As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The (Blue Dog) Owls Are Not What They Seem

You have to be something of a Kremlinologist to decipher the true meaning of Senate Democratic statements these days. In all of these matters it helps to focus on actions. For example, Kent Conrad (D-ND). As the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, he has been the most vocal about the widening deficit, the new CBO scoring showing that deficit widening even further, and how President Obama's plans are simply too ambitious for words. Sounds like the old fiscal responsibility thing, right? Well, the actual budget summary from Conrad is entitled "Laying Foundation for Long-Term Economic Security With Investments in Energy, Education, and Health Care," and the proposals do track the President's major long-term goals. And the supposed "cost-savings" in his budget plan are mainly derived from a bunch of gimmicks.

...someone who was genuinely alarmed by the fact that the CBO scored Obama’s plans as leading to large deficits in the final years of his ten year budget would not have “solved” this problem by abandoning Obama’s ten-year budget window switching to a five-year window. Similarly, re-inserting the “let’s pretend will use the AMT to raise taxes on the upper-middle class and then not actually do that” approach to budgeting, though now a time-honored trick of the Bush years, is not an actual deficit reduction measure.

Long story short, Senator Conrad cares about the deficit and is taking some action to make it smaller. But he also cares a great deal about being seen as a deficit hawk, the kind of guy who’s not afraid to take an axe to the president’s proposals. And in this instance the administration rather smartly eschewed a lot of this kind of pain free “virtual” deficit reduction, thus making it possible for interested Senators to deploy favored accounting patches on their own initiative and take credit for more reduction than they actually produced.

The White House seems to have no problem with the changes made, because the changes for the most part are made of air. And in some sense, Conrad actually enhanced the prospect of health care reform, by offering revenue-neutral space for a reform fund and allowing that particular budget item to be scored on a 10-year timeline, so that the savings in the later years can allow for an up-front deficit. And while Conrad deleted reconciliation for health care and energy proposals, because they exist (at least for health care) in the House version, they can be imported at a later date, meaning the threat can still be held over the heads of Republicans.

So Conrad appears to me to be someone who wants to appear like a centrist while facilitating the needs of a progressive budget, in direct contrast to Evan Bayh, Tom Carper and Blanche Lincoln, who want to appear like supporters of the President while obstructing and hacking up his agenda:

We formed our working group because we recognize both the difficulty and the urgency of accomplishing a huge and ambitious agenda. We must act quickly and decisively to repair our financial markets and start to turn the economy around. In addition, we believe that President Obama is correct when he says that we cannot afford to wait any longer to fix health care and transition to a clean-energy economy.

These are titanic and complicated tasks, and we believe that many worthwhile policy solutions can be found in the practical center -- ideas that also have the benefit of appealing to vast segments of the American electorate. Unfortunately, the Republican leadership has basically decided to stay on the sidelines to let the Democrats carry the load of reform alone.

As moderate leaders, it is not our intent to water down the president's agenda. We intend to strengthen and sustain it. Moderation is not a mathematical process of finding the center for its own sake. Practical solutions are practical because they offer our best chance to make a difference in people's lives today without forcing our children to pick up the tab tomorrow.

The stakes are too high for Democrats to fear a policy debate. Such debates produce better legislation. On nearly all important votes, a supermajority of 60 senators will be needed to pass legislation. Without Democratic moderates working to find common ground with reasonable Republicans, the president's agenda could well be filibustered into oblivion.

It's really not possible to take these people seriously. The whole "practical solutions are great because they are practical" part really gives you the sense of who you're dealing with here. They live in a magical pony and fairy land where they, only they, can bring the nation together, despite all evidence to the contrary, by just clicking their heels and magically finding those "reasonable" Republican votes for anything but the most watered-down policy. They are also very worried that if Obama passes the agenda on which he ran, moderates who voted for him will be very upset and will throw Democrats out of office in 2010. That's really their response. And none of them, just like their partner in crime Susan Collins can actually name anything they'd cut, or explain why a 51-vote majority is undemocratic:

"I'm very concerned that the levels of debt that the president's budget would entail are simply unsustainable and would pose a significant threat to the health of our economy," said Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who plays a pivotal role in Senate negotiations. "I've had conversations with several centrist Democrats who have exactly the same concerns I do."

Well, what would you cut? "One of the areas I would look at are the huge agricultural subsidies," she said. Those farm payments are one of the few cuts Obama has already proposed, which Collins added was "to his credit."

Anything else? "I thought I did pretty well coming up with one right off the top of my head," she said [...]

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said she leans no on Obama's budget because of its size but is open to being convinced. She's not looking forward to cutting it, however. "That's always the problem. How to cut back and what to cut back," she said.

Yet the main change that Landrieu would like to see highlights the political contradiction at work. Tax hikes on independent oil and gas producers, many of whom operate in the Gulf, she said, are a "non-starter." Removing that tax hike, though, increases the deficit [...]

"Reconciliation should not be used to impose a major policy change. It's unfair to those who hold a minority view," Collins added.

Isn't that undemocratic? Collins was asked why she and a handful of senators should wield so much power over the nation's policy.

"I don't really think I have all that much power but I'm glad you think so," she said, laughing.

"I don't think it has anything to do with the power structure of moderates," she added. "People want to see healthcare reform, want to see us deal with major issues, but not in an undemocratic fashion. I think people want to see fuller debate and deliberation and more involvement by the minority."

But isn't the need for 60 votes undemocratic? Didn't the nation have a full debate, followed by an election in which people voted for major change?

"I disagree totally with that," said Collins. "I do not believe the American people voted to short circuit debate and prevent people with a minority view on both sides of the aisle from having the ability to amend a bill."

Behold the reasonable, responsible moderates who will save us from this crisis and return America to glory again.

Pardon me while I go throw myself in the ocean.

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