James Pethokoukis

Politics and policy from inside Washington

The EPA and Obama’s Uncertainty Tax

Dec 8, 2009 11:23 UTC

Here’s the theory about the new U.S. position on greenhouse gases. The official finding by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the emissions endanger human health sets the stage for permit requirements on power plants, factories and automobiles. It also supplies President Barack Obama with more evidence at the Copenhagen summit of a “new normal” in America when it comes to climate policy. And back home, it supposedly gives a nudge to the Senate where cap-and-trade legislation is stuck on the back burner.

But in practice, the only thing certain about the EPA ruling is more regulatory uncertainty leading to less economic growth and fewer jobs. Bad news, to be sure, for American businesses already flummoxed by the mercurial state of healthcare, financial and tax reform. Call it Obama’s Uncertainty Tax.

While a cap-and-trade bill has already passed the House of Representatives, few Capitol Hill observers expected the Senate to approve one, even by the end of 2010 thanks to the anemic economy and political risks for incumbent Democrats facing midterm elections. What’s more, expectations of a more Republican-leaning congress after 2010 made it seem like economy-wide carbon caps were sliding off the Obama agenda for the foreseeable future.

But now it’s conceivable carbon restrictions would be implemented as early as next year – even though the EPA itself admits its efforts would be more disruptive and less efficient than congressional action. Such an optimistic timetable assumes no legal challenges. But there will be plenty of those. Already, business groups are preparing to file suit against the EPA. It could fall to U.S. courts to determine the future of the nation’s approach to climate policy. This is a nightmare scenario for the private sector when it comes to planning for new expansion or hiring. Note that the big problem with the job market at the moment is not so much job losses and zippo new jobs being created. It will take a year of 4 percent growth adding 250,000 jobs a month to lower the unemployment rate to 9 percent.

Of course, about the only thing worse than regulatory uncertainty would be for the EPA to follow through with its top-down, command-and-control approach to dealing with perceived climate change.

One solution would be for Congress itself to act. GOP strategists would love to disrupt reeling Democrats with another controversial proposal – which is precisely why it won’t happen. Dems in the Senate are well aware of the shellacking their House colleagues have taken on their cap-and-trade vote.

Another option would be for the White House to devise a plan that would generate some bipartisan support. One idea might be a carbon tax whose revenue could be distributed back to citizens as a dividend, or used to offset payroll taxes. Such a refund could be progressive and popular.

But the most likely scenario is no cap-and-trade and no carbon tax, just more government “investment” in clean energy. But for now, workers and business are left to keep paying the Uncertainty Tax.

COMMENT

its been proved that these tax reforms will only bring more pain in the long term

Posted by cainindia | Report as abusive

The White House and jobs stimulus

Dec 3, 2009 20:07 UTC

From Marc Ambinder:

Really: the White House does not seem to believe that (a) anything sensible to meanginfully reduce the unemployment rate can be proposed, completed and paid for — and executed — by next November. Nothing, in any event, that wouldn’t jeopardize recovery in the long-term. This frustrates people in the party to no end, as well it might.

How Obama is freezing the job market

Dec 3, 2009 10:20 UTC

Let’s assume that the much-hyped White House “jobs summit” turns out to be a free-flowing exchange of ideas and views. Could happen. If that’s the case, then President Barack Obama shouldn’t be shocked if a few CEOs dare suggest that the sweeping-yet-stalled Obama agenda might … actually … you know … no offense, Mr. President … be contributing to the jobless recovery. (The union and academic invitees will protest mightily, natch.)

CEOs are saying as much amongst themselves. At a recent symposium, Intel boss Paul Otellini, a contributor to both parties, expressed concern about the “amount of variability in the system” created by the state of policy flux in healthcare, energy and tax policy. “It is very difficult to make a hiring decision,” he said. General Electric chief executive Jeffery Immelt, a strong supporter of Obama’s cap-and-trade proposal, added he would just like to “know what the rules are.”

All in all, a disturbing replay of the 1930s when FDR’s big changes left business reeling with uncertainty and confusion. The “devil you don’t know” and all that.

Small business is certainly with Big Business on this, particularly regarding the mercurial nature of healthcare reform. The substance of ObamaCare continues to morph daily — from the state of the public option to employer mandates to financing expanded coverage – as Senate leader Harry Reid scrounges for votes. On energy, the president will make big promises at Copenhagen even though cap-and-trade looks stillborn in the Senate.

As for financial reform, Senate banking committee chair Chris Dodd has proposed sweeping changes, while the Tim Geithner-Barney Frank version in the House seems beamed in from a universe where the credit crisis never happened. Compromise could prove elusive. Even Obama’s tax reform panel has delayed releasing its findings.

So Corporate America is about to enter 2010 – an election year – with the fate of the ambitious Obama agenda uncertain. Maybe the only thing for sure is that whatever job-creation package the White House and congressional Democrats eventually gin up, it will likely be a $300 billion or so combo of more transportation spending, more aid to cash-strapped state and local governments and some sort of hiring tax credit.

(And that gets at another critical flaw with the jobs summit. As any of the executives could tell Obama, brainstorming sessions are often the tool-of-choice of the highly ineffective manager. Such confabs are frequently used to give team members the illusion that they are contributing to the idea generation process. In fact, the manager has already made his decision. And that is, more or less, the case with Obama. At the very least, don’t expect any CEO suggestions of lowering personal, corporate or investment tax rates to get even a whiff of consideration from the White House.)

Of course, Obama could pivot and revamp healthcare reform into a more incremental, targeted bill that might actually pass with decent margins in both houses. And while cap-and-trade is gasping for air, a deficit-neutral carbon tax (offsetting payroll taxes) might actually pull in significant Republican support. Maybe even a fat payroll or corporate tax cut.

But the tendency toward election-year gridlock is fast approaching. And for frazzled Corporate America and a frozen job market, gridlock – and the uncertainty that goes with it – is not good.

COMMENT

Some would say that all of this is being done by Obama in order to destroy our way of life and impose socailism on us. Porgressives say “nothing like a good crisis to impose your will”. Thats about the only logical reason I can come up with for all of the stupid things that are being done. Hope I am wrong.

Posted by Ray Hull | Report as abusive

Is the ambitious Obama agenda freezing the US labor market? CEOs think so

Dec 1, 2009 17:17 UTC

Just took a break from the Innovation Economy Conference sponsored by the Aspen Institute. Particularly interesting was a joint Q&A with GE’s Jeff Immelt and Intel’s Paul Otellini.  The latter said he was concerned about the “amount of variability in the system” created by Washington. Fluctuating policy when it comes to healthcare, energy, taxes. “It is very difficult for anyone to make a hiring decision” when the future is so uncertain, he said. Immelt added he would just like to “know what the rules are.” About ObamaCare, Immelt said healthcare “costs probably aren’t going to be coming down.” He is also worried about cost shifting due to proposed Medicare cuts

COMMENT

WOW, Jimmy-P, we must have been on a parallel today, I was just talking to my boss about this afternoon, so many variables, unknowns, rules changing daily.Our company is treating it like “crossing the desert” the more water you keep, the slower you sip it, the longer you can last.24 months into the recession, and is there anything in sight, “less-bad” is no longer good enough, or might this be the “new-norm”. 2.8% 3rd quarter, minus all the spending, cash-4-clunkers, FTHB Credit, all the road projects, and we only squeak out 2.8%? What now, the crack is almost gone!?

Posted by Ed753 | Report as abusive

6 healthcare taxes that violate Obama’s tax pledge

Nov 20, 2009 18:23 UTC

These seem pretty indisputable. From Keith Hennessey:

1. The clearest violation is the 5% excise tax on cosmetic surgery and similar procedures (including teeth whitening). I assume that cosmetic surgery and similar procedures are skewed toward the high end of the income distribution, but there certainly are many people getting these treatments with annual family income less than $250,000.

2. The bill would allow State insurance exchanges “to charge assessments or user fees to participating health insurers, or to otherwise generate funding, to support its operations.” [ §1311(d)(5)(A) ] Health insurers would pass these “assessments or user fees” through to consumers as higher premiums. This would affect anyone who buys health insurance, including those with family income less than $250,000.

3. The bill would impose a 40% excise tax on health coverage in excess of $8,500 (individuals) / $23,000 (families). While policies this generous are almost certainly skewed higher on the income distribution, there are definitely families with income less than $250,000 receiving these plans. Again, health insurers would pass these tax increases through to those families.

4. The bill would increase taxes on all health insurance plans, as well as on brand-name drugs and biologics, and on medical devices. These tax increases would affect anyone who buys these goods, even if their family income is less than $250,000.

5. According to CBO, “By 2019, … the number of nonelderly people who are uninsured would be reduced by about 31 million, leaving about 24 million nonelderly residents uninsured (about one-third of whom would be unauthorized immigrants.)” (p 8 ) These roughly 16 million people would pay “penalties” of $95 per adult in 2014, $350 per adult in 2015, and $750 per adult in 2016 and later. You’re charged half as much for each kid. Most of these 16 million people paying higher taxes will have family income less than $250,000 and will pay higher “penalties,” although not all will pay these full amounts.

6. The bill would create a new 0.5 percentage point increase in payroll taxes on individuals with incomes greater than $200,000 in 2013 and families with incomes greater than $250,000 in 2013. Since these amounts are for 2013 and not indexed, someone making $233K in 2009 would be affected by this in 2013, assuming 1% annual real wage growth and CBO’s assumptions about inflation. If you’re making $220K this year, you’ll probably be hit by the new tax in 2016. $210K this year, you first get bit in 2017, and so on.

COMMENT

In all honesty, until the politicians can put a dollar amount on a life (much less a dollar amount on quality of life), nothing but failure can come out of legislating budgets for life or quality of life.

Posted by RH | Report as abusive

‘A whole mess of crazy’ coming from Capitol Hill

Nov 20, 2009 14:11 UTC

That is how one Congress watcher from the financial industry describes the current state of affairs, from the Fed audit bill to calls for a transaction tax. I think this William Greider piece gets at the heart of it:

The center is not holding. … It feels like carnival time, when up is down and down is up, when humble folks parade as kings and queens and the reigning royals are dressed as clowns. … The most startling evidence of reversal is Chris Dodd, chair of the Senate Banking Committee, who has been a loyal friend of Wall Street and especially Connecticut-based insurance companies. Dodd proposes to strip the Fed of its regulatory functions because of its “abysmal failure” to protect the public, and to replace it with an overarching regulatory administration. …
Taxing Wall Street is a more provocative departure, but some representatives are warming to the idea, drawn to Oregon Representative Peter DeFazio’s appealing Let Wall Street Pay for Wall Street’s Bailout Act. A very small excise tax on all financial transactions–trading stocks, bonds and derivatives–could yield hundreds of billions in revenue. House majority whip Jim Clyburn suggests the securities tax is “a painless way” to pay for highways. …

Senator Bernie Sanders asks another one. If some banks are “too big to fail,” why not just make them smaller? His bill would require Treasury to identify and break up too-big financial institutions within one year. Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase are reacting with alarm. They do not normally worry over the senator’s progressive thinking, but what’s dizzying is that former Fed chair Alan Greenspan has embraced the same concept. When the socialist from Vermont achieves bipartisan consensus with the right-wing Maestro, can Barack Obama be far behind?

How the economy is killing the Obama agenda

Nov 20, 2009 14:00 UTC

The less popular Obama gets, the less political capital he has to push forward his agenda. I think this chart from Nate Silver nicely encapsulates things:

112009poll

Healthcare reform update: It’s all about 60 votes

Nov 18, 2009 19:37 UTC

My sources tell me that reconciliation — pushing through HC in the Senate with 51 votes with a special parliamentary procedure — isn’t going to happen. So the big votes will need 60, including just opening debate. And rest assured that if Reid thinks he has 60 to pass, the debate will immediately come to an end.

Keith Hennessey gives his odds update:

I am lowering from 60% to 50% my projection for the success of comprehensive health care reform.

  1. Pass a partisan comprehensive bill through the House and through the regular Senate process with 60, leading to a law; (was 40% –> 30%)
  2. Pass a partisan comprehensive bill through the House and through the reconciliation process with 51 Senate Democrats, leading to a law; (steady at 20%)
  3. Fall back to a much more limited bill that becomes law; (was 20% –> 15%)
  4. No bill becomes law this Congress.  (was 20% –> 35%)

I think there is zero chance a bill makes it to the President’s desk before 2010.  If a bill were to become law, I would anticipate completion in late January or even February. …

I have lowered my projection of Leader Reid succeeding for three reasons:  Pretty much everything has to go right for him to win on cloture in mid-December. He has no more wiggle room on the schedule, and new intra-Democrat policy fights are popping up.

I think his members are going to get beat up about health care and jobs over Thanksgiving recess, then return to Washington to face another bad jobs day Friday the 4th. If moderates demand large substantive concessions for their votes, liberals like Senators Rockefeller and Boxer may refuse. They may tell Reid they will oppose cloture if the bill moves toward the  center, and instead advocate abandoning regular order and starting a clean reconciliation process in January. House liberals might join this effort.

COMMENT

I’m hopeful this thing will get killed in the Senate, but have big doubts. The fact that Reid included a public option in the Senate bill suggests to me he has more confidence in getting those 60 votes than the critics are suggesting. Without a public option he could still armtwist liberals by saying it would be restored in conference. But including the public option suggests his fears of losing centrists over that issue may be overblown. For my money, Leiberman is the last best hope of sanity in this matter and his could be the key vote.

Posted by Bill, Fairfax, VA | Report as abusive
  •