Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Re: The Pledge

Meh.  It is the opposite of the Ryan Roadmap.  The Roadmap is an admirably serious (which is not to say perfect) attempt to grapple with our long-term economic challenges, but is not a prudent campaign platform.  The Pledge won't hurt Republican prospects for this election but doesn't do much to address our economic problems or even move public opinion in the direction of understanding the kinds of policies we will need.  I'm not mocking.  Coming up with a program that can address our economic challenges in a realistic way and attract enough public support that candidates that support the program can be elected in sufficient number is really, really hard.

 I have sympathy.  There is no consensus on the center-right on exactly how to design the means-testing of Social Security or how that means-testing should be balanced with some kind of increase to retirement ages (and there is more than one way to design that) and what role private accounts might (or might not) play in Social Security reform.  And none of those policies are all that popular anyway.  Reforming Medicare, if it is to mean more than just cuts to provider reimbursements, only makes sense in the context of a wider, incremental reform of health care policy.  But there is no consensus among conservative policy analysts about exactly how to do it.  The situation in the Republican Party is even worse.  You have moderates with no principles that are leery of any politically untested idea that might incriminate them in the court of public opinion.  I don't doubt that there are many conservatives who would be happy to repeal Obamacare, make some futile noises about tort reform and never think about health care policy again - until the next time Democrats pass a huge step toward government-run medicine. 

A worthwhile consensus on entitlements, health care reform and tax reform (huge issues there) won't come from John Boehner consulting with the House Republican backbenchers. It will have to be an organic and entrepreneurial process.  Entrepreneurial backbench members of Congress as well as candidates for governor and President will have to show that they can win elections based on the kinds of reforms we need.  The Republican congressional leadership will come along last.  What the Republican leadership can do is push to create the kind of regulatory space that would allow state-level policy experimentation in health care and that expands the number of Americans with consumer-driven health care policies in a way that doesn't immediately threaten people who are happy with their employer-provided policies.

So what would I do?  Glad you asked.  Off the top of my head I have four non-earth shattering (actually somewhat minor) ideas.  I assumed that the House Republican leadership (and much of the membership) would not accept any idea that would encounter massive initial resistance from the majority and I kept that in mind in crafting this list.

1.  Capping expenditures for federal civilian personnel costs.

2.  Granting the President (yes, even President Obama) the impoundment power.  Once granted, it might be put to some good use later.

3. Adding an Indiana-style HSA/catastrophic coverage option to the range of health insurance options available to all federal employees and making the sale of such policies by private entities or by state and local governments legal in all states. The program proved popular among Indiana state employees, and saved the state money too, so it can be sold to the public as a way to reduce the deficit.  And if it good enough for federal employees, there is no reason why it should be illegal for the rest of us is there?

I'm a little less confident about my last suggestion.

4.  Turning Medicaid into a voucher for high deductible private health insurance.  I think it would be a good idea as Medicaid is presently a disaster, but crafting a funding mechanism would be really complicated given the combined state and federal nature of the current program.  Republicans would also need ready answers to charges that they were abandoning the poor to die (as the program would not be immediately understood by the public.)  I doubt most Republicans could master the argument in a few short months.

Categories > Politics

Discussions - 11 Comments

You are making excuses and making them at tiresome length. There is not a single consequential question to be addressed that was not a manifest problem and the subject of public discussion 25 years ago. The Republican Congressional caucus has had ample time to get its bloody act together. And whether something is 'all that popular' or not is immaterial. The effects of a failed bond sale are not going to be 'all that popular' either.

AD, length sure. But I don't think it makes any sense to expect the Republican congressional caucus (as a group) or the top congressional leadership to move the ball on these kinds of arguments. That isn't who (most of them) are. They will follow along if and when candidates on their own intitiative are able to show that they can make headway with the public running on on the kinds of reforms I talked about above or if their is a crisis (like in Greece.)

That isn't who (most of them) are.

Not so very long ago I turn on C-SPAN and there is a fellow from the American Enterprise Institute relating a conversation he had had with a Republican congressional candidate, who, in the course of the conversation, ruled out every effective way of addressing the problem presented by Social Security and said he wanted to 'go after waste, fraud, and abuse'. The judgment of the fellow from AEI was that the unseriousness among working politicians in the Republican Party was pervasive, and he saw no way out.

Public discussion of the problems Social Security has been suffering has been ongoing since 1977. Around that year, Republicans in the House of Representatives crafted a plan to address that. This was not a marginalized crew of people. This had (as I recall) the imprimateur of the caucus leadership. The principal feature was a graduated increase in the retirement age to 68, a measure the candidate talking to the fellow from AEI arbitrarily ruled out. The fiscal problems the United States was suffering in 1977 were far less severe than those we face now.

Keep in mind that the Republican caucus in the House of Representatives in 1977 was shot through with liberals and the modal type was someone along the lines of Gerald Ford: a Jaycee who never thought it necessary to formulate a coherent set of principles from his miscellany of dispositions.

Eight years later, Robert Dole and a mess of others in the Senate sought to craft a solution to the wretched public sector deficits the country was then suffering. Among their opponents was the President, Jack Kemp, and miscellaneous 'opportunity society' twerps.

A long time ago, these Babbitts thought they could be expected to 'move the ball forward'. That is who they were.

Here's a young attorney from Colorado who used to write for Pajamas Media.

I guess he also 'doesn't make sense'.

AD, your example about the congressman and the AEI fellow is a pretty good argument about why we can't reasonably expect a serious plan for long-term budget issues to come from a process that involves the House Republican leadership consulting with their all of their backbenchers over the wording of a campaign document. I can see several paths by which the Republican congressional leadership embraces a serious plan to get the long-term debt under control but only under certain circumstances such as a) candidates demonstrating they can win while supporting some particular variation of entitlement cuts and health care reform and proving that embrace of such policies is not suicidal or b) we are in the midst of a Greece-style debt crisis (give or take five minutes.) Neither scenario makes me feel confident, but I am confident that John Boehner can't be trusted to push these issues in a campaign document . Thats not a credit to him of course.

That doesn't mean that the congressional leadership won't get drawn into a debate on those issues in the course of governing (especially if the Republicans win the House), but it does mean that the general public (including many or even most conservatives) won't understand exactly how mean-testing would work or how an increase of the retirement age would be structured to take account of low wage workers in physically demanding jobs. That means the Republican leadership (which is neither especially charismatic nor articulate) is likely to lose those fights as the public is terrified at the thought of unfamiliar policies that are badly explained and demagogued by the Democrats and their media allies. This isn't even getting into the complexities of Medicare and broader reform of health care policy.

I do think that public understanding of these issues can increase, but the burden is going to be on smart and public spirited backbenchers (two, three, many Paul Ryans and all with slightly different plans)and presidential candidates (Mitch Daniels? Chris Christie?) to reshape the debate and by doing so (among other things) reshape the position of the Republican congressional leadership on these issues.

It would not be wholly unreasonable to conclude that we are screwed.

IMHO: This was a bad idea. Policy specifics are not what this election is about and there was no real human cry for them--except from Democrats eager to see the GOP trip itself. I know there are those who bemoan this lack of focus on policy and think it is precisely this lack of focus on policy that got us into our electoral mess in '06. To them I say: yes but it does not follow from that "yes" that we need to focus on policy NOW. There's a time for focus on policy and when we needed it, Republicans did not offer it. But elections are not that time. Elections are a time for the big picture. You cannot keep the attention of the electorate for this long with a series of bullet points--whatever their merits or demerits. It changes the game and moves our focus from the broader purpose of civic electoral education/re-invigoration that unites people around central ideas to a laundry list of minutiae where disagreement is par for the course.

Again, you take their inadequacy as given. You should not. That our complex of political processes produce these losers and used to produce something better should bother you.

The 'big picture' is as follows:

--The occidental world has been in the midst of the most pervasive banking crisis in 80 years.

--No component of the federal executive or legislature has (per economist Charles Calomiris) been willing or able to absorb the body of extant knowledge of how these crises are resolved in the most salutary manner possible, and have resorted to mad improvising.

--Congress in particular (see Henry Paulson on this point) can be counted on to do flat nothing until the train is about to plough into a brick wall at Penn Station.

--You will recall that in 1933, legislation and executive action to stabilize the banking system and provide for orderly recognition of losses was passed in a manner of a few short months and was well crafted enough to function without major revision for four decades. The Congress in our own time took two years to produce a revision to the architecture of financial regulation. It was the end product of lobbyist bull sessions in Barney Frank's office, turned out to be 2,000 pages in length, adds to the problem of regime uncertainty, and fails to address salient problems.

--All the while, the President devoted his energies to an address to the non-acute problem of health care finance, the result of which is to worsen our fiscal dilemmas and worsen the injuries already done to the labor market.

--Attempts at using fiscal policy in an effort to maintain aggregate demand were rendered doubly ineffectual when the Democratic caucus in Congress simply stapled together a pork wish list and called it a 'stimulus'.

--That, the fall of revenues, unemployment compensation, and miscellaneous increases in expenditure have left us with an enormous fiscal deficit. The deficit needs to be addressed if we are to avoid a catastrophic sovereign default.

--Faced with all of the above, the Republican caucus responds with a mess of pap which incorporates what has been the signature feature of the political economy within elite circles of the Republican Party since 1981: a chronic refusal to acknowledge accounting identities and basic arithmetic.

That is the big picture. Except for Dr. Bernanke, and a small crew in Congress around Paul Ryan, no component of the Washington elite has responded to this severe national crisis with anything but posturing, lies, and business as usual. Those of us who wanted the Republican caucus to talk turkey to the public ("these are our problems, this is the way out, and this is how much it will likely hurt in the interim") have been bitterly disappointed. It was only in that that their fitness to rule could be established. They failed the test.

One thing worth remembering is that in 1977 nobody was talking about the GOP making any sort of big resurgence. In the wake of the 1976 election the Dems had a two-to-one majority in the House, a 62-38 majority in the Senate, and, of course, the White House. In such a situation it wasn't particularly risky to offer bold policy prescriptions--it wasn't as though there was any real risk that they might have to act on them, and the Democrats could safely ignore them.

The problem today is that the nation is so closely divided between the two parties that either side could take control in any given election. That means that each side must closely scrutinize the other's statements and jump all over them. Anyone who wants to win public office had better limit himself to the sort of anodyne stuff that's in the "pledge."

AD, it isn't that it doesn't bother me, it is that I think that the best hope for improving our political leadership (including the Republican congressional leadership) comes from looking outside the congressional leadership.

Julie, from a purely pr aspect, I can see the logic in the Pledge. I think that Republican gains can be traced to gains among two major groups (along with marginal gains in other groups.) First are right-leaning voters who were energized by the liberalism of the Democratic agenda - both what passed and what didn't. Second are persuadable whites who are so disgusted with the horrible (and horribly persistent) state of the labor market that they are itching to vote for the opposition party as long as what the opposition party is offering is superficially plausible and nonthreatening. Both groups want the GOP to have some kind of alternative thought their priorities are probably pretty different. I think that the Pledge is an attempt to maximize the GOP's appeal to those two groups while leaving the Democrats the smallest possible target. Responsible stewardship of the budget was not really a priority.

John, a fair summary of the short-term political incentives at work (the incentives would change in a debt crisis), but I do think there is space to push for more reformist policies than one would think from reading the Pledge. There is of course the need for responsible statesmanship, which requires more than taking the path of least resistance. But statesmanship will also require prudence and patience. It will take quite a balancing act. The only good news I can think of is that the adoption of a more responsible politics, if it is to happen, won't be the work of a single savior figure, but of many.

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