Opinion

Reihan Salam

How to fix the GOP’s discipline problem

Reihan Salam
Oct 4, 2013 20:28 UTC

As the government shutdown grinds on, the Republican leadership in the House is struggling to unite GOP lawmakers around a fiscal deal that Senate Democrats and the Obama administration would be willing to accept. Speaker John Boehner has reportedly said that he is willing to rely on Democratic votes if necessary to pass an increase in the debt ceiling. Yet he also insists that he will fight for spending cuts and entitlement reform in any debt ceiling bill, in a nod to conservative members who are convinced that he is eager to sell them out.

Whether or not Boehner succeeds, it is increasingly difficult to deny that the Republican negotiating position is being constrained if not dictated by a small minority of 30 or so members from safe seats who seem largely indifferent to leadership demands, or rather leadership requests. The result is that the much-derided Republican establishment is in a state of panic, sensing that GOP intransigence will lead the party to squander the political opportunity created by the president’s declining fortunes and the persistent unpopularity of Obamacare. How has party discipline broken down to this extent, and what, if anything, can Republicans do to restore it?

First, it is important to recognize that this chaotic confrontation wasn’t supposed to happen. At the start of the year, congressional Republicans seemed eager to return to regular order, in which, essentially, the House majority brokers with the Senate majority to pass legislation, which the president can then sign or veto. Yuval Levin, writing for National Review Online, argued that for the right, the central political problem with the endless succession of fiscal showdowns is that they inevitably made the president, as a unitary figure, look better than the often-fractious House Republican conference. Regular order, in contrast, would demand that Senate Democrats put up or shut up by codifying their commitments, not all of which are popular in hotly-contested states, in real legislation. House Republicans and Senate Democrats would be on a relatively level playing field, while the president would be relegated to the sidelines. But the regular order strategy didn’t come to fruition, both because Senate Democrats were reluctant to play along and because a determined minority of House Republicans couldn’t reconcile themselves to the fact that the ordinary legislative process left them with very little leverage.

Which leads us back to party discipline. Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and other members of the GOP leadership team couldn’t compel their most recalcitrant members to steer clear of confrontation because they had very little to offer them.

Traditionally, party leaders would use the appropriations process to cut deals with members. The main tool for these deals was the legislative earmark, which directs the federal government to spend money in particular ways. Earmarks have never represented a large share of appropriations, but they long helped ensure that legislators can achieve tangible, narrowly-defined policy goals that can help burnish their political credentials. Over time, however, the earmarking process fell into bad odor, as it came to be associated with expensive, wasteful projects, like Alaska’s notorious “Bridge to Nowhere.” To demonstrate their anti-spending zeal, Republicans banned earmarks after winning control of the House in 2010. One heretical idea, which Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) floated last spring, is that Republicans should bring earmarks back. As Steven LaTourette, a moderate Ohio Republican and former House member, explained to Richard Cowan of Reuters in 2012, “you can’t get 218 votes (out of 242 Republican House members) and part of that has to be if you can’t give people anything (earmarks), you can’t take anything away from them.”

Obamacare’s threat to healthcare innovation

Reihan Salam
Sep 27, 2013 20:14 UTC

Next week, the new state-based health insurance exchanges established under the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, will be open for business. Or rather — some of them will be sort of open for business, as the exchanges have been plagued by a series of technical glitches and delays. The Obama administration is now characterizing October 1st as the beginning of a “soft launch,” during which federal and state officials will work out various kinks. And though this might sound like just another bureaucratic foul-up, the success of the exchanges in these first few months will have enormous implications for the ultimate success of Obamacare.

The exchanges are online marketplaces that will allow individuals and small firms to compare the coverage options and pricing of various health insurance plans. They are also the platform through which people will apply for income-based subsidies for purchasing health insurance. One of the biggest challenges facing the officials setting up the exchanges is that applications for subsidies are meant to be processed in real time, to make the experience as easy and accessible as possible. This is much easier said than done. In Massachusetts, which has been operating an exchange of its own since 2007, applying for subsidies is a time-consuming process that involves filling out a 15-page form and providing proof that one is eligible for subsidies in the first place, and then waiting for state officials to get back to you. While Massachusetts’ approach is slow-moving, it has the advantage of being tried and true, as it is very similar to the way the states have been determining Medicaid eligibility for years. Real-time verification, in contrast, represents a break with established practice, and it would be a miracle if it didn’t involve major hiccups.

If the exchanges work smoothly, they have a decent shot at enrolling large numbers of the young, healthy Americans the Obama administration is counting on to make its new coverage expansion effort economically viable. If the exchanges don’t work smoothly, however, they might deter all but the sickest, most vulnerable healthcare consumers from enrolling, and this in turn would make the new insurance pools far more expensive to cover.

Sen. Mike Lee’s plan to bolster middle-class parents

Reihan Salam
Sep 18, 2013 15:11 UTC

On Tuesday afternoon, a small but influential slice of the inside-the-Beltway conservative intelligentsia gathered at the American Enterprise Institute, a D.C.-based conservative think tank, to hear Utah Sen. Mike Lee present his new tax reform plan, the “Family Fairness and Opportunity Tax Reform Act.” Though it is unlikely that the bill will become law, it represents genuinely new thinking about how Republicans ought to approach domestic policy. And as such, it has the potential to break the GOP out of its defensive crouch.

It is worth noting that Mike Lee isn’t exactly the most likely messenger for family-friendly tax reform. He first emerged on the national scene when he challenged three-term incumbent Sen. Bob Bennett, a Republican widely lauded for his willingness to work across the aisle, in a hard-fought primary race. Lee, a constitutional lawyer with a distinguished resume, ran as a Tea Party stalwart. As a senator, he has led the fight for a balanced budget amendment and against new gun control laws. Most recently, he has rallied Senate conservatives around the idea of defunding the Affordable Care Act, an effort that has been condemned by the Wall Street Journal editorial page and key members of the congressional Republican leadership as reckless and irresponsible. No one questions Lee’s conservative bona fides. What is new is Lee’s willingness to venture outside of his comfort zone. While many leading Republicans have insisted that conservatives do more to better the lives of middle-income voters — the bedrock of the GOP coalition — Lee is actually putting his money where his mouth is with his new tax plan.

Conservatives will find much to like in Lee’s plan. Though it is not a flat tax, an idea Lee has championed in the past, it does reduce the tax code from seven individual income tax rates to two, set at 15 percent and 35 percent. The first rate applies to income up to $87,850 for single filers and $175,700 for joint filers, and the second applies to all income above those thresholds. As of 2010, a single filer earning $87,850 would find herself in the 95th percentile of individual earners, while a married couple earning $175,700 would find themselves in the 87th percentile of married households. The plan also eliminates the taxes included in the Affordable Care Act and the Alternative Minimum Tax, the goal being to improve incentives to work and save.

How Larry Summers could fix his reputation — and help millions of Americans

Reihan Salam
Sep 6, 2013 17:03 UTC

Right now, it looks as though Larry Summers has the inside track to be named the next chairman of the Federal Reserve. This is despite the fact that many on the left, from Democratic lawmakers like Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley to influential activists like Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute, are deeply skeptical of Summers, owing to his ties to the financial sector, his impolitic reputation, and the fear that he might be more concerned about the dormant threat of inflation than the very real scourge of long-term unemployment. The discouraging job growth numbers released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics earlier today can’t help his case. But Summers, the former chairman of President Obama’s National Economic Council, seems to have the trust and respect of his former boss, and that may be all he really needs to secure the most powerful economic policy-making job in the country.

So it is worth thinking through what Summers’ priorities might be as Fed chairman. Though the Federal Reserve is responsible for setting monetary policy, it also has a great deal of influence over the larger workings of the U.S. financial system. Zachary Goldfarb, a reporter for the Washington Post, reports that Summers hopes to use the Fed’s influence to restructure the financial system to better serve the interests of low- and middle-income households. This could be a ploy on the part of Summers’ allies, who understand that his reputation as a friend of Wall Street is his greatest political liability. If it’s more than that, however, Summers could use his bully pulpit to great effect.

One of the greatest challenges facing poor families is a lack of savings. Households that are “liquid-asset poor” are two to three times more likely to experience material hardship after a job loss, health emergency, or other moment of crisis than those with liquid assets. These moments of crisis are when many families are forced to turn to public assistance. In an ideal world, we’d want to find some way to prevent families from falling into crisis in the first place. The trouble is that merely transferring financial assets to households is not likely to yield the same benefits as cultivating the opportunities and habits that lead families to accumulate assets independently. The financial crisis profoundly damaged the balance sheets of U.S. households, which is one of the leading causes of stagnant growth. Addressing the underlying drivers behind weak balance sheets has the potential to yield significant benefits for the broader economy as well as for poor families.

What Syria’s fall means for Turkey’s rise

Reihan Salam
Aug 30, 2013 16:57 UTC

ISTANBUL — It’s rare that I enjoy being stuck in traffic, but the slow ride from Istanbul’s main international airport to its central business district is a feast for the eyes. New shopping malls, apartment blocks, and office parks seem to stretch out in every direction, up and down the city’s formidable hills. But this week has served as a reminder that Turkey’s prosperity rests on a fragile foundation.

After over a decade in office, many Turks believe that the ruling AK Party has grown arrogant and unaccountable, and its brutal response to recent political protests has laid bare Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s unmistakable authoritarian streak. One nevertheless gets the impression that for most Turks, the fact that Erdogan has presided over the longest, most robust economic expansion since the golden age that stretched from 1960 to 1978 is reason enough to support him. From 2002 to 2012, inflation-adjusted GDP per capita increased by 43 percent, or an average of 3.6 percent per year. This is not quite as fast as some other middle-income countries, like Poland. But it has been fast enough to leave a deep imprint on Turkish society, and to give Turks, almost half of whom are under the age of 25, a new sense of what their country can accomplish.

A week from now, on September 7th, the International Olympic Committee will vote to determine which city will host the 2020 Olympics, and Istanbul is, along with Madrid and Tokyo, a finalist. There are a variety of reasons one might prefer Istanbul over its rivals. While Spain and Japan have both hosted the Olympics in recent decades, no city in Turkey, the Near East or a Muslim-majority country has ever done so. Just as the selection of Seoul and Beijing and Rio de Janeiro celebrated the rise of various rising economic powers, the selection of Turkey would send the signal that the country once derided as “the sick man of Europe” had finally arrived.

In New York, the rent doesn’t have to be ‘too damn high’

Reihan Salam
Aug 23, 2013 15:35 UTC

The house in which I grew up was built in 1913. It was part of a building boom in New York City’s outer boroughs fueled by the rising incomes, and rising aspirations, of erstwhile tenement-dwellers. As jam-packed Manhattan neighborhoods like the Lower East Side emptied out, once-bucolic stretches of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx were transformed with dizzying speed.

A century later, neighborhoods like the one I grew up in seem frozen in amber. The faces are different, to be sure, and so are the languages spoken by the locals. Crime has gone down and property values have gone up, and New York City is as desirable as it’s ever been. Yet we’ve had nothing like the building boom of the 1910s and 1920s that transformed the face of the city. Millions of low- and middle-income New Yorkers thus find themselves squeezed by skyrocketing rents, and hundreds of thousands of others who want to make their home in New York can’t afford to do so. 

In fairness, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has presided over the revitalization of the city’s waterfront, where new buildings really are sprouting up. Brooklyn’s Barclays Center will eventually be surrounded by new housing units, and an ambitious new mixed-use neighborhood is planned for Manhattan’s West Side.

The sober way to legalize marijuana

Reihan Salam
Aug 16, 2013 16:21 UTC

As a general rule, Americans don’t give much thought to Uruguay, a small South American republic with a population of 3.3 million. But Uruguay has embarked on a new experiment with marijuana legalization that merits close attention. As Ken Parks of the Wall Street Journal reported late last month, new Uruguayan legislation will allow individuals to grow as much as 480 grams of marijuana for personal consumption, and marijuana cooperatives with no more than 45 members will be permitted to grow just over two plants per member. The government will also allow for limited commercial production, but Uruguayan lawmakers have made it clear that they don’t want a domestic marijuana market dominated by large for-profit firms.

Might the United States follow in Uruguay’s footsteps? Marijuana legalization seems inevitable—but we’d be wise to follow Uruguay’s lead and carefully regulate the kinds of legal marijuana operations that will follow. 

Marijuana advocates have successfully pressed for the legalization of the medicinal use of marijuana in 20 states and the District of Columbia since 1996, when California voters passed Proposition 215. And efforts to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, as in Uruguay’s new legislation, are gaining ground. In November, three states — Colorado, Oregon, and Washington — had marijuana legalization initiatives on the ballot, two of which passed. Though Oregon voters chose not to legalize marijuana last fall, they will likely get another chance to do so in 2014. Alaska and Arizona could be the next states to follow suit.

The geography of opportunity

Reihan Salam
Aug 1, 2013 20:40 UTC

Something extraordinary is happening in Salt Lake City, Seattle and Pittsburgh and in the suburbs surrounding them, and if we’re going to overcome entrenched poverty in America as a whole, we have to pay close attention to what these communities are getting right. To understand why, consider the findings of an important new study.

According to new findings from the Equality of Opportunity Project, an ambitious venture led by the economists Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline and Emmanuel Saez, there are dramatic differences in economic outcomes for children raised in different U.S. cities. This shouldn’t be too surprising, as economic conditions vary considerably from region to region and so does the quality of K-12 schools and other institutions that contribute to success later in life. Yet Chetty et al have now put the consequences of these differences in sharp relief.

The team divided the United States into 741 commuting zones, most of which are named after the biggest city in the zone. Though these zones are conceptually similar to the metropolitan and micropolitan areas used by the Census Bureau, they’re not quite the same. Drawing on anonymized earnings records, the team then sought to track economic outcomes for individuals raised in various commuting zones, including where these individuals wound up in the national income distribution as adults.

Online education can be good or cheap, but not both

Reihan Salam
Jul 26, 2013 15:21 UTC

During his recent economic address at Knox College, President Barack Obama briefly referenced the promise of online learning. Specifically, he celebrated the fact that some colleges are “blending teaching with online learning to help students master material and earn credits in less time,” a development that holds great potential to contain the rising cost of higher education. Yet this potential is still a long way from being realized, as demonstrated by a recent hiccup at California’s San Jose State University.

Like many of America’s public universities, San Jose State has struggled in recent years to increase its graduation rate. Only 8 percent of students who enrolled as full-time first-years in the fall of 2003 managed to complete their bachelor’s degree in four years, a share that climbed to 46 percent over six years. For students who enrolled in the fall of 2005, the numbers barely budged, with 7 percent finishing in four years and 46 percent finishing in six years. San Jose State has an ambitious plan to increase that share, which includes San Jose State Plus, a new effort to harness the potential of online learning.

The San Jose State Plus initiative is a wonderful example of innovative public sector thinking. Rather than build new online courses in isolation, San Jose State partnered with edX, a non-profit organization founded by Harvard and MIT, and Udacity, a highly-regarded education startup, to create courses that were rigorous, accessible and cost-effective.

How computerized work affects immigration

Reihan Salam
Jul 19, 2013 14:53 UTC

In 1900, 41 percent of the U.S. workforce was employed in agriculture. One hundred years later, that share had declined to 1.9 percent. Over that interval, the jobs that were easy and cheap to mechanize were mechanized, and now we are left with a handful of jobs that machines find extremely difficult to do. Machines can’t make strategic decisions about which crops to grow, and as a general rule they can’t fix themselves, so that leaves a significant role for managers and mechanics. Until recently, machines were also really bad at doing things like picking heads of lettuce and other delicate crops, as this requires a deftness of hand and an attention to detail that machines lack.

This is why the agricultural sector continues to have an appetite for less-skilled labor, which has been a huge driver of the recent comprehensive immigration reform effort. The idea is that because native-born Americans will never pick cucumbers — or at least because they will never pick cucumbers at a wage that would make for affordable cucumbers — we need a steady supply of less-skilled, low-wage workers to keep farms that grow cucumbers and lettuce and other delicate crops viable.

Now, however, a number of innovative firms have developed machines that use sophisticated sensors and an enormous amount of raw computing power to do jobs that had once been beyond the reach of machines. The reporters Gosia Wozniacka and Terence Chea recently described a Lettuce Bot that can “thin” a lettuce field in the time it would take twenty workers to do the same. Though the Lettuce Bot and machines like it remain expensive, there is every reason to believe that prices will fall. These picking machines are not quite good enough to pick fresh-market fruit, but they’re getting there. The reason these machines are being developed is the same reason agribusiness interests have been agitating for a substantial increase in less-skilled immigration: the supply of workers willing to work the fields is not big enough to keep wages extremely low, and so farms have been desperate for low-cost alternatives.

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