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Congressional Dealmaking Isn’t Extortion

Dec. 12 (Bloomberg View) — Are Senator Elizabeth Warren and other Democrats who opposed the government funding bill the practical equivalents of Senator Ted Cruz and the radical Republicans who shut down the government last year?

They are not.

Matt Yglesias makes the case that, in fact, Republicans were responsible for trouble in both 2013 and 2014. In both cases, Republicans pressed to add a provision that Democrats opposed — most recently one that rolled back a portion of the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law in the funding bill that passed the House yesterday and is moving to the Senate .

There’s something to this argument, but it really understates what was special about Tail Gunner Ted’s shutdown in 2013.

Of course, part of normal bargaining involves a certain amount of brinksmanship and part of deliberate shutdown politics can involve claims that the other side is “really” responsible for the breakdown.

The process goes off the rails when it includes excessive demands, backed up by ultimatums, that are far outside what appears to be the normal range of bargaining. Demanding a repeal of Obamacare (or “defunding”) despite a solid Democratic majority in the Senate and a Democrat in the White House is of a different order than a fight about a relatively small provision of Dodd-Frank, or the other policy riders added to the current funding bill.

In any case, it was clear from the beginning of last year that the radicals were more interested in the principle of blackmail than they were in the fate of any particular hostage. Indeed, most of the drama of the government shutdown involved Republicans flailing around looking for a good demand they could make for the shutdown they had already engineered.

That was true this time, too — but it only involved a small group of Republicans. The bulk of mainstream conservative Republicans made policy demands (and will win some policy victories if the Senate, as expected, passes the bill this weekend). But that was in the context of normal bargaining, in which Democrats also won concessions. Sure, there’s always the implicit threat that a failure to reach a deal will cause a shutdown. But that’s very different from the attitude of the Cruz group in 2013 (or New Gingrich’s similar plan in 1995) to use a shutdown as a strategy for getting the other side to agree to something outside of normal negotiating.

What Warren and the other liberal dissenters have done this week is equivalent to saying that the deal isn’t quite good enough for them. They’re not starting from the assumption that they should hold their breath until they get their way… and then looking around for something to demand. This wasn’t extortion for the sake of extortion. Just regular sausage making.

Photo: Senate Democrats via Flickr

Can You Spare 12 Cents For Better U.S. Highways?

Dec. 11 (Bloomberg View) — In the middle of the last century the U.S. started building the Interstate Highway System. It’s now named after President Dwight Eisenhower, who shepherded its passage through Congress in 1956. Connecting the far-flung corners of this large nation, this 47,714-mile network allows commerce to flow freely. The cost of construction, adjusted for inflation, was more than $400 billion. By any imaginable measure, it was a wild success, and soon became the envy of the world.

The construction and maintenance was paid for mainly through levies on sales of vehicles, tires and related goods, and a federal gasoline tax that generates about $28 billion a year for the Highway Trust Fund.

The assumption was that the system’s maintenance and improvements would be paid for by users: Those who drove on the roads and highways. The fairest way to assess that was through a gasoline tax. Drive more or bigger vehicles, you pay more. Seems rather logical.

Fast-forward a half-century.

The gas tax has been stuck in a time warp. It was last raised in 1993, to 18.4 cents a gallon. Despite the passage of more than 20 years, with both ensuing inflation and an aging system that needs ever-more maintenance, there it has stayed. The Highway Trust Fund has been starved of cash, and is the process of going broke.

Ike wouldn’t be happy.

Do we need to recite the cases of deteriorating bridges and buckling roads? It’s become routine to detail the annual ratings of our infrastructure (D+), the loss of life when bridge collapses occur, and the increased costs of delay and loss of productivity. It is also a national embarrassment to see our infrastructure decay because of intentional neglect, short-sightedness and ideology.

Enough already.

Let’s take as a rule of thumb that large-scale public-works projects require annual maintenance equal to about 10 percent of construction costs. Apply that to the national highway system and that implies a trust fund budget of about $50 billion a year. That would require the gas tax to rise to about 30 cents a gallon, with adjustments in the future to account for inflation.

Oil prices have fallen 39 percent in the past five months. Gas prices have fallen more than 50 cents a gallon since 2013, according to the American Automobile Association. It would be painless to raise the gas tax by 12 cents a gallon.

Providing the trust fund with the money it needs would have all sorts of ancillary benefits: Various state and municipalities would have enough money to do local road improvements. Traffic would move more quickly and efficiently. Better highways would increase productivity, and save consumers and businesses billions of dollars a year in wear, tear and damage to vehicles. Updating our highways also might make them safer, reducing injuries and saving lives.

If we as a nation were smart, we should explore ways of making our transportation system more intelligent through the use of existing technology. This would allow us to move greater volumes of traffic more efficiently, saving everyone time and money.

An American who travels to Europe or Asia quickly learns that other nations have leapfrogged the U.S. system.  There are many competitive advantages for companies in Europe and Asia, especially in China. Bringing our highway system into the 21st century would be a boon for the U.S. economy.

Unfortunately, the U.S. highway system doesn’t even meet late 20th-century standards. It is long past due for basic maintenance.

Why Congress takes so little pride in one of the great U.S. accomplishments is beyond my understanding. We should find out soon if Congress is the incompetent Parliament of Whores depicted by P.J. O’Rourke, or whether it can carry out even the most basic of government functions.

Photo: David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons

 

Rand Paul Isn’t Leading The Republican Pack

Dec. 5 (Bloomberg View) — The Fix’s new rankings for Republican presidential candidates are out. Chris Cillizza and Aaron Blake pick Senator Rand Paul as the most likely nominee.

I’ve excluded Paul (and Ted Cruz, ranked No. 8 by Cillizza and Blake) from my list of plausible nominees. Do I need to revisit the question? Sorry, still not buying it.

Here’s the case The Fix makes:

No one rolls their eyes anymore. Paul has a unique activist and fundraising base thanks to his dad’s two runs for president, and has shown considerable savvy in his outreach efforts to the establishment end of the party over the past few years … Paul is the candidate furthest along in the planning process for president and the one with the most current strength in early states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

I don’t see much there. Of the four attributes listed, three — unique base, early planning, strength in early states — are exactly what was said about Ron Paul in 2012. Given that Ron Paul never had a realistic chance against a very weak field, I’m not convinced that we should think much of Rand Paul’s chances.

That leaves the question of whether the rest of the party is more interested in Rand Paul 2016 than it was in Ron Paul 2012. Not whether Paul has been “savvy” in selling himself, but whether anyone is buying.

I remain highly skeptical and will have to see some explicit support from important party actors outside of the Paul orbit (and outside of Kentucky, where he and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell have developed a working relationship). We know that Paul will have some important opponents within the party, especially on national security. He’s going to need some serious supporters to overcome that. And given the large, strong group of contenders, I just can’t imagine why any (non-libertarian) group of party actors would take on that battle.

I understand the math: It’s a large field and Paul is more or less guaranteed to get 20 percent of the vote in Iowa and New Hampshire. All he needs then is to exceed his father’s performance by a few thousand votes and he could easily capture those early states against a splintered group of Republicans. That’s an illusion. There probably won’t be a dozen candidates in Iowa; Republicans have efficiently winnowed their field pre-Iowa for several cycles. But it doesn’t matter; even if Paul wins with 25 percent of the vote in Iowa, he’s not going to win the nomination unless he can eventually reach more than 50 percent. And as long as a substantial clot of party actors opposes his candidacy and most of the rest are indifferent at best, he’s not going to get the favorable publicity he needs to do that.

Yes, lots of candidates at this stage of the process haven’t demonstrated their ability to win over half of the primary vote. Mitt Romney hadn’t last time. But the opposition to Paul, and the policy differences between Paul and most of the party, are far deeper than was the case with Romney in 2012.

Show me evidence Paul is attracting support from mainstream conservatives, and I’ll start believing he’s a viable nominee. Until then, he’s an implausible longshot.

Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr

Eric Garner Offers Boehner A Path To Redemption

Dec. 4 (Bloomberg View) — What does the death of Eric Garner, following a police chokehold, have to do with immigration? For House Speaker John Boehner, perhaps quite a lot.

Boehner has been trying to contain the Republican  reaction to President Barack Obama’s recent executive action on immigration. Boehner’s hopes of passing comprehensive immigration reform were dashed long ago. But he would still like to mute his conference’s most virulent anti-immigration voices — call it the Steve King caucus — to keep his party from becoming further identified with intolerance. (Thursday’s debate on the “Preventing Executive Overreach on Immigration Act of 2014,” a bill sponsored by Republican Representative Ted Yoho, won’t help. It essentially puts the party on record in favor of mass deportation. And the House passed it.)

Republicans are quick to mount the barricades against Obamacare or taxes on high incomes. When it comes to protesting injustice against the poor and marginalized, their reflexes can be unnervingly slow.

Senator Rand Paul shrewdly (and even bravely, despite some dissembling) has tried to shift perceptions that Republicans don’t care about racial minorities, speaking before black audiences and citing his belief,  however unreal, that the Republican coalition can bring in a substantial number of black voters in 2016. Confronted by the news of a grand jury’s refusal to bring charges against a police officer who put Garner in a chokehold, however, Paul whiffed. In effect, he focused his outrage on the supreme injustice of New York’s cigarette taxes rather than the loss of a man’s life in police custody.

Boehner’s reaction was both smarter and more humane. Asked about the grand jury decision, Boehner said, “The American people deserve more answers about what really happened here.” Significantly, Boehner also “hasn’t ruled out holding congressional hearings on the matter,” according to BuzzFeed.

Hearings chaired by Republicans would be good for the country and good for Republicans. They would establish precisely what protesters say they are fighting for: an assertion that “black lives matter” to the nation’s leaders and political institutions. At the same time, they would show that Republicans know how to be a party of all Americans, not just the white parts. And they would showcase Republicans grappling with a complex problem instead of unleashing the party demagogues on Benghazi for the umpteenth time.

The timing is auspicious. The Republicans’ aggressive turn against immigrants is highly unlikely to sit well with Hispanics and Asians. Black voters already shun the party by embarrassingly large margins.

It’s not all about political opportunism. Plenty of conservatives are genuinely appalled at the circumstances of Garner’s death. Thursday’s Department of Justice report on the Cleveland police department, released in the wake of a police officer’s fatal shooting of a 12-year-old boy there, underscores the need for a serious federal inquiry. Hearings would be good for everyone. Go for it, Mr. Speaker.

Photo: Talk Radio News Service via Flickr