal spending would never drop below (a historically high) 23 percent of GDP. And long-term budget plans by liberal think tanks all have spending at such a level, or higher, for decades to come:





What’s wrong with peas? Even my 16-month-old daughter eats them. The president probably doesn’t know how to cook veggies properly. Turn the heat down when they’re bright green, folks.

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The declining ‘stimulus’

Jul 11, 2011 17:53 UTC

During Obama’s news conference today (more on that later), the president said he thought lower stimulus spending was affecting economic growth. Now I doubt how much impact, if any, the $800 billion package had in the U.S. economy. But I thought this JPMorgan chart did illustrate the decline in spending:


[Chart] The unemployment rate they don’t want you to know about

Jul 11, 2011 17:14 UTC

The official U.S. unemployment rate is 9.2 percent. But what if that rate was adjusted just for all the discouraged folks who’ve dropped out of the labor force during the past few years? It would be over 11 percent. (And over 16 percent if you counted the underemployed.) This chart from JPMorgan makes the point:


No big budget deal? Blame Obama, not Boehner

Jul 10, 2011 20:29 UTC

President Barack Obama could have done two things that might have saved his Mother of All Budget Deals.

First, he could have embraced market-centered, consumer -focused reforms to Medicare. That was about as likely as him accepting an Obamacare rollback.  Second, he could have agreed — as House Speaker John Boehner and Republicans suggested —  to sharply reduce tax rates in return for fewer special tax deductions/breaks/loopholes/subsidies. Recall that is what his own debt commission recommended.

Instead, he apparently offered to keep top individual rates where they are, at 35 percent, in exchange for tax reform. Now that’s a big tax hike. But it’s also revealing. As a GOP source on the Hill put it:

Their fierce insistence on higher taxes is beyond bizarre.  …  The bipartisan consensus on tax reform (broader base & lower rates) was championed by President’s fiscal commission, and yet now is being rebuked by the President. Lowering top rates that would help make America more competitive was too large a leap for a true class warrior.

Obama agrees with the left-of-center consensus that America is dramatically undertaxed. Those tax rates from his fiscal commission would have resulted in revenue higher than the historical 18-19 percent of GDP, as seen in this chart:

But 21 percent of GDP — the highest in U.S. history — isn’t nearly enough for the Obamacrats. Even if Obamacare is successful in bringing down health costs, top liberal policy wonks think far more revenue will be needed to deal with an aging America. First, this budget from the Economic Policy Institute. It sees revenue at 24.1 percent of GDP, which still leaves a huge budget gap:

Then there is this plan from the George Soros-backed Center for American Progress, which operates as the White House’s outside think tank. It sees revenue at 23.8 percent of GDP, even adding a carbon tax and transaction tax into the mix.


In short, Obama sees a need for a permanently bigger government and a lot more tax revenue to fund it.  Had Obama agreed with his own debt commission and Republicans, a big agreement was possible. Or he could have proposed real reforms to entitlements. But he declined and there wasn’t a mega-deal. Don’t blame Boehner for that.


Blame the party of NO

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Like Reagan at Reykjavik, Boehner passes on a bad deal

Jul 10, 2011 04:56 UTC

So in the end, it was bit of a Ronald Reagan moment for John Boehner on Saturday. Just as the U.S. president walked away from a bad arms control agreement with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik, Iceland in 1986, the House speaker passed on President Barack Obama’s mega-debt reduction deal in Washington.

In both case, the asking price was just too high. For Reagan, it was lethal limitations on his Strategic Defense Initiative. For Boehner, it was a trillion-dollar tax distraction from America’s true fiscal threat: spending run amok: “Despite good-faith efforts to find common ground, the White House will not pursue a bigger debt reduction agreement without tax hikes.”

A GOP congressional source was a bit less diplomatic, telling me Saturday afternoon via email:

Their fierce insistence on higher taxes is beyond bizarre. After months of demanding ‘clean’ increase to avert economic calamity (default), WH threatens economic calamity (default) unless they get economic calamity (trillions in tax hikes). No wonder these guys are governing over an economic calamity (9.2% & growth malaise), w/ an economic calamity on the horizon (debt explosion as mapped out in president’s budget). The bipartisan consensus on tax reform (broader base & lower rates) was championed by President’s fiscal commission, and yet now is being rebuked by the President. Lowering top rates that would help make America more competitive was too large a leap for a true class warrior.

Indeed, as negotiations wore on, Obama got tougher on taxes (pushed hard by the hard left), and the deal he was cooking up almost certainly wouldn’t have been revenue neutral as he tweaked rates and reduced tax deductions. Not even close. Nor did it help that Obama reportedly balked at a spending-cut trigger if certainly tax reforms were not completed.

Or maybe Boehner also realized he was becoming a role player in an Obama-directed drama whose dramatic focus was securing a second-term for Obama. Either Obama got his big tax-hike deal and a) created a tea party revolt in the GOP, b) looked like a statesmen and c) partially deprived Republicans of a valuable line of attack in 2012 … or there was no deal, and Obama could hammer the GOP until Election Day for caring more about tax cuts for the rich than fiscal responsibility.

Boehner apparently will take his chances with door #2 and push for a roughly $2.4 trillion deal (with a debt ceiling hike, too) based on spending cuts already agreed to and some non-tax revenue raisers. Deeper spending cuts and structural entitlement reform would be better, but that is going to have to be a 2013 thing. Indeed, what entitlement reforms Obama was agreeing to were insufficient to Republicans.

Indeed, there were arms control agreements after Reykjavik, just as there will assuredly be more debt deals in the future. There must be or, as the Congressional Budget Office forecasts, debt as a share of GDP will explode from 70 percent today to as high as 250 percent by 2035 — assuming no economic implosion first. And no amount of tax increases will stop that. Some will push for just such options, of course. Liberal think tanks are devising plans to increase the total U.S. tax burden by at least 30 percent or more over the next two decades.

The other course is to reform entitlements and boost revenue by growing the economy faster. Boehner and the GOP, hopefully, took a step in that direction on Saturday and will take another one when they meet with Obama Sunday night.



Reagan walked away from a deal with the Russians so he could keep on playing with his very expensive silly toy, Star Wars. Whoop-de-do! A fine model of Republican thinking.

What Boehner walked out on was Obama’s attempt to get a Republican Congress to pay for eight years of Republican mis-management, two unbudgeted wars, Bushlet’s mega-payoff to Big Pharma, and eight years of borrowing from the Chinese to finance tax cuts for the rich.

Buncha spoiled brats, whining, puking and mewling.

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