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

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Ignoring The Obvious

Over the weekend, the New York Times had an article with the thesis statement that the legislative machinery is rusty and unused to the kind of ambitious policy agenda that Barack Obama has proposed.

Lawmakers, senior staff members and other experts agree that a combination of divided government, thin majorities, the running battle for Congressional control and an emphasis on national security caused a decline in the old-school legislative give-and-take that will be required to deliver major health, energy and education measures to President Obama.

“We have been miniaturized,” said Senator Olympia J. Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine and a veteran of health care negotiations. “You have three talking points on a card. We are going to have to be taught and relearn the process, crack the notebooks.”

Congress has not even managed to produce its basic spending bills on time in recent years and has exhausted considerable energy dealing with recurring tax and Medicare snags. Big bills have been few and far between — the 2003 Medicare drug plan and a 2007 energy law are examples — as lawmakers nibbled around the edges of problems [...]

As members of Congress and analysts look at the daunting demands for legislation emanating from the White House, some wonder if Congress is up to the task.

“Do we have a Lyndon Johnson in the Senate at the moment, someone who can push through legislation?” asked Stanley E. Collender, a former top aide on Capitol Hill and a longtime observer of Congressional budget fights. “We haven’t seen it in a while.”

There's no doubt that some of this is true. The "Masters of the Senate" have come and gone, and the reasons cited do tell part of the story. Furthermore, the internal dynamics of the Republican opposition tend them in the direction of unthinking opposition, behaving like perpetual candidates in a contested primary (Similarly, the glory-seeking Evan Bayhs of the world see value in obstructionism and shining attention on themselves). But this article never gets around to mentioning the special interests who frustrate progress on a daily basis. And we see them lining up, one by one, particularly with respect to the domestic agenda, to throw sand in the gears of the legislative machinery. As campaigns grow more expensive, and as inequality increases with the biggest firms getting bigger, these impediments have simply metastasized.

For example, lobbyists for practically every corporation want to halt the move to tax overseas profits from offshore tax havens, something the entire world came to an agreement on at the G-20. Corporate farming interests succeeded in removing cuts to farm subsidies from the budget resolution. And despite the rhetoric that action on the climate and on the economy are inextricably linked, oil companies have flat out given up on renewable sources of energy, and appear to have convinced the Administration to cave on the 100% auction element of their cap and trade proposal.

The Obama administration might agree to postpone auctioning off 100 percent of emissions allowances under a cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse gas pollution, White House science adviser John P. Holdren said today, a move that would please electricity providers and manufacturers but could anger environmentalists [...]

During the presidential campaign, Obama called for auctioning off all greenhouse gas emissions permits at the outset, rather than just a portion of them. Many industry leaders say a phase-in will be essential to easing the transition to a low-carbon economy.

"The idea, obviously, is to end up with a bill that reflects both the thinking of Congress and the administration, a bill that the president can sign," Holdren said, adding that when it comes to a 100 percent auction, "Whether you get to start with that or get there over a period of time is something that's being discussed."

We have a model for "getting there over a period of time," in Europe, where they wasted a decade making almost no progress on reducing carbon until they just went ahead and moved to a full auction. The whole point of cap and trade is to price carbon, not give it away for free, because the pricing element encourages the innovation needed to make the needed reductions.

Some, like Chris Bowers, are optimistic that public investment will continue to grow. The question remains whether that will manifest in government spending that improves lives, or the kind of corporate welfare and Treasury raids we have seen over the last decade. Call me skeptical. And I think the reason is simple - a political class too intertwined with a corporate elite, too attentive to their concerns over the concerns of their constituents. Perhaps full public financing of all campaigns is the answer, and what we should be fighting for. Or maybe we just need A New Way Forward to sever that symbiotic relationship and restructure the economy.

Lost in the talk of tea parties by anti-tax zealots are the A New Way Forward demonstrations this weekend. It is crucial that we send a message that real structural change is not optional but necessary. I urge you to find the demonstration in your area and attend.

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