Monday, April 18, 2011

GOP expected to back Medicare shift

By CQ Staff

House Republicans appeared likely Friday to adopt a budget resolution that calls for changing Medicare into a voucher program for future seniors — a step many consider political dynamite.

Bucking conventional wisdom, GOP lawmakers are betting voters concerned about the nation’s debt may be willing to entertain changes to the popular social insurance program, especially if those affect only the next generation. Many say that by supporting House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan’s framework for the fiscal 2012 budget, they are showing they are serious about making the decisions necessary to put the nation’s fiscal house in order.

“I think the country’s ripe for looking at renegotiating the Medicare promises for folks under 55,” said K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas.

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But analysts say voting for the measure (H Con Res 34), which is as good as dead in the Democratic Senate, is a risky move for Republicans. Polls consistently show that Americans do not support transforming Medicare, and a USA Today/Gallup poll on April 11 found that two-thirds of Republicans oppose the governmemt making major changes to the program.

“The Republicans are betting the whole store on that even though people don’t like particular changes, they want something big done about the deficit — and that they’re going to stick with them even though they don’t like the cuts and changes,” said Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis in the Harvard University School of Public Health.

Democrats, meanwhile, see the Ryan plan as a political opportunity. They note that voters have rejected past GOP attempts to re-envision entitlement programs, including President George W. Bush’s attempt to change Social Security to a personal account system. And they are pledging to protect Medicare.

“No plan to end Medicare as we know it will ever pass the Senate,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. “The debate is a debate we welcome. We’ve been waiting for it. It is a debate we will win.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., painted Ryan’s entire proposal as a way to end the program that provides health care for seniors.

“It’s a smoke screen about balancing the budget. The real goal is to kill Medicare,” Murray said.

A major part of the Republican 2010 campaign was hammering seniors with the message that Democrats were cutting Medicare and proposing “death panels” that might ration care through the health care overhaul (PL 111-148, PL 111-152).

Observers say Republicans are vulnerable to a similar line of attack in the next election. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) already has announced plans to target potentially vulnerable House GOP members. A Roll Call rating shows that more than a third of House GOP freshmen are from toss-up or Democratic-leaning districts

“If you supported that, you can expect a blizzard of mail and phone calls and emails into your district presenting you as somebody who wants to shut off the Medicare spigot,” said University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato.

Still, House Republicans said late Thursday they felt confident in voting for a budget framework that calls for changing Medicare from a defined-benefit to a defined contribution plan in 2022. The GOP resolution calls for giving seniors and the disabled an annual stipend that would be used to buy private insurance plans of their choice and would increase over time based on the rate of inflation. Critics say the plan would shift a greater share of health care costs to seniors over time.

Some Republicans think they can sell that as a way to preserve the program for future generations and to keep the country fiscally sound.

GOP freshman Lou Barletta said seniors in his district “were more upset about their grandchildren and the debt we were leaving them than the fact of the assistance for themselves.”

“They’re tough and they’ll handle the consequences to themselves, but don’t mess with their grandchildren,” added Barletta, who said his district has one of the biggest senior populations in Pennsylvania. Barletta is one of the Republicans on the DCCC’s list.

Analysts said the crucial, and most challenging, step for Republicans would be convincing voters that the current path would lead to ruin. “They have to paint the picture of a troubled status quo that is no longer sustainable. . . . The status quo is like something on a fault line and we’re having all these earthquakes, and the big one’s going to come,” said Mike Franc, vice president of government studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Franc said that Republicans also must convince voters that there would be negative consequences for future generations if they do not act.

“If they can paint that picture successfully, then they can win this,” Franc said.

Republicans also must also underscore that Ryan’s plan would not change access to fee-for-service Medicare for existing seniors, only those born in 1957 or after.

“If you say, ‘we are going to change the Medicare program to ensure its survival, but none of those changes will affect you,’ that’s a pretty powerful message,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayers.

Of course President Obama refuted many of those arguments on April 13 when he argued the nation could honor its commitments at the same time it controls costs by taking steps to wring additional savings from Medicare.

And some question whether voters will even entertain the idea of putting Medicare on the table, predicting Republicans might vote for the Ryan proposal but then walk away from some of its more far-reaching changes.

“The whole idea of converting Medicare into a kind of voucher system is highly controversial with older voters,” Sabato said. “And it’s not a group you want to take lightly, especially if you’re a Republican.”

Observers were divided on whether Obama’s defense of Medicare hurt or helped Republicans.

Blendon argued the president offered a potentially more palatable proposal. “He gave them something that sounds like a big reduction in the deficit without those kinds of changes or cuts.”

But Ayers contended Obama punted on the big issues.

“The president’s complete unwillingness to address an obvious problem comes across as a blatant lack of leadership,” the GOP pollster said.

Those on both sides agree that Ryan’s proposal all but ensures entitlements will be an important issue during the 2012 presidential campaign.

“It’s going to be difficult for a Republican nominee not to have his or her own plan to address entitlements after the Ryan initiative,” Ayers said.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

Library of Congress Gets Hit Hardest With Cuts

Legislative Branch Spending Slashed Over 2010

By Daniel Newhauser
Roll Call Staff
April 13 2011

The fiscal 2011 spending agreement includes more than $103 million in cuts to Congress’ own budget, which may eventually necessitate some layoffs around Capitol Hill but not the drastic actions that would have been required by other House proposals.

The Republican House has led the charge for spending reductions around the campus and is leading by example with this budget, as more than half of the legislative branch cuts would come from that chamber. The House budget would be reduced by $55 million from 2010 levels in accordance with a January resolution to slice 5 percent from the chamber’s operating costs for the remainder of the fiscal year.

The Senate would abide a net $10 million budget decrease from fiscal 2010, which includes a 5 percent reduction from each office’s allocation.

Around the Capitol campus, nearly every agency’s budget would be reduced, with the exception of the Capitol Police and the Congressional Budget Office.

The police department would get a $12.5 million budget increase, raising their top-line total to $340.8 million to rectify a salary miscalculation that led to a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall last year.

“We’re very happy,” said Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, who chairs the Capitol Police Board. “It corrects a mistake and doesn’t necessitate any reductions any place.”

The CBO would get an additional
$1.7 million for salaries and expenses to avert layoffs and delays to budget proposals and analyses. Its budget would be $46.9 million.

“In making difficult funding decisions, efforts focused on not requiring the Library of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, the Government Printing Office, and the Congressional Budget Office to furlough employees half way through the fiscal year,” according to a Senate summary of the legislative branch provisions of the bill.

But the Library, which would be forced to absorb a $13.4 million cut from 2010 levels, would be hit the hardest and would likely have to reduce staff.

“The level of funding provided in the [continuing resolution] proposal would require a hiring freeze with no new hires, and core services and products will be delayed as staff levels are reduced,” the Senate summary states. A Library spokeswoman said the agency will soon determine where the cuts will be absorbed.

The Architect of the Capitol would be funded at $587 million, which would ensure Dome repairs would be finished before the 2013 presidential inauguration, according to the Senate release.

The AOC would, however, take a $14.6 million rescission of Capitol Visitor Center construction funds that were not needed and thus not spent, which spokeswoman Eva Malecki said will not affect operations.

The GPO would be cut by more than $12 million, but the bulk would come from the agency’s revolving fund, which spokesman Gary Somerset said will not affect operations. The agency would operate on a $135.3 million budget.

The GAO would avoid layoffs, and with a $547.3 million budget — $9.5 million less than 2010 — it would not have to hand out furloughs either, spokesman Charles Young said.


Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Deal poses problems for all sides


April 11 2011

The fiscal 2011 spending deal is done. Or is it?

House and Senate leaders still have to persuade rank-and-file lawmakers to clear the agreement, and some will almost certainly find it difficult to swallow.

The agreement reached late April 8 embodies a series of trade-offs that exacted deep domestic spending cuts opposed by Democrats and excluded many policy changes sought by Republicans.

The deal covers more than a trillion dollars in federal programs and a raft of policy issues, so everyone will find something to dislike.

House Republican Conference Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, applauded Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, for negotiating historic spending cuts, but said they amounted to “rounding errors,” in an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union.” On the other side, the top Budget Committee Democrat Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” expressed doubt the deal would pass.

Facing such challenges, it’s no surprise that both President Obama and Boehner sought to look beyond this week’s votes to even bigger budgetary battles ahead in urging lawmakers to vote for the spending deal. “This battle is just beginning,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., comparing the new dynamic to the fiscal and policy battles that dominated divided government in the mid-1990s.

This year’s plan was unresolved until an hour and a half before the government was scheduled to begin shutting down. Overall, the package includes $37.7 billion in cuts from previous spending levels, lawmakers and aides said.

Of that amount, $1.1 billion would come from an across-the-board cut spread across discretionary programs with the exception of Pentagon programs. The Defense Department is funded at $513 billion, about $2 billion less than Republicans had proposed. Democrats pushed for deeper cuts, but Republicans drew the line at that figure, an increase over last year’s levels.

Roughly $20 billion of the deal’s cuts come from domestic discretionary programs. Obama accepted about $1.5 billion in cuts to one of his signature efforts, a high-speed rail grant program, but Democrats staved off $1.2 billion in proposed cuts to federal employees’ bonuses and pay beyond a salary freeze that the White House announced previously.

Awaiting full details of the deal, Senate Appropriations Committee member Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., said expected cuts to education and health care programs “will have a significant negative consequence.”

White House Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer said April 9 the cuts included $13 billion from the Labor, Education and Health and Human Services departments, as well as $8 billion from foreign affairs programs. Pfeiffer noted small cuts such as $35 million from a crop insurance rebate program and $30 million from a job training program for student loan processors.

But negotiators safeguarded funding for current enrollment levels in Head Start and current levels to maintain maximum awards for needy college students through Pell grants, Pfeiffer said. The National Institutes of Health was spared a $500 million cut to biomedical research, but a planned doubling of funding for research and development at the National Science Foundation and other agencies was scaled back.

To limit the effect of cuts on such social safety-net programs, Democrats pressed for cuts to mandatory spending programs that typically are walled off from the annual appropriations process. A larger-than-expected $17.8 billion comes from such programs.

To increase the top-line spending cuts to a level Boehner could accept, Democratic negotiators in the final hours agreed to more cuts as long as they came from mandatory accounts. It was a cut of $2.5 billion in transportation project funding that got negotiators to the finish line, a Senate Democratic leadership aide said.

House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., wanted to limit mandatory spending cuts to about double the $8.7 billion included in the fiscal 2011 legislation (HR 1) the House passed Feb. 19.

The battle over the mix of spending cuts consumed Republican and Democratic negotiators. Democrats originally pushed for tightening tax breaks, particularly those benefiting the oil and gas industry, but Republicans rebuffed them. The final deal includes 53 percent discretionary and 47 percent mandatory spending cuts, a split that tracks with Democrats’ hopes.

The spending fight was upstaged by a struggle over 65 provisions Republicans wanted to alter, and in some cases end, federal programs. Democrats fought nearly all of the so-called riders and mostly prevailed — a result Boehner will have to help his rebellious freshmen accept.

The package includes no limits on the EPA’s regulatory powers, even though Republicans pressed to stop various restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions and mountaintop mining, among others.

Holding a series of votes on April 6 in which similar restrictions failed to muster even a simple majority in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., dealt a death blow to the requested EPA riders. The fight, though, is far from over with Republicans vowing to continue to try to curtail the agency’s regulations on businesses — an effort Democrats will continue to resist.

Republicans were forced to concede their efforts to block funding for Planned Parenthood and the implementation of the 2010 health care overhaul law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152). After intense wrangling, Boehner agreed to exclude those provisions from the final bill in exchange for separate Senate votes on each issue.

The test votes will require a 60-vote threshold, virtually guaranteeing that current funding for implementation of the health care overhaul law and Planned Parenthood will continue, a congressional aide said April 9.

Reid and Obama refused to compromise on Planned Parenthood, and the standoff was a central reason negotiators concluded their work literally in the eleventh hour. The final deal did yield to Republicans on a prohibition on either federal or local funding of abortions in the District of Columbia — reversing a change made in the last Congress that had removed the restriction on local funding.

The fight essentially was a draw, reverting to longstanding federal policy on matters related to the hot-button issue.

On health care, Democrats gave Republicans a fig leaf: funding for various studies on the potential problems in implementing the overhaul. Republicans want ammunition to fight the law, with a study of the effects of the law’s mandates, its impact on insurance premiums, a review of waivers to various organizations from its rules and an examination of research comparing the effectiveness of different types of treatments that is funded in both the law and the 2009 economic stimulus measure (PL 111-5).

House Republicans are just beginning to rev up attacks on last year’s rewrite of financial services (PL 111-203) passed largely with Democratic votes. Though Republicans sought to restrict the power of the law’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the spending deal directs the Government Accountability Office to study the bureau’s operations. As that law takes effect, look for Congress to try anew to resist financial oversight.

On education, the spending deal revives a private school voucher program for District of Columbia students, a signature Boehner goal. That concession by Obama — who had sought to phase out the voucher program — could sour relations between the White House and teachers’ unions already wary of Obama’s embrace of changes to teacher pay and his priority education program to boost college graduation levels know as Race to the Top. His program was largely protected in the deal.

Among other controversial issues addressed in the funding deal likely to meet vigorous resistance in Congress this week:

• A ban on funding to hire more IRS agents to crack down on tax cheats and up revenue. House Republicans succeeded in their attempt to block funding for the administration’s initiative.

• An end to spending for NPR and other public broadcasting services. Republicans lost their effort to block the funding.

• An elimination of funding for a pilot “voucher” program allowing some people to turn down employer-sponsored health insurance in favor of coverage through health insurance exchanges created by the health overhaul. Wyden lambasted the deal for zeroing out funding for the program.

• A curb on funding to put in place regulations dealing with the Federal Communications Commission’s “net neutrality” rules for broadband service providers. Democrats blocked the House Republicans’ proposed restrictions.

• A ban on funding for Education Department rules affecting private for-profit colleges. Republicans wanted to block it, but Democrats won out.

• A bar on funding for a U.N. population program and international family planning. Democrats successfully deflected the Republican drive to zero out the funding.

• A bar on funding to transfer prisoners being held in the Guantánamo Bay detention facility to U.S. facilities for trials in U.S. courts. Republicans got to retain the provision that Democrats deemed “moot” after the Obama administration announced recently it would try detainees in military tribunals at the Cuba facility.


Monday, April 11, 2011

Obama to Call for Broad Plan to Reduce Debt

By JACKIE CALMES, The New York Times

WASHINGTON April 10 2011 — President Obama will call this week for Republicans to join him in writing a broad plan to raise revenues and reduce the growth of popular entitlement programs, as the battle over the nation’s financial troubles moves past Friday’s short-term budget deal and into a wider and more consequential debate over the nation’s long-term fiscal health.

In a speech to be delivered at a university here on Wednesday, Mr. Obama will in effect come off the sidelines on the debate over reducing the nation’s debt, which is reaching dangerous heights as the population ages.

After months of criticism that he has not led on budget talks, Mr. Obama will urge bipartisan negotiations toward a multiyear debt-reduction plan that administration officials said would depart sharply from the one proposed last week by House Republicans.

The Republican plan includes a shrinking of Medicare and Medicaid and trillions of dollars in tax cuts, while sparing defense spending. Mr. Obama, by contrast, envisions a more comprehensive plan that would include tax increases for the richest taxpayers, cuts to military spending, savings in Medicare and Medicaid, and unspecified changes to Social Security.

In his remarks, which come after Friday’s bipartisan deal to cut domestic spending by about $38 billion for the remainder of this budget year, Mr. Obama will not offer details but will set deficit-cutting goals, White House officials said. The numbers were still under discussion on Sunday.

“He’ll lay out his approach this week in terms of the scale of debt reduction he thinks the country needs so we can grow economically and win the future — a balanced approach,” David Plouffe, the senior White House political strategist, said on “Fox News Sunday,” one of four talk shows on which he appeared Sunday.

“Obviously, we need to look at all corners of government,” Mr. Plouffe said, adding, “We’re going to have a big debate.”

Until now, Mr. Obama has avoided prescribing specific changes to entitlement programs like Medicare, beyond those contained in his health care overhaul. Indeed, few of the recommendations made by his own bipartisan fiscal commission were included in the budget he presented to Congress in February.

What is more, while Mr. Obama proposed a five-year freeze on the growth of domestic spending, he recommended increases in education, research, infrastructure and clean-energy programs — emphasizing that although deficit reduction is important, so are investments to create jobs and skilled workers.

The growing debate over federal spending and taxes is certain to ripple from the White House and Congress to the 2012 presidential campaign, helping to shape voters’ assessment of Mr. Obama’s record and challenging rivals for the Republican presidential nomination to respond, even as they court conservative voters who oppose any compromise with Mr. Obama.

Whether anything tangible comes of the debate, it will contrast the parties’ visions of the role of government.

Republicans reacted skeptically to word of Mr. Obama’s speech. “I sit here and I listen to David Plouffe talk about, you know, their commitment to cut spending and knowing full well that for the last two months we’ve had to bring this president kicking and screaming to the table to cut spending,” Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House majority leader, said on Fox.

The timing of Mr. Obama’s remarks reflects a White House strategy devised late last year after Republicans won their House majority, together with the confluence of four events, two last week and two ahead.

Friday night’s 11th-hour agreement on spending cuts, which averted a government shutdown, removed what had been a distraction for months over this year’s unfinished federal budget. Administration officials said they also hoped that the compromise helped build trust with the House speaker, John A. Boehner, that would carry over to the larger debates about long-term spending and the national debt.

Some lawmakers said Sunday that they opposed the compromise, but leaders in both parties remain confident it will pass in the House and Senate this week.

Also last week came a moment the administration had been awaiting for months: Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman, outlined House Republicans’ long-term budget plan.

Mr. Ryan said it would cut $6 trillion in the coming decade, though budget analysts questioned some of the claimed savings. The plan would turn Medicare into a voucher program for future generations and slash spending for the need-based Medicaid program and other domestic initiatives, while largely sparing the Pentagon and cutting $4 trillion more in corporate and high-income taxes.

The White House settled on a strategy in December by which Mr. Obama would wait for the House Republicans to lay down their cards before he proposed major reductions in popular entitlement benefit programs, according to interviews with administration officials at the time.

Mr. Obama’s budget waiting game, however, has helped to fuel widespread criticism by Republicans, pundits and some Democrats that he has failed to lead.

Another impetus to Wednesday’s move is the White House’s belief that a bipartisan “Gang of Six” senators will announce this week that they have reached agreement on a debt-reduction package similar to that of the president’s fiscal commission.

After months of private discussions, the tentative agreement among the three Republican and three Democratic senators would cut military and domestic programs and overhaul the tax code, eliminating popular tax breaks but using the new revenues to lower income-tax rates and reduce annual deficits. It would be the model, if not in all details, for Mr. Obama’s own goals, Democratic officials say.

Perhaps the biggest prod for Mr. Obama to act, however, is the need for Congress to vote to raise the legal limit on the federal debt, now $14.25 trillion. The government will hit that limit on its borrowing authority in as few as five weeks, the Treasury Department has said. Without an increase by early July, the government cannot continue to make payments on its existing debt, potentially forcing it into an economy-shaking default.

Speaking on Saturday in Connecticut, Mr. Boehner said Republicans would not agree to raise the cap “without something really, really big attached to it.”

Unlike the recent spending-cut negotiations, in which Mr. Obama was not active until the final days, “he knows he has to take a greater role from the beginning” on the debt-limit measure and any companion plan for reducing debt, said an adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Several presidential advisers interviewed in recent weeks said Mr. Obama has been torn between wanting to propose major budget changes to entice Republicans to the bargaining table, including on Social Security, and believing they would never agree to raise revenues on upper-income Americans as part of a deal.

Three House Republican leaders, including Mr. Ryan, were on the fiscal commission; unlike the three Senate Republicans, they opposed the recommendations because they raised revenues and did not cut enough from health care.

The risk to Mr. Obama includes further alienating liberals in his own party. Progressive groups have formed coalitions to oppose any changes to Social Security, for instance.


Ryan’s Budget: Hard to Imagine Something Equally as Extreme

By JOSEPH WHITE, The Fiscal Times April 7, 2011

Rep. Paul Ryan's, R-Wisc., draft budget resolution is very important, but not because there is any chance it could be adopted. It is so extreme that Senate Democrats appear strongly opposed to it, and there will surely be very little public pressure to eviscerate Medicare and Medicaid, cut taxes even more for higher-income Americans, fast-track cuts to Social Security, and otherwise follow Ryan's new "roadmap" to 19th century robber-baron capitalism.

Instead, the Ryan plan is important for what it reveals about the attitudes influencing the budget debate, and how it structures the pressures on legislators going forward.

First, it appears that Ryan, and the vast majority of Congressional Republicans, seriously believe in his budget plan. People should understand how stunning that is. In the 1980s the conservative dream was a constitutional amendment that would limit government spending to no more than 21 percent of GDP, but today that is considered "big government" to Ryan and his colleagues. Additionally, in the 1980s President Reagan would contemplate tax hikes to deal with deficits, but now Republicans believe deficit reduction should be accompanied by tax cuts, even when the deficits are twice as large as a share of the economy. And finally, in the 1980s, the Reagan administration and Republican Senate leaders worked for a balanced plan to improve Social Security's finances and build up the trust fund, but now Republicans reject any revenues and claim the trust fund is fake.

In short, current Republicans make Ronald Reagan look like Lyndon Johnson -- or, at least, Nelson Rockefeller. This is not a matter of the 'Tea Party." Ryan was the GOP's bright new budget star before the Tea Party hype began. For some reason, this does not yet appear to be fully understood within the press. But imagine the comparable "Democratic" budget plan.

Actually, it's hard to think of something equally extreme. But I guess it would involve massive taxes on upper incomes and especially on financial manipulation. Instead of eliminating government guarantees for medical care it would replace the U.S. health care system with Medicare-for-all and a budget cap mechanism. It would provide a guaranteed annual income (as we might as well give away some extra money to the poor, in response to Ryan's giveaways to high income, in the name of "deficit reduction"). It would cut the defense budget in half with a mindless automatic formula, regardless of need (as opposed to slashing domestic discretionary the same way).

I seen no sign of something like this being proposed by Democratic leaders, and that shows the lopsided nature of the debate. Yet think of the reaction to Ryan. Sure his plan has been criticized. But it also has been widely praised for its "courage" and "honesty" in addressing the deficit problem. Personally, I don't find making up economic projections, making up assumptions about the effects of vouchers, and making up assumptions about the effects of block grants "honest.” The key point is that even the most radical conservative proposal can be treated as a serious alternative among Washington's budget mavens. Yet if the Democrats proposed a "left" equivalent I doubt that the Washington Post would praise them for the "courage" to take on the medical establishment, the military industrial complex and Wall Street. Somehow it is "serious" to want to cut "entitlements," but not as serious to want to have taxes to reverse the huge increases in inequality over the past four decades, or use government's power to control health care costs, or rethink America's role in the world.

There is another aspect of the current debate that makes me yearn for the 1980s. Back then, centrists talked about the need for a "three-legged stool" of deficit reduction, including defense, domestic spending and taxes. This was particularly common from moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats. In their recent statement of "principles" for deficit reduction, however, the Blue Dog Coalition only referred to "tax reform." This reflects a similar skittishness among many Democrats. Senate Democrats, after all, were not even willing to go to stand up last fall and let the Bush tax cuts for higher incomes expire. Nor has President Obama exercised any leadership to set the stage for higher revenues.

What this means, then, is the Democrats do not think they can hold their ranks to propose even a much more moderate, but clearly "Democratic" plan, for substantial deficit reductions. The public opinion evidence does not appear to support any claim that Ryan's approach actually is more popular than a Democratic alternative with some higher taxes on Americans below the $250,000 line. But Republican politicians, being true believers, are far more willing to take risks. The imbalance is true even at the level of mass opinion, with polls showing that the Democrats are more willing than Republicans to compromise.

Enter Bowles-Simpson. As Henry Aaron and I both explained at the time it was released, the plan drafted by the chairs of the President's fiscal responsibility commission is extremely flawed. A short list (with not all of which Henry might agree) would include that Bowles-Simpson "merely" echoes conservative dreams about spending limits from the 1980s, rather than exceeding them. It involves unrealistic caps on spending categories. It only pretends to have health care savings policies. It emphasizes cutting middle class tax preferences rather than raising rates on the people who have, as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson emphasize in their recent book, benefited from three decades of "winner take all politics." Yet some in the media, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, and other voices have taken the opportunity to argue that Ryan shows how moderate Bowles-Simpson is.

In this context, Senate moderate Democrats who really care about deficits seem even more likely to decide that the Bowles-Simpson plan is the "moderate," "responsible" thing to do. Never mind the facts or the consequences. What matters in politics is images and positioning. One of the things about “centrists” is they keep trying to figure out where the center is. They look at other politicians and press clippings to figure that out. As the Republicans have moved steadily right, so has the center – and the Ryan budget looks like it could be another stage in that dynamic. The Ryan budget is pushing the political system towards what would have been a conservative triumph in 1985 -- and the only hope for those like myself who feel it is terrible policy, I suspect, may be that the Republicans will be too extreme to realize it.

Joseph White is Director of the Center for Policy Studies at Case Western Reserve University.

To visit the Capital Exchange homepage click following link:

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

House aims for change in entitlements

By CQ Staff April 4, 2011.

House Republicans are set to release their fiscal 2012 budget resolution this week, and the plan is expected to call for major changes, including new caps on mandatory and discretionary spending.

The budget document also will lay out the Republican fiscal agenda for the year, calling for deep rollbacks for many discretionary programs, including some reductions for the Pentagon, and other cost-saving changes to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

With Senate Democrats and House Republicans still far apart on fiscal priorities, the House blueprint has little hope of winning favor in the Senate. But it is expected to provide a clear picture of a new conservative House majority intent on reordering the nation’s fiscal affairs and continuing a campaign to slice large chunks out of the government’s bankroll.

At the same time, a budget measure including tight spending controls could provide political cover to House conservatives already wary of compromising on funding cuts in the ongoing fight over fiscal 2011 appropriations.

Although details are still scarce, congressional sources said the new spending caps expected to be called for in the House resolution would be similar to legislation backed by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. Their bill (S 245) would reduce spending on discretionary and mandatory programs to 20.6 percent of the economy over 10 years, down from the current level of 24.7 percent.

If Congress did not meet that goal, the Senate bill would call for automatic cuts to government programs until the cap levels are met. Congress could override the new limits with a two-thirds vote.

Although the budget resolution would account for the new spending caps, lawmakers would have to clear separate legislation to make the new limits law.

Conservative analysts have argued for years that such a fiscal restraint is needed to rein in Congress’ propensity to spend more than Washington collects in revenues.

“Runaway spending is what’s driving the deficit,” said Brian Riedl, a budget analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “And it’s very tough to enact the spending reforms needed unless there’s a framework in place capping spending.”

Calling for a statutory cap on federal spending may reflect House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan’s recognition that any changes to entitlement programs will require bipartisan support.

So far, McCaskill is the only Democratic sponsor of her bill with Corker. But similar proposed caps have drawn strong bipartisan support in the Senate in the past, though not enough to pass. Other cosponsors of the plan include Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who is working to draft a comprehensive bipartisan deficit reduction plan with a handful of other budget-conscious senators.

The budget resolution will kick off the next round of rhetorical battles over the more than $1 trillion deficit and growing $14 trillion national debt.

Although Ryan, R-Wis., has kept a tight lid on details, lawmakers and others who have been told about the budget resolution say it will aim to scale back some domestic programs to fiscal 2006 spending levels, include some cuts to Defense spending and call for cost savings in mandatory spending programs including Medicaid and Medicare.

The budget resolution is expected to reflect plans to replace the current formula-based Medicaid program, which provides health care to the poor, with a block grant system in which the states receive a set amount of funding from Washington and have greater latitude to design their own programs and determine who is eligible for Medicaid.

Combined with the assumed repeal of the health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152) enacted last year, using block grants for the program could save more than $700 billion over a decade, based on an analysis of projections from the Congressional Budget Office.

The budget is also expected to address Medicare, the health care program for seniors and the disabled, with a call for a “modified” version of a proposal by Ryan and Alice Rivlin, who was budget director under President Bill Clinton.

The Rivlin-Ryan plan, which was drawn up when the two served on the president’s fiscal commission last year, would replace the current Medicare fee-for-service system with vouchers that recipients would use to buy private health insurance.

Although the budget is not expected to contemplate major changes to Social Security, the resolution will suggest some procedural tweaks that could open the way for further modification of Social Security in the future.

“I think the most important test for this is, how serious is it on entitlement reform, and what kind of response does it get from Democrats who presumably won’t love all the details that are presented,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the nonpartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, said the Ryan budget could be the start of a conversation about how to address the real drivers of the rising debt.

“We have programs that are relatively generous to retirees, and we’re not willing to, at this point, pay the taxes that are necessary to support them,” he said. “And I think it’s useful that Chairman Ryan is showing us how we can do it without raising revenues.”

Many House Republicans are awaiting the budget with enthusiasm. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a member of the Budget Committee, lauded the plan for being “a major contrast to where the president is.”

Some conservatives, however, may be disappointed that it does not call for a balanced budget in 10 years, a goal of many freshmen. During listening sessions with House members, Ryan was reported to have said that ending the deficit in a decade would require disruptive benefit cuts to current recipients of entitlement programs such as Medicare. The GOP plan seeks to phase in changes, exempting those who are 55 and older.

The plan has already drawn fire from Democrats. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, ranking member on the House Budget Committee, attacked the idea of turning Medicaid into a block grant program, which he described as “simply code for slashing health care support for seniors, people with disabilities and others.”

-- Paul M. Krawzak, CQ Staff


An effort to keep EPA authority

By Geoff Koss April 4, 2011.

California Democrat Barbara Boxer tugged hard at the heartstrings last week, when she took to the Senate floor to defend the EPA’s efforts to reduce emissions of the pollutants that are warming the earth.

Pointing to oversized posters of young children wearing breathing masks and using asthma inhalers, she argued that legislative efforts to strip the agency of its authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions pose a threat to public health.

“This is what is happening in this country because of the polluters who will not clean up their mess,” Boxer said, gesturing to one of the placards. “Here is another beautiful child. We all love children. How many speeches have we had on this floor — we love children, children are our future, we will fight for our children. Do we want their future to look like this, breathing through a device?”

Although breathing carbon dioxide is not directly responsible for respiratory difficulties except in small enclosed spaces, Boxer’s emphasis on public health highlights a theme that environmentalists, their Democratic supporters in Congress and the Obama administration have adopted as they regroup after their failure to enact a climate change bill in the last Congress.

The new Democratic strategy will be put to an early test when the Senate votes, probably this week, on up to four amendments designed to roll back the EPA’s regulatory authority.

In 2009, Democrats test-drove several themes — including the threats of global warming to national security and the promise of “green” jobs — without really settling on anything during their failed campaign to sell legislation that would cap emissions.

At that time, Republicans waged a relentless messaging war to defeat the climate change bill. “Cap and trade” proposals were dubbed “cap and tax” and called a “light-switch tax.” A release of embarrassing e-mails lifted from climate scientists was labeled “Climategate.” Global warming talks collapsed in the Senate, and triumphant Republicans turned their attention to a new target: the EPA.

But as Democrats move to a defensive posture, they may have finally found their voice. The basis for EPA legal authority to regulate emissions is a finding that global warming endangers public health and welfare and thus falls under the authority of the Clean Air Act. Armed with that position and bolstered by a Supreme Court decision, Democrats and environmentalists are presenting the GOP effort to rein in the EPA as an assault on the 40-year-old Clean Air Act and a direct threat to public health, a theme that has served them well in past fights over clean air and clean water.

“Defense is almost always easier to play than offense because we’re defending the status quo now, which is EPA setting pollution reduction standards to protect public health,” says Daniel Weiss, a climate expert at the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund. “Last year, we were trying to change the status quo. That’s always harder.”

Weiss says the message reinforces the stereotype that Republicans put business interests ahead of the general public’s. “It makes them seem like they’re calloused to concerns about public health in order to make profits for companies that then turn around and give them lots of money.”

GOP strategist Frank Luntz — who famously advised Republicans in 2003 to avoid the phrase “global warming” in favor of the more benign “climate change” — warned in the same memo that health is a bigger priority for the public than concern about burdensome regulation.

“The public does not approve of the current regulatory process, and Americans certainly don’t want an increased regulatory burden,” he wrote. “But they will put a higher priority on environmental protection and public health than on cutting regulations.”

When congressional Democrats struggled to sell the public on an urgent need to regulate a ubiquitous gas like carbon dioxide, they downplayed the environmental and health justifications in favor of arguments that capping emissions would foster the explosive growth of low-carbon energy industries and create millions of green jobs. Framing the debate in economic terms, however, played into the hands of Republicans, who drowned out the “green jobs” message by stoking fears of higher energy costs and an exodus of blue-collar jobs.

Recent polling illustrates why Democrats have decided to play up fears about air pollution and public health and to play down global warming.

A Gallup Poll released last week asked respondents to rank their concerns about nine environmental issues. Only 51 percent said they worry a great deal or a fair amount about global warming — last on the list of issues. By contrast, 72 percent expressed worry about air pollution.

The League of Conservation Voters and the American Lung Association assert that recent research they commissioned shows broad public support for EPA regulation of carbon dioxide pollution, although conspicuously absent from the polling data is any mention of “global warming” or “climate change.”

The American Lung Association last month took that message straight to the Michigan district of House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton, the lead sponsor of a GOP bill that would block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases entirely. On a large billboard featuring a girl wearing a breathing mask, the girl implored him to “protect our kids’ health. Don’t weaken the Clean Air Act.”

Upton felt compelled to respond with an opinion column in a local newspaper defending his bill. “It does not limit EPA’s ability to monitor and reduce pollutants like lead and ozone that damage public health,” Upton wrote. “This legislation restores the Clean Air Act to its original purpose — protecting families from harmful smog, particulate matter and chemical pollution.”

The argument that Congress never intended the Clean Air Act to regulate unconventional pollutants such as carbon dioxide is at the heart of the EPA fight. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that greenhouse gases fell within the purview of the law. That prompted a scientific review that culminated with the release of an “endangerment” determination in 2009.

Compiled by agency scientists, the finding lists a host of human health risks associated with a warmer climate caused by carbon dioxide, including an increased likelihood of deaths from heat waves and other extreme-weather-related events, as well as evidence that warming will increase the prevalence of disease. Significantly, the finding also cited an increased risk of ambient ozone — smog — which can cause a number of adverse respiratory and cardiovascular effects, especially in children.

That’s the basis for arguments like the emotional appeal that Boxer made on the Senate floor. Likewise, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, in her frequent appearances this year before Republican-led House committees, has doggedly stuck to the public-health line in justifying her agency’s regulatory efforts.

Republican energy consultant Mike McKenna says the health argument could yield diminishing returns for Democrats if widespread public sentiment shifts against the notion that carbon dioxide, a gas that humans breathe every day, “is really a killer pollutant.”

McKenna acknowledges that the health argument is “always the environmental community’s strongest one, no matter what the issue.” But he also says Republicans have learned how to counterpunch. “That’s a pretty standard line of attack, and every Republican operative has seen it a hundred times and knows what to do about it,” he says.

He suggested that the argument may be problematic for Democrats from conservative or coal-dependent states, who face criticism from the right if they support President Obama’s environmental policies but risk alienating their Democratic base — and inviting primary challenges — if they distance themselves from the administration.

One such Democrat — Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania — says such concerns are overblown. Although some constituents in his coal-producing state do gripe about EPA overreach, he says, such complaints are far outpaced by broader economic concerns.

“Sometimes the lines that are connected here in Washington aren’t necessarily reflective of the way people at home analyze an issue like that,” he says. “And sometimes our discussions here can be remote from the real world.”

In the latest round of the battle set for this week, one proposal offered by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky would rescind outright the EPA’s legal authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Three milder alternatives offered by moderate Democrats would either delay or limit EPA regulation. None is expected to get the necessary 60 votes.

But McKenna, the GOP consultant, predicts that the outcome of the amendment votes will nullify any potential backlash against Republicans.

“At the end of the day, if you have 70 to 75 senators who are willing to go on record as saying, ‘I’m not really wild about what the agency is doing,’ that’s a pretty solid judgment from a pretty wide cross section of people that, you know what, there is zero risk in coming out against EPA on this thing,” he says.