Opinion

Reihan Salam

The ‘grand compromise’ that wasn’t

Reihan Salam
Feb 24, 2014 21:36 UTC

One of President Obama’s defining convictions is that he is the most reasonable man in our nation’s capitol. He seems to view opposition to his agenda as a reflection of intellectual or moral failures (my opponents don’t understand the underlying issues well enough, or their hearts aren’t big enough), or as a product of naked cynicism (my opponents are dishonest, and they will do anything to defeat me). To prove his point, the president will occasionally tout an idea from the other side of the aisle, or rather an idea he imagines to be from the other side of the aisle. And when his political opponents don’t embrace the idea, well, that means that they are acting in bad faith.

So I was delighted by the news that the Obama administration is changing its tune on Social Security in its forthcoming budget proposal. Last year, the president included a Social Security reform compromise in the budget proposal he presented to Congress. This year he has decided not to do so. But the truth is that the president’s Social Security compromise wasn’t a compromise at all. His decision to jettison it is a refreshing change of pace. And while the reforms aren’t officially part of the 2015 budget proposal, they remain relevant because Obama is treating them as a concession he’ll make if Republicans agree to raise taxes.

According to the president and his allies, the White House was only willing to compromise on Social Security, by cutting benefits, if Republicans were willing to give a little too, by agreeing to higher taxes. The problem is that his idea for cutting Social Security benefits is actually pretty bad, and it would also raise taxes. In other words, the president’s offer to the GOP is, “Hey, why don’t you share the blame for this thing that will make Social Security worse for seniors and raise taxes, and in return for my generosity you’ll let me raise taxes even more?” You will be shocked to learn that Republican lawmakers were not thrilled by this idea.

Specifically, the White House called for changing the index used to both calculate cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security payments and set tax brackets in its budget for the 2014 fiscal year. This new method for gauging consumer price inflation (“chained CPI”) is considered more accurate than the federal government’s standard Consumer Price Index (“CPI”). But the appeal of chained CPI is not just that it’s more accurate. It just so happens that chained CPI is expected to yield inflation rates around 0.3 percentage points lower than old-school CPI.

This is where the magic happens. By using chained CPI instead of CPI, Social Security benefits would grow at a somewhat slower rate over time, thus containing the Social Security system’s cost as baby boomers exit the workforce. If the only thing Republicans cared about was cutting Social Security spending, this would make the new index pretty appealing.

GOP: Beyond repealing to reforming

Reihan Salam
Feb 17, 2014 20:46 UTC

The last time the federal government approached its statutory debt limit, Republicans in the House of Representatives fought tooth and nail to attach tough conditions to any increase. On Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) shepherded a “clean” debt limit increase through that barely raised an eyebrow.

This increase didn’t even set a dollar amount. It simply suspended the debt limit until next March. I can almost hear the conversation: “So, where should we set the new debt limit?” “Ah, you know, whatever!”

One clue as to why House Republicans went along with Boehner’s clean debt limit increase is the vote total. The bill was backed by 193 Democrats and only 28 Republicans. You could say that Democratic lawmakers rescued their Republican counterparts from having to take responsibility for increasing the debt limit.

More Americans should work abroad

Reihan Salam
Feb 7, 2014 19:03 UTC

On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner told members of the press that though immigration is “an important issue in our country” (thanks for that, John), it will be difficult to move immigration legislation this year. According to Boehner, the chief stumbling block is that Republican lawmakers simply don’t trust the Obama administration to implement a new immigration law in an aboveboard way. It is also true, however, that conservatives in the House doubt Boehner’s instincts on immigration, and worry that following his lead will do them more political harm than good. I tend to think that the skeptics are right, and that the GOP ought to put immigration reform on the back-burner.

But just because we can’t agree on immigration reform doesn’t mean that we can’t agree on emigration reform, a subject I’m guessing you’ve never heard about. Believe it or not, the question of how easy we make it for Americans to live and work outside of the United States will be almost as important in the decades to come as the question of who we should let live and work in the United States is now.

Though you’d hardly know it from our domestic political conversation, U.S. migration doesn’t just involve foreigners moving to the United States. It also involves Americans moving to foreign countries. And I’m not just talking about the troops stationed in southern Afghanistan, Okinawa, or Germany. The State Department estimates that 6.3 million U.S. citizens live outside of the United States, a number that explicitly excludes military personnel. Granted, as a share of America’s gargantuan population of 314 million, the American diaspora is an awfully modest 2 percent. Some will no doubt see this as cause for celebration, particularly sentimental Americans who can’t stand the thought of having loved ones move to distant locales. While I hate the thought of losing friends and family to Montevideo or Marrakech as much as the next guy, the truth is that the American diaspora enriches us all, and the United States would be much better off if it were much larger.

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