Although it's been a week heavy on Obamacare, we're going to (mostly) look forward this week, to the upcoming budget battles. Because buried in the Obamacare stories this week was one very important bit of news which few outside the Beltway even noticed. Which is a shame, because if used correctly it could signal a shift in the conversation in those budget meetings.
To put this another way, while most focused on one broken promise from President Obama this week, he actually made good on an earlier promise -- which is nothing short of astounding and deserves a lot of attention.
The promise Obama broke, obviously, was "if you like your health insurance plan, you can keep your health insurance plan." Thus the pitfalls of talking points -- when something complex is boiled down into a soundbite, sometimes important distinctions are not made. It's easy, on Monday morning, to quarterback this one into a much better promise Obama could have made: "if you like your quality health insurance plan, you can keep your quality health insurance plan." But, unfortunately, that's not what Obama said.
Obama apologists are desperately trying to make the case for what Obama really meant when he uttered that statement (on multiple occasions), but this is a losing battle. The other side has two words, which is going to win the public debate on this one: "Obama lied." At the start of the talking points, we'll have one example of such an attempt, but you can see what a tough job it truly is by its very length.
No, Team Obama's just got to take this hit. We've always known, after all, that pretty much any unbandaged scraped knee in the entire country was going to be laid at the feet of Obamacare once it got rolling, and truly this is just the beginning. Look for Republicans to dig out all sorts of anecdotes in the coming year, in fact.
But at this point, Obamacare has to stand on its own. If the website gets fixed and if millions sign up, then eventually the public's going to get used to the program's existence, one way or another, and scare stories will lose a lot of their punch.
Instead, we're looking forward to the budget battle. The conference committee which Senate Democrats have been trying to create all year long has finally met for the first time. More on this in a moment. But the problem they confront has new proportions which could change the leverage Democrats will have. Because Obama has now kept a promise he made on the 2008 campaign trail -- that he would "halve the deficit" in his first term in office. OK, depending on how you relate federal fiscal years to presidential terms, maybe he's a year late (and maybe not). But the official news was released this week that the 2013 fiscal year deficit is $680 billion. In 2009, it was $1,413 billion. Here's a handy chart (in billions of dollars) to show what this means:
No matter what your position on the federal budget or deficit, this is an accomplishment which cannot be ignored. It is going to lessen the "austerity" pressure from Republicans in the budget debates, if Democrats constantly and consistently point it out.
Which brings us back to the committee. There will be 29 members of the committee, and the House Republicans truly got the short end of the stick. Here's the breakdown of members, by number: House Republicans (4 committee members), House Democrats (3), Senate Democrats (12), Senate Republicans (10). That's a 22-to-7 split favoring the Senate (where every single budget committee member made it onto the conference committee), where Republicans are more reasonable. And it's a 15-14 split favoring Democrats. This severely limits Paul Ryan's ability to hold hostages.
Being Washington, however, the new conference committee met and then after a photo op or two adjourned for an entire month. I mean, it's not like they're faced with any sort of deadline or anything, right? Remember this when we do get close up against a deadline, because whiny politicians will then complain: "There's no time left! Waaah!" We'll be remembering, at that point, that the first thing the committee did was to take a month off.
Which brings us to Congress in general, and the pathetic amount of "work" they do for their $174,000 taxpayer-funded salaries. John Boehner just released the House calendar for 2014. They've penciled in a whopping total of 113 working days. Down from 126 planned days in 2013, and an anemic 107 days in 2012. What this means is that in the next year, House members are going to work a grand total of 22.5 full work weeks, in a 52-week year. Which is pathetic, but the public just seems to accept this as somehow normal. Where is the outrage, folks?
Dana Milbank at the Washington Post certainly seemed impressed by the performance of Kathleen Sebelius at her House committee hearing this week. But no matter how poised Sebelius remained -- in the face of repeated Wizard Of Oz references (Sebelius is from Kansas) -- she still won't impress us until she is testifying: "the website is fixed, it is fully functional, and it is signing up millions." She's going to have to wait for an award, in other words, until she can report something close to that.
What impressed us in the hearing was Bill Pascrell, Democrat from New Jersey, who unleashed a miniature "mad as hell and not going to take it anymore" sort of rant. Here's just a sample of what Pascrell had to say, where he is speaking of the difference between how Democrats acted after the Medicare Part D benefit passed and how Republicans have behaved on Obamacare:
What did we do? We went back to our districts, and we told our seniors that although we voted no, we personally believe, and will work with the Bush administration, to make it work. That's what we did! And how many of you stood up to do that? None! Zero! Zero!
When a Republican tried to peddle the nonsense that there was a Republican alternative to Obamacare, Pascrell responded: "Are you really serious?"
It was a beautiful performance, in our opinion. It's mystifying why Democrats don't blatantly point out the missing context from Republican nonsense more often, in fact. It's not that tough to do. If political cartoonists (Jonathan Richards at The Huffington Post has a great example) can do so while making it simultaneously hilarious, then why do so many Democratic politicians lack this ability?
If Republicans cry crocodile tears over people having problems with their insurance, it needs to be forcefully pointed out that the Republican plan for them all along has been: "You're screwed -- no insurance for you!" How Republicans have the gall to pretend to care about people for whom they would have done nothing is insane. They only get away with it because more Democrats don't react the way Pascrell just did.
For showing the rest how to knock down hypocritical nonsense from Republicans, Representative Bill Pascrell is our Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week. Show them how it's done, Bill!
[Congratulate Representative Bill Pascrell on his House contact page, to let him know you appreciate his efforts.]
Speaking of full context, here's a quote from Casablanca:
Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
Captain Renault: I'm shocked -- shocked! -- to find that gambling is going on in here!
[a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
Croupier: Your winnings, sir.
Captain Renault: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much.
We were reminded of this quote by the performance of Senator Dianne Feinstein this week. DiFi (as we like to call her) was miffed -- absolutely miffed -- that the National Security Agency was spying on leaders of our allies. She called for "a total review of all intelligence programs" in response. Except for the fact that she is the chair of the Senate intelligence committee and is therefore supposed to already know this stuff. It brings to mind the laughable statement from Arnold Schwarzenegger when he ran for governor of California, on the subject of his groping of women, when he swore that if he was elected, he would investigate himself. There's all sorts of appropriate metaphors to choose from (even O.J. and the "real killer"), but we've decided to run with Casablanca today.
DiFi is shocked -- shocked, mind you -- that the N.S.A. has been overstepping any rational bounds of what it should be doing. And, furthermore, bugging Angela Merkel's telephone is somehow more shocking than the same thing happening to every constitutionally-protected American citizen.
But the real reason DiFi wins this week's Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week(her tenth, we should mention) is that in the very same week, she got a bill through her committee which would retroactively legalize all the spying the N.S.A.'s been doing, under the guise of "reforming" the N.S.A.'s mandate. So while she's shocked -- shocked! -- about the existence of gambling, she's pushing a bill which would make it legal to gamble, as long as everyone dresses as nice as James Bond (or something).
To get all European here, there is only one possible response to DiFi: "It is to laugh, no?" Have fun with that total review of everything you're supposed to be doing, Senator Feinstein. Let us know how it all turns out, OK?
[Contact Senator Dianne Feinstein on her Senate contact page, to let her know what you think of her actions.]
Volume 280 (11/1/13)
Kind of a mixed bag of talking points this week. There's a few on Obamacare, but most are teeing up how to talk about the budget and the federal deficit.
These are provided, as always, for Democrats everywhere to use with abandon, most especially those who are politicians being interviewed on television for the next week or so. Enjoy.
Some talking points are better than others
Jared Bernstein certainly tried his best to spin Obama's "you will be able to keep it" statement this week. Bernstein is a former Obama administration economist, so he used to influence policy himself. But while his article is worth reading, his revised Obama talking point doesn't really work all that well.
If you're one of the 95 percent of insured Americans with health coverage through your job or the government, then your plan won't change. If you're purchasing a plan in the individual market, and that plan remains unchanged, you'll also be able to keep it. But if you're [sic] non-group plan changes for the worse, it won't be offered once the new law kicks in.
Fastest since World War II
This has been a talking point for Democrats for a while, but now we've got numbers to back it up. And charts -- use the one earlier in this article, because it's pretty easy to understand graphically.
"The federal government's budget deficit is half what it was a few years ago. President Obama has overseen the biggest drop in year-to-year budget deficits since World War II, in fact. This is the fastest the deficit has come down since the end of the war, and I consider that quite an achievement."
Grow our way out
The breakdown figures are worth mentioning, as well.
"The last fiscal year, the federal government ran a 680 billion dollar deficit, down from 1.4 trillion the year Obama took office. He has made good on his pledge to halve the deficit. But it's important to realize where the money came from. Spending went down last year 2.4 percent, but revenues jumped 13.3 percent at the same time. A big reason behind this is that the economy is getting better. We're growing our way out of the problem, although we're doing so slower than we would like. If Washington could manage to return to year-long budgets instead of bringing the country to the brink every few months, we could unleash even more growth. And for all the talk of how necessary spending cuts are, you can see how little an influence that had on the numbers compared to increased revenues and growth."
Twenty cents is better than 40
This updates a talking point the Republicans have been using for years. The actual breakdown is about 19.7 percent.
"When America was borrowing 40 cents of every dollar we spent, Republicans screamed endlessly about the figure and called for austerity measures. Well, now that figure is less than twenty cents out of a dollar, because Barack Obama has made good on his promise to cut the deficit in half."
One more budget item
Steve H. Hanke of Huffington Post does the math for us on this one. His article's well worth reading, but his talking point idea was too good not to use.
"Looking for things to cut in the budget? Well, it's been reported that each and every American pays $574 per year (on average) to fund the secret agencies that are spying on us. Maybe the N.S.A. is branching out to data they should not be vacuuming up because they just have too darn much money. Maybe the way to rein them in is to trim their budget back a bit. That would surely help them focus a bit more on actual threats to the country rather than what Angela Merkel is going to have for lunch. All Americans should really be asking: do they really need all of that $574 I'm paying them every year?"
Nuclear option on the horizon
One more news item flying under everyone's radar outside the Beltway.
"Republicans are bizarrely trying to block President Obama from fulfilling his constitutional duties, because they don't like the fact that presidents get to appoint judges. They are terrified of losing their edge on the D.C. Circuit Court, the second-most-important court in the country. There are three vacancies. Republicans are blocking all three of Obama's nominees. In a fit of what can only be called 'reverse court packing' (or perhaps 'court unpacking'), they're trying to get rid of the three judgeships instead. They are the ones trying to cheat the system in the same way F.D.R. tried to cheat the system -- the only difference being that they're trying to subtract while F.D.R. tried to add. If this abuse goes on, Harry Reid should invoke the 'nuclear option' and end filibuster abuse for judges."
Obamacare still polling better
Finally, we've got an argument for all the Republican doomsayers, from a Kaiser Family Foundation poll just out.
"Even after two weeks of website problems, Americans are still in favor of keeping or expanding Obamacare versus either an unnamed 'Republican-sponsored alternative' or getting rid of Obamacare and replacing it with nothing. Keeping or expanding Obamacare polls at 47 percent, while full repeal gets 24 percent and the unnamed Republican plan only 13 percent. That's something to remember to put pretty much anything any Republican is now saying about it into perspective. And that poll was taken two weeks after the website rollout problems."
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