Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Election In Hindsight

This shouldn’t come as a shock to most of you, but I think the Democrats’ resounding victory in the election three weeks ago was a good thing for the country. Six years of virtual one-party control in Washington disrupted national priorities, short-circuited cooperative party interaction and limited productive administrative oversight. Worst of all, it derailed the vital deliberative process essential to healthy democracy.

Does that mean that the “glory days” are here? That somehow Democratic control of Congress will solve all the nation’s thorniest problems? No, of course not. Politics is politics. Party shifts never fully exorcize special interests pandering, pork-barrel projects and the ethical gaffes so endemic to American political life. That said, good things await us. Here’s why:

(1) No More Monopoly of Power
For 12 years Republicans in Congress have used procedural rules to suppress Democratic legislative proposals, amendments, and input, and curb minority party rights. They excluded Democrats from the legislative Conference Committees and held votes open for hours to strong arm wavering members to toe the party line. House Speaker Dennis Hastert even had a policy of only allowing votes on legislation that had support from a majority of the Republican majority, regardless of whether there was enough bipartisan support to pass a bill. Republicans also froze out Democratic lobbyists and sought to impose permanent institutional changes on the entire lobbying industry to advantage Republicans. Over time these policies had a corrosive effect on compromise, bipartisanship, and policy-making.

(2) Increased Bipartisanship
Both future Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and future Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi have made clear that they intend to work with the President and Congressional Republicans when the Democrats take power. Both Reid and Pelosi have stressed that they will treat Republican lawmakers “more generously” than they were treated as the minority party. Two days after the election, Pelosi met with President Bush and both vowed cooperation. Reid has similarly emphasized that Democrats “want to work with [the Republicans] to get things done. We want to be part of a Congress that functions.” With only a razor thin majority in the Senate and the specter of a presidential veto, Democrats will need to reach across the aisle to achieve their legislative goals. I believe they will, and as they do they will find some receptive Republican leaders. As governor of Texas, President Bush showed he could work well across party lines. Given the political necessity of it now, he will be inclined to do so again. Mitch McConnell, the incoming Senate Minority Leader, is someone disposed to bipartisanship. Reid and McConnell are said to have a solid working relationship and neither has his sites set on the presidency, both things that bode well for legislative compromise.

(3) Change of Policy in Iraq
The Democrats already forced a change of course in Iraq simply by virtue of winning the election. In the wake of what President Bush described as an electoral “thumpin',’” the President promptly sacked Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a man whose prickly leadership style and poor management of the war effort in Iraq had begun to stir up a rebellion of sorts within both the military and the Republican ranks. The man Bush appointed to replace Rumsfeld is a political realist much more palatable to Republicans and Democrats alike. He is very likely to diverge from the neo-conservative philosophy that has governed much of our policy in Iraq.

Beyond this, Democrats will continue to spur change by pressuring the Bush Administration and actually seeing to a long-neglected Congressional responsibility, holding substantive oversight hearings on the war effort in Iraq. While President Bush clearly will not heed calls for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq (a move I agree would be unwise at this point), I’m convinced that Democratic pressure will prompt the President to reevaluate just what our goals in Iraq are and what exactly “success” there means. Next week, the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton Commission is expected to announce its findings and policy proposals, which purportedly recommend a marked reduction in US troops in Iraq by 2008 and reaching out to both Iran and Syria to help stabilize Iraq. On the heels of their electoral victory, Democrats will be in a position to push the Administration to implement the Commission’s recommendations. Even if the President chooses not to adopt these recommendations, because of the demands he will be facing on the home front, the President will be in a better position to pressure Iraqi Prime Minister Al Maliki to strengthen the Iraqi government and quell the sectarian tensions that have erupted. Moreover, substantive Congressional oversight hearings (of which there have been almost none) will help our military efforts by holding the Administration, the Pentagon, and all the civilian contractors in Iraq accountable for their performance. This sort of counterbalance is desperately needed given the Administration’s reticence to acknowledge mistakes and its tendency to offer grossly over-optimistic assessments of the war.

(4) A More Fair and Sound Economic Policy
Democrat leadership has pledged to reign in pork-barrel earmarks, reduce the deficit, and implement a more fair tax policy. All of this will be done with an emphasis on helping middle and lower class families and reducing the growing disparity between rich and poor, a disparity that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has warned could harm the economy. The Democratic economic proposals on the table include:

  • Raising the Minimum Wage: The Democrats want to raise the minimum wage by $2.10 an hour. Along with most Americans, I think this is right thing to do. The minimum wage has stayed constant for almost 10 years while consumer prices have risen 25%. Some conservatives fear this will simply raise unemployment, but they are hard-pressed to show that the minimum wage increases of the 1990s had that effect.

  • Fixing the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT): Democrats want to raise the level at which the AMT kicks in. The AMT sets a minimum tax rate (around 27%) for the richest tax payers so that they can’t use deductions, shelters and loop holes to avoid paying their income tax entirely. Because of inflation and rising incomes, households affected by the AMT are expected to balloon from 3.8 million households this year to more than 30 million in 2010 (and ensnaring millions of middle-class households).

  • Make Pork-Barrel Earmarks More Transparent: Earmarks on legislation have gotten out of control in recent years. Part of the problem is that members of Congress could attach them anonymously. Speaker-Elect Pelosi says the first thing on the Democrat agenda in January is to require that sponsors of earmarks to be identified.

  • Increasing Support for Education: Democrats have pledged to cut the interest rates on student loans by almost half (Congress raised them earlier this year). They also want to increase the maximum Pell Grant available to low-income students from $4,050 to $5,100 and have considered making up to $12,000 a year in tuition tax-deductible (or giving out an equivalent tax credit). These are all proposals I strongly support (though I fear that even this isn’t enough to defray to skyrocketing). Democrats also plan to revisit No Child Left Behind Act to try to fix its deficiencies and ensure that it is fully funded before considering reauthorization.

  • Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit: Democrats are discussing enlarging the earned-income tax credit which currently gives families with two or more kids $4,536 to offset payroll taxes. This is a smart, market-centered way to help low-wage workers because it allows them to keep the difference if the credit exceeds what they owe in taxes.

  • Income Tax Changes: Several Democrats have floated a number of tax code changes, some which I’m pretty amenable to in order to ensure that social programs I think are important are provided for. These include raising the income tax on the very top tax bracket from 35% to 36% and allowing the cut in the maximum tax rate on capital gains and dividends taxes to expire (this was cut to 15% in 2003).

  • Balancing the Budget: Speaker-Elect Pelosi has promised to restore a House rule from the 1990s that required new spending to be offset by spending cuts or tax increases and the new Budget Chairmen are calling for a balanced budget within five years. While some might target this as window dressing, I think it would have a positive effect on the mindset of congressional appropriators as they approached drafting the federal budget.

  • Economic Shock Absorbers: Democrats have discussed expanding government programs that cushion the fall of those who lose jobs in our country’s rapidly changing economy. These might include targeted federal programs offering help with health insurance, wage-loss, and job retraining. Ultimately, better preparation before and more assistance after job losses would help workers and diminish calls for protectionism (i.e. these are trade-friendly proposals)

  • Changes to Medicare: Democrats have also talked about making changes to the Medicare that would save the federal government billions. These proposals include giving the government the ability to negotiate with Drug manufacturers on drug prices (much like the negotiating power that the Veterans Administration has) and reducing billions in what Democratic leaders claim the government overpays insurance companies that run Medicare’s managed care programs. These proposals are, in a sense, band-aids. But with such a slight Senate majority, Democrats are not in a position to do much more. Ultimately, I’m in favor of more progressive health care reform that does not depend so heavily on company largesse.

(5) Ethics Reform
Democrats back a stronger ethics reform package. Republicans this past year stripped any meaningful lobbying reform provisions from the proposed reform legislation in the months following the Abramoff plea deal in January. As the Democrats prepare to pick this legislation up, they plan on putting several substantive amendments up for a vote. Whether all of these provisions will pass is still in question (there are Democrats who aren’t crazy about all of them too), but allowing each to be introduced to a full floor debate and vote is sure to result in a much more sweeping ethics reform package than would have passed had the Democrats not been elected. In fact, had the Democrats lost, any real chance at a substantive lobbying reform bill would have been scuttled because Republicans would have been left with the impression that the public had moved passed the various ethical scandals that have plagued Congress these past few years.

(6) Comprehensive Immigration Reform
Democrats are much more likely to pass the comprehensive immigration reform legislation that, although supported by the President, stalled in the House last summer. The Senate bill that passed last year struck an important balance in that it provided for increased border security while also dealing humanely with those undocumented immigrants that had been living in the US for years. This was in stark contrast to an earlier House bill that was almost draconian in its approach to undocumented immigrants.

(7) Energy Policy and the Environment
Just by winning the election the Democrats already appear to have had what I consider a positive effect on energy companies and the environment. Democrats, as a whole, simply take environmental concerns like global warming more seriously. A Democratic victory also ensures that the government will focus more on investing in alternative forms of energy and energy conservation rather than rushing to open pristine wildlife preserves like ANWR to drilling (Let me make clear that I’m not opposed to drilling to meet our energy needs, but I would want a more bipartisan, non-ideological survey of what damage might be done to the fragile eco-systems in question and whether that harm is worth the estimated oil reserves we are tapping into). A Democratic victory also prevents the passage of any more duplicitous legislation like the “Blue Skies Act” and the Healthy Forests Initiative that have actually loosened environmental protections.

(8) Overriding the Stem Cell Research Veto
In retaking the Senate, the Democrats appear to have won enough votes to overcome President Bush’s veto this summer of the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act. The bill won passage by a 63-37 margin in the Senate, not quite large enough to override a veto. But four of the Senators who voted against the bill (Allen, Dewine, Santorum and Talent) were defeated in November’s election, giving the measure what seems like a veto-proof 67 votes.

(9) A More Moderate Democratic Party
This election swept a large number of conservative and moderate Democrats into office. By fielding a broad range of centrist candidates this year, the Democrats ran competitive races in a large number of “red” states and districts. As a result, the two moderate Democratic Caucuses in House of Representatives, the Blue Dog Democrats and the New Democrat Coalition, got 24 new members between them (with some overlap). Similarly, in the Senate three of the new incoming Democrats, Bob Casey (PA), Jim Webb (VA), and John Tester (MT), all come from centrist-conservative stock. This moderate bloc has already begun to put forward centrist legislative proposals.

What does this all mean? Well, as Nancy Pelosi herself pointed out the day after the election, it means that the Democrats will “have to govern from the center.” Some doubt whether Pelosi has it in her to do this, but I think those that do underestimate her. She wants to make her mark as a successful Speaker of the House and to do this she clearly understands that she must work with moderate members of her own party as well as House Republicans and the President. Harry Reid, considered a moderate in his own right, faces an even more difficult task in governing a very evenly divided Senate (51-49). Those who know him best, including several stalwart Republicans, have expressed confidence in his ability to lead in spite of the challenges. Republican consultant Sig Rogich has said of Reid “His personality will be more conducive to being a majority leader than minority leader. He has always been more of a consensus-building type than the over-the-top partisan that his current role has demanded.”

In Conclusion
Certainly there are still many traditional liberals like Charlie Rangel who will be chairing Committees in the new Congress, but look at who these congressmen are replacing. Republicans like Bill Thomas, James Inhofe, Jerry Lewis and Peter Hoekstra are just as extreme as their liberal counterparts. I don't think there is a net loss there. In spite of ideologues, I think that this Congress will, overall, produce better legislation that addresses many of the problems I am most concerned about. The “liberals” have a large wing of moderate Democrats to keep them in check, and the Democrats, as a whole, will keep conservative Republicans in check.

I am really buoyed by the moderating influence that Democrats will have on a broad range of legislative and policy initiatives on the environment, energy policy, intelligence and national security, foreign policy, judicial confirmations, the economy, health care, and oversight. I think they will provide an important check on the President and Congressional Republicans and, through the ensuing gridlock, we’ll manage to come away with more compromise and better all-around legislation.


blondemama said...

That was a really long post, but now I feel like I have enough info to have a intelligent political conversation...Thanks Marc. I am very excited for the "take over" as well.

Marc said...

Yes, yes it was. I'm sheepish to admit it... but it was even longer when I finished writing it last week. I made myself spend a few days scaling it back.

Anonymous said...

yes, long. I might actually finish it someday, but I'll probably have to treat this entry like a book and read it a little at a time.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of your post but I also think a lot of it is wishful thinking. I think that Harry Reid, by nature and by force of circumstances (a slim majority), will be more willing to work with through bipartisan legislation. However, Pelosi has already showed her true colors by supporting Murtha and Hastings in some of the most powerful congressional positions.

I'll admit it, I'm scared to death of Pelosi, not her political power, but the fact that she looks like she could suck your soul right out of you.

If Congress can pass half of the things you mentioned I'd consider it a screaming success.

Anonymous said...

Looks like Pelosi didn't have the balls to go through with nominating a criminal and is backing Reyes. I don't know anything about him.

Marc said...

Maui - I'll look forward to hearing what you think in the coming months then.

BA - Sure there will be snafus... but I think we're better off. As for Hastings, Pelosi said earlier this week she wasn't going to nominate him. I think it would have been a horrible move to make him Chair of the committee, but you have to understand the position she was in. Hastings far and away has the most seniority on the Committee. In deciding not to appoint Jane Harman Chair (something I think is petty on her part), Hastings was the next in line (Harman actually leapfrogged over him 6 years ago so going off seniority, he should have technically been ahead of her). As a result, you had the Congressional Black Caucus pushing HARD for him. Pelosi essentially had to talk to talk her way off the cliff she was being pushed off of or risk starting a nasty inter-party fight.

Anonymous said...

Holy crap, Marc! Did you just copy and paste a paper you wrote?

Marc said...

BA - By the way BA, I think Reyes is a good choice.

Anon - Regrettably no. That would have made writing it easier. Not sure this post would have past muster as a paper in any of my classes. It's not "legal" enough.

Mike Bohn said...

Sadly, I did nod off a bit.

Marc said...

Interestingly enough, so did I.

Anonymous said...

I'll be honest, I haven't read the post yet... I am feeling much too embarassed about the fact that my last blog was a paragraph about the 5 dollar hot and ready pizza. thanks alot, way to make me look like crap.

Anonymous said...

I just realized what would posses you to write such an extensive political blog.(I did read it by the way and it was well done) You want more cbs news coverage! Just confess to all of us that what you are secretly hoping for is another moment for marc's word to be heard across the nation.

SmootheP said...

Couple of items-

1. Like treidi, I am feeling like crap because my last blog post was about Hasselhoff.

2. Raising min wage... touchy subject w/ me, as a small business owner. This raise, which was voted through here in AZ in Nov, will make hiring employees for my business virtually impossible.

Why? Because I can't afford the 100% unexperienced and soon-to-be overpaid friggin high school students I would normally hire to help me run my business more efficiently. Raising min wage is Bo' shi', IMO. Let the market determine what these people are worth. Govt should be involved to help untrained, post-high school students who are parents or heads-of-households (and those WITHOUT rich parents still looking after their needs) to get the training necessary to help them obtain a skill set that will make them more valuable, trained members of the workforce. Forcing small employers to pay artificially inflated prices for a high school student with no training is not fair to small businesses.

And what is going to happen to America if we keep shooting small businesses in the foot, by raising the min wage? The spirit of entrepreneurship that makes this country so great is going to fade. Marc* my words!

Sue Ellen Mischke said...

You seem to have a positive outlook on what is ahead. I too am hopeful that #2 will happen, but it won't come easily (didn't Pelosi call Bush an idiot on the record at some point?). Most importantly, however, I am really pulling for #s 7 and 8.

Good post.

Tara said...

Wow I'm tired just looking at this post. You are going to make one hell of a politician one day Mr. Marc.

Rob said...

Good job, champ. I managed to read that whole thing without uttering a single curse word in disagreement. Way to play those moderate chords. As you would assume, I disagree with some of your economic points, but I'm also just really grumpy that somehow the dems have managed to steal some of those issues (e.g., getting rid of the AMT and rallying against pork spending--who'd have predicted that?).

Marc said...

Treidi - I've blogged about my fair share of crap (see here and here)

Anon - You got me. It was all for 15 minutes of fame that never materialized.

Smooth EP - I sympathize with your perspective, but ultimately I think it is a good policy move (though I'm open to the possibility of softening somehow the effect of the wage hike on very small business owners). I'm not sure I agree that the wage hike is artificial. I think in this area the free market can fail because people are not in equal bargaining positions. Here's a letter from some 650 economists nationally that are calling for a minimum wage increase (it includes several nobel lauretes and other award winning economists). Also, the idea that all minimum wage earners are high school students is a fallacy (see this recent studyof Utah's wage market).

Sue Ellen - Pelosi certainly has sparred verbally with Bush in the past, but Gingrich and Clinton were at eachother's throats and still managed to work together on a range of issues.

Tara - Err... thanks?

Rob - You're just mad that Republicans are stealing Democratic issues that you dislike (Medicare Prescription Drug Act) and Democrats are stealing the aforementioned Republican issues you salivate over. Sounds like it's time for you to switch parties.

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