An important debate flared this week -- one in which sides were chosen, positions staked out, and invective hurled. I will let that sentence stand in order to illustrate my position on this important issue of the day: Keep the "Oxford" comma!
Ahem. So there.
What else has been going on this week? Well, two faces disappeared from the nation's television screens this week -- Glenn Beck and Mark Halperin. Can't say that I'll miss either one of them, personally. I'm not sure why the world of political commentary richly rewards people who are proven wrong over and over again, but it seems to be a fact of life. Which makes it all the sweeter when they flame out, I guess.
Snarkiness aside, everyone should be celebrating the 45th "birth"day of Medicare today! The best way to do so, of course, is to listen to Ronald Reagan launch his political career by warning Americans about the evils of socialized medicine. You just can't make this stuff up, folks. Here's the whole story, or you can listen to the full ten minutes of the album Reagan cut (for the American Medical Association, in what was ominously dubbed "Operation Coffeecup"), which has the charming Cold-War-era title: Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine. Needless to say, 45 years later, the dark and dismal world Reagan prophesied has not come to pass. Although we did have to live through eight years of the man being president, which was bad enough.
Up north, Minnesota's state government just shut down, meaning there will be a lot of unhappy campers who are even now being cleared out of state parks. Yes, park rangers will kick off the big holiday weekend by chaining the gates shut. This situation is worth keeping your eyes on, because the Democratic governor is in a face-off with a Republican legislature over raising taxes on millionaires, so how it all plays out could have national implications very soon now.
Since the year is now exactly half over, I took the opportunity yesterday to tally up how much vacation time Congress has taken this year, so far. The answer is pretty shocking -- the House has taken 46 out of a possible 125 non-holiday weekdays off, and the Senate (not to be outdone) has gone on vacation for 49 days out of those 125. To put this another way, out of 26 weeks Congress could have worked, the House took over nine weeks off on vacation, and the Senate took almost ten weeks to play rather than work. Something for everyone to ponder as we all enjoy our measly three-day vacation this weekend!
The president gave an impressive press conference this week (the first one he's given in months), but we'll have more on that later in the program. Senators Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin have been doing a fantastic job of strongly expressing Democratic positions this week as well, so perhaps all three deserve at least an Honorable Mention.
But this week's Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week will be awarded for something which actually happened the previous week. California Controller John Chiang refused to certify the sham "budget" that California legislative Democrats had passed in order to meet a deadline important to them. The Controller ruled they had not, in fact, made this deadline, since their budget wasn't balanced, as required by California law.
So John Chiang stopped their paychecks.
Since he's the guy that signs the checks, this was within his power. This power was given to him by a citizens' referendum which decreed that if the budget wasn't finished on time, then state legislators would not be paid from that point forward. I wrote about this in more detail Wednesday, so check out the whole story if you haven't heard it yet.
I should point out that this wasn't a partisan fight -- it was Democrats versus Democrats. Nonetheless, Chiang did the right thing, and the public backed him to the hilt. For standing up to his own party, and for following both the spirit and the letter of the new law, John Chiang is our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week. Even if it really should have been last week (sorry about that...)
[You can congratulate Controller John Chiang on the official California Controller page; but there doesn't seem to be an email contact page, just a phone number and an address.]
For what will undoubtedly be the final time, one man stood hair-and-shoulders above (actually, "below" would be more accurate) the rest, in terms of sheer disappointment.
Ex-governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich was convicted this week of 17 crimes, which adds to the single count he was found guilty of in his previous trial. That's right, Blaggy (as I've always called him, in a futile effort for it to go viral) is now officially an 18-time loser. All for trying to profit off Barack Obama's old Senate seat. Astonishingly, when he enters government-provided housing in the Iron Bar Hotel, he will not be the only ex-governor of the state in the clink. That's disappointing on a whole other level, when you think about it.
But for getting to watch Blaggy's stunned face in the media this week as he was convicted of 17 serious crimes, Rod Blagojevich -- for the last time, we promise! -- is this week's unquestioned Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week.
[Since he is no longer in public office, we have no official contact information for Rod Blagojevich -- but if you check back in a few months, the prison system may have an address for him.]
Volume 171 (7/1/11)
Before we begin, I'd just like to point out that an official, professional Democratic talking points list just got leaked to the media, so if you'd like to see how the pros do it, I invite you to read the document for a fascinating look into the "real" talking points in the party.
The first four of our talking points today come from President Obama's press conference, which didn't get nearly the attention it should have in the media. Obama was feistier than normal, and laid down some markers in the ongoing debate on raising the debt ceiling. More importantly, perhaps, he framed the issues in ways that Democrats should be copying in the upcoming weeks. These first four talking points are long, so the last three are going to be on the short side this week.
The best excerpt from Obama's presser was the bit about Sasha and Malia being able to do their homework on time, where Obama directly challenges Congress on its vacation schedule, but since that one doesn't really work unless you're the president (and since I had already excerpted it yesterday in my rant on the congressional vacation subject), I'm going to leave it out today. I encourage everyone to read the full transcript of the press conference, though, as it was a fairly strong performance by the president.
Corporate jet owners
In his opening remarks, President Obama served up the Democratic targets in the tax battles: millionaires, billionaires, oil companies, and corporate jet owners. But I have to say, the jet owners are the juiciest target in the mix. Obama does a good job of presenting the choice faced by budget-cutters: pay for these tax breaks by cutting things like food safety. This is the right way to frame this issue for the public.
There's been a lot of discussion about revenues and raising taxes in recent weeks, so I want to be clear about what we're proposing here. I spent the last two years cutting taxes for ordinary Americans, and I want to extend those middle-class tax cuts. The tax cuts I'm proposing we get rid of are tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires; tax breaks for oil companies and hedge fund managers and corporate jet owners.
It would be nice if we could keep every tax break there is, but we've got to make some tough choices here if we want to reduce our deficit. And if we choose to keep those tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, if we choose to keep a tax break for corporate jet owners, if we choose to keep tax breaks for oil and gas companies that are making hundreds of billions of dollars, then that means we've got to cut some kids off from getting a college scholarship. That means we've got to stop funding certain grants for medical research. That means that food safety may be compromised. That means that Medicare has to bear a greater part of the burden. Those are the choices we have to make.
So the bottom line is this: Any agreement to reduce our deficit is going to require tough decisions and balanced solutions. And before we ask our seniors to pay more for health care, before we cut our children's education, before we sacrifice our commitment to the research and innovation that will help create more jobs in the economy, I think it's only fair to ask an oil company or a corporate jet owner that has done so well to give up a tax break that no other business enjoys. I don't think that's real radical. I think the majority of Americans agree with that.
A balanced approach
The other phrase Obama leaned on repeatedly in the press conference was "a balanced approach," which is brilliant because it is something most Americans can understand and agree with. One side doesn't get everything -- compromise means not being "maximalist," and that means balance.
Now, I just want to be clear about what's at stake here. The Republicans say they want to reduce the deficit. Every single observer who's not an elected official, who's not a politician, says we can't reduce our deficit in the scale and scope that we need to without having a balanced approach that looks at everything.
Democrats have to accept some painful spending cuts that hurt some of our constituencies and we may not like. And we've shown a willingness to do that for the greater good. To say, look, there are some things that are good programs that are nice to have; we can't afford them right now.
I, as Commander-in-Chief, have to have difficult conversations with the Pentagon saying, you know what, there's fat here; we're going to have to trim it out. And Bob Gates has already done a good job identifying $400 billion in cuts, but we're going to do more. And I promise you the preference of the Pentagon would not to cut any more, because they feel like they've already given.
So we're going to have to look at entitlements -- and that's always difficult politically. But I've been willing to say we need to see where we can reduce the cost of health care spending and Medicare and Medicaid in the out-years, not by shifting costs on to seniors, as some have proposed, but rather by actually reducing those costs. But even if we're doing it in a smart way, that's still tough politics. But it's the right thing to do.
So the question is, if everybody else is willing to take on their sacred cows and do tough things in order to achieve the goal of real deficit reduction, then I think it would be hard for the Republicans to stand there and say that the tax break for corporate jets is sufficiently important that we're not willing to come to the table and get a deal done. Or, we're so concerned about protecting oil and gas subsidies for oil companies that are making money hand over fist -- that's the reason we're not going to come to a deal.
I don't think that's a sustainable position. And the truth of the matter is, if you talk to Republicans who are not currently in office, like Alan Simpson who co-chaired my bipartisan commission, he doesn't think that's a sustainable position. Pete Domenici, Republican, co-chaired something with Alice Rivlin, the Democrat, says that's -- he doesn't think that's a sustainable position. You can't reduce the deficit to the levels that it needs to be reduced without having some revenue in the mix.
Obama followed this up by restating the stark choices being faced, and putting a human face on things. This perspective is sorely needed from Democrats if they want to sway public opinion over to their side.
And the revenue we're talking about isn't coming out of the pockets of middle-class families that are struggling. It's coming out of folks who are doing extraordinarily well and are enjoying the lowest tax rates since before I was born.
If you are a wealthy CEO or a health -- hedge fund manager in America right now, your taxes are lower than they have ever been. They're lower than they've been since the 1950s. And you can afford it. You'll still be able to ride on your corporate jet; you're just going to have to pay a little more.
And if we -- I just want to emphasize what I said earlier. If we do not have revenues, that means there are a bunch of kids out there who are not getting college scholarships. If we do not have those revenues, then the kinds of cuts that would be required might compromise the National Weather Service. It means that we would not be funding critical medical research. It means that food inspection might be compromised. And I've said to some of the Republican leaders, you go talk to your constituents, the Republican constituents, and ask them are they willing to compromise their kids' safety so that some corporate jet owner continues to get a tax break. And I'm pretty sure what the answer would be.
So we're going to keep on having these conversations. And my belief is, is that the Republican leadership in Congress will, hopefully sooner rather than later, come to the conclusion that they need to make the right decisions for the country; that everybody else has been willing to move off their maximalist position -- they need to do the same.
Finally, the president outlined the consequences which would happen if the United States does default on its debt. Higher interest rates for all would just be one bad consequence, and Democrats need to forcefully point this stuff out, since Republicans appear to be pushing the line: "Hey, it wouldn't be that bad!" Um, yes. Yes, it would be that bad. In fact, it'd probably be worse. Obama even frames it as "American exceptionalism" at the end of his answer.
By August 2nd, we run out of tools to make sure that all our bills are paid. So that is a hard deadline. And I want everybody to understand that this is a jobs issue. This is not an abstraction. If the United States government, for the first time, cannot pay its bills, if it defaults, then the consequences for the U.S. economy will be significant and unpredictable. And that is not a good thing.
We don't know how capital markets will react. But if capital markets suddenly decide, you know what, the U.S. government doesn't pay its bills, so we're going to start pulling our money out, and the U.S. Treasury has to start to raise interest rates in order to attract more money to pay off our bills, that means higher interest rates for businesses; that means higher interest rates for consumers. So all the headwinds that we're already experiencing in terms of the recovery will get worse.
That's not my opinion. I think that's a consensus opinion. And that means that job growth will be further stymied, it will be further hampered, as a consequence of that decision. So that's point number one.
Point number two, I want to address what I've been hearing from some quarters, which is, well, maybe this debt limit thing is not really that serious; we can just pay interest on the debt. This idea has been floating around in some Republican circles.
This is the equivalent of me saying, you know what, I will choose to pay my mortgage, but I'm not going to pay my car note. Or I'm going to pay my car note but I'm not going to pay my student loan. Now, a lot of people in really tough situations are having to make those tough decisions. But for the U.S. government to start picking and choosing like that is not going to inspire a lot of confidence.
Moreover, which bills are we going to decide to pay? These guys have said, well, maybe we just pay the interest on -- for bondholders. So are we really going to start paying interest to Chinese who hold treasuries and we're not going to pay folks their Social Security checks? Or we're not going to pay to veterans for their disability checks? I mean, which bills, which obligations, are we going to say we don't have to pay?
And last point I want to make about this. These are bills that Congress ran up. The money has been spent. The obligations have been made. So this isn't a situation -- I think the American people have to understand this -- this is not a situation where Congress is going to say, okay, we won't -- we won't buy this car or we won't take this vacation. They took the vacation. They bought the car. And now they're saying maybe we don't have to pay, or we don't have to pay as fast as we said we were going to, or -- that's not how responsible families act. And we're the greatest nation on Earth, and we can't act that way.
Republicans' only goal
Dick Durbin weighed in on the Republicans blocking all sorts of things that they used to be for -- which increasingly seems obvious to have only one goal. Chuck Schumer's also been beating this drum, but we're going to use a quote from Durbin for our talking point:
Unfortunately our Republican colleagues in the House and Senate are driven by putting one man out of work -- President Obama... You can see in the way that the Republicans are acting on the floor of the Senate and the House, that is their goal -- their only goal... They want to play political games at the expense of getting this economy back on its feet. They believe a weak economy is their best chance of winning the next election.
Hatch's number one priority -- vacation time!
This one is just odious, and points out exactly what Durbin and Schumer have been pointing out all week.
"I want to quote from an article in Roll Call this week, to show what the Republican Senators' priorities truly are: 'Politics in the Senate took a turn for the absurd Thursday, as the GOP boycotted the Senate Finance Committee's "mock markup" of trade legislation because they said it would make it difficult for them to start their July Fourth recess.' Republicans were not satisfied that they were getting Friday off, and they were annoyed that Majority Leader Harry Reid cancelled their week-long vacation next week. So they decided to go home early on Thursday, and refused to show up to work at 3:00 in the afternoon -- even though Orrin Hatch decided to hold a press conference at exactly the same time. Here's what Orrin Hatch was saying about this same issue one month ago: 'Further delay imperils the recent gains made toward consideration of the pending trade agreements. If we do not have an opportunity to vote on these agreements this summer, I am afraid we never will.' Now, obviously, we see that the issue is less important than an extra half-day of vacation to Senator Hatch and his fellow Republicans."
The Fourteenth Amendment
Some -- including perhaps Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner -- are proposing to simply declare the debt ceiling itself unconstitutional. After all, Congress already signed up to spend the money, and later saying we're not going to honor the promises may not be legally allowable. It's a novel theory, but one which should be threatened by Democrats every chance they get. After all, those Tea Partiers love the Constitution, right?
"I'd like to quote the Treasury Secretary here, and review the text of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, if I may: 'The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for the payments of pension and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion' -- this is the important thing -- 'shall not be questioned.' I think Geithner's right to point this out, personally."
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