What the Sequester Means for Health Care, Education and the Exchanges (In-depth Analysis); Will “Looking Stupid” Motivate Legislators to Compromise? Why the GOP Would Rather Cut Defense than Close Loopholes

Before looking at precisely who will be hurt by of government-wide sequester cuts on health and education, it’s worth considering the possibility—however slim—that legislators still might reach a budget agreement that brings an end to these blind, across-the-board blows to government spending.

Earlier this week Senator Mark Warner told Bloomberg News that he places the odds for a bipartisan debt-reduction deal at better than 50-50.

Why the optimism?  

Warner, who isn’t a political naïf (he served as Virginia’s governor from 2002 to 2006), believes that ultimately law-makers will arrive at a compromise because as he puts it: “looking stupid at some point has got to motivate people.” 

Granted, this is Warner’s first term in the Senate. This could mean that he doesn’t yet understand the ways of Washington. On the other hand, the fact that he’s new to the beltway could mean that he’s still able to think clearly.

As he reminded his Congressional colleagues Wednesday morning: “These cuts were set up to be the stupidest way possible. No rational group of folks would allow them to come to pass.”

Warner is right. NO ONE wanted cuts that Republicans have rightly called “mindless and random.”  That was the point of the Sequester deal forged during a 2011 deficit-reduction agreement. Legislators purposefully chose targets that were so unpopular that everyone assumed that neither party would ever let them occur.  Conservatives wouldn’t countenance slashing military funding by 7.9%, Democrats wouldn’t accept deep cuts to social programs that our most vulnerable citizens need.  They would have to find a compromise. Or, at least, that was the theory.

Instead, Democrats and Republicans deadlocked, and now it seems that they have double-dared themselves into an impossible situation. Sequestration will increase unemployment, weaken the economy, and hurt children, seniors and the military. Even the Border Patrol will take a hit.  More public school teachers will lose their jobs.

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How to Rein in Medicare Spending Without Hurting Seniors

In his Inaugural speech, President Obama renewed his commitment to safety nets:  ”Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security–these things do not sap our initiative, they strengthen us.

Yet last week, he signaled that he is “open to making modest adjustments to programs like Medicare.” Should seniors brace for bad news?

No. There are many ways to cut Medicare spending without drawing blood. It’s a matter of using a scalpel, not an axe, to trim the fat.

Not long ago, the Center for American Progress (CAP) unveiled a Senior Protection Plan that would do just that, revealing how we could reduce Medicare spending by $385 billion without harming beneficiaries.”

The administration pays attention to CAP. Recently Bloomberg News described CAP as “the intellectual wellspring for Democratic policy proposals, including many that are shaping the agenda of the Obama administration.” This suggests that the report’s proposals may offer a preview of “adjustments to Medicare spending” that the president would consider.

How would CAP save $358 billion without rationing benefits or shifting costs to middle-class seniors? The report focuses on squeezing waste out of the system. Waste doesn’t help beneficiaries.

During recent fiscal cliff negotiations, Democrats and Republicans agreed to adopt four of CAP’s proposals, and I suspect that, over time, we will see more of its recommendations become part of the reality of health care reform.

Recently, I interviewed CAP president NeeraTanden and Topher Spiro, CAP’s managing director for health policy. I was impressed by how their practical approach differs from conservative strategies for slicing “entitlements.”
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U.S. Media Loves “Fiscal Cliff” Metaphor; The Economist Recognizes that It’s An Imaginary Line in the Sand

In the U.S., pundits cannot resist the fiscal cliff metaphor: it’s colorful, punchy and easy to understand. It’s just two words long. What’s not to like?

It’s not true.

The metaphor assumes that if Republicans and Democrats fail to reach an agreement on the budget by the end of the year, the U.S. economy falls over a cliff,  crashes, and burns.  The “cliff “metaphor complements the equally imaginative “iceberg metaphor” that some fear-mongers use to portray the deficit. (Think Titanic) 

It’s all a bit more complicated than the metaphors suggest.

What few conservatives mention is that the deficit has already begun to dissolve:  since 2009 the deficit has fallen from 10% of GDP to 7% in the fiscal year that ended on September 30th.  By historic standards this is still enormous, and must be addressed. But  the numbers demonstrate that, over time, we can reduce the deficit without renting the nation’s safety nets.

As for the cliff, there is no precipice—just an imaginary line, drawn in the sand, as Republicans and Democrats play “chicken.”

The Economist understands all of this. The lead story in the most recent issue focuses on the “cliff” and points out that “worries” about what will happen if we go over that precipice are “understandable”  but “overblown.” The “risk of economic catastrophe is minimal.” Any damage would be short-term. 

I don’t always agree with the Economist: the UK publication has its own sometimes eccentric slant on things. But on the whole, it is a thoughtful publication—well-researched and fact-checked.  Moreover, in this case, distance may give the Economist a perspective on the problem that some in the U.S. lack.

                                   Exaggerating the Threat to the Middle-Class      

Yesterday’s New York Times suggests that if we cross that line in the sand, an already beleaguered the middle-class will suffer great hardship, and this “Complicates Democrats’ Stance in Talks.” 

The analysis suggests that Democrats don’t dare just stand back and let Bush’s tax cuts expire– as they will if party leaders don’t reach a settlement by year-end: “Only a small handful of policy voices on the left are making the case for the tax cuts to fully expire. In part, that is because the economy is still growing slowly, and tax increases have the potential to weaken it.” But it is also because “If the two parties fail to come to a deal by Jan. 1, taxes on the average middle-income family would rise about $2,000 over the next year. That would follow a 12-year period in which median inflation-adjusted income dropped 8.9 percent, from $54,932 in 1999 to $50,054 in 2011.”

This assumes that once we miss the January 1 deadline, tax hikes for the middle-class would become permanent—which, of course, is not true. Talk about how much more a family would pay over the course of 2013 falls somewhere between hyperbole and hysteria, ignoring what everyone knows:

If the Bush tax cuts expire, Democrats will presumably simply propose to restore them in January for those [families] earning less than $250,000,” the Economist observes, “daring Republicans to block them.” 
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“Fiscal Cliff” Talks: An Update

Today, for the first time since the election, President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner met alone, face-to-face, at the White House to discuss ongoing negotions over the budget.   (I can’t help but see the photo, which shows Obama with a hand on Boehnr’s shoulder, as a reference to the “Saturday Night Live” skit that appeared last night.  

I’m more and more hopeful about the budget negotiations. Recentlly, I wrote that Obama had “won round one,” explaining that I believed CNN’s report that  the Republicans and Democrats have reached a deal on taxes. “Both sides agree the wealthy will pay more, so now fiscal cliff talks come down to how much Republicans can wring out of the White House in return for giving in on taxes.”  Based on everything I know about the economics and the politics of the situation, this makes sense. /

Since then Boehner has said:  “No progress has been made.”

This does not change the story:  If, as CNN’s sources say, (and I believe) Republicans have conceded that taxes cuts for the top 2% must expire Janauary 1, while cuts for the remaining 98% will continue, that doesn’t mean they are ready to make the agreement public.

Understandably, Republicans are not willing to acknowledge that they lost round one of negotiations until they can also announce that they won something in round two.  Nor does  President Obama want to blind-side Boehner by letting it leak that a tax deal is in place. That would be counter-productive.

                          The Inside Story and the Outside Story

Recentlly, the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein reported:  “Right now, the fiscal cliff negotiations are proceeding on two tracks.

“One track includes the press releases, public statements and legislative tactics the two parties are deploying to prove the purity of their faith and their commitment to beating the other side to a bloody pulp. Watch these closely and it’s easy to get depressed.  . . ‘There isn’t a progress report;’ Republican House Speaker John Boehner sighed Friday, ‘because there’s no progress to report.’

“The other track includes the offers, counteroffers and red lines proposed by Boehner and President Obama. If you look at these closely, a deal is taking shape.”

 I agree with Ezra about the “two tracks”. But I don’t agree regarding the “shape” of the deal that is emerging.

First, I agree that  the majority of Republicans in Congress have accepted the fact that the Bush-era tax breaks for folks earning over $200,000 (and couples earning over $250,000) will have to expire. I won’t try to guess when politicians will complete the two stages of bargaining and be ready to announce a deal. We may go right up to the January 1 deadline.

Moreover, it is  possible that when it comes to cutting government spending, too many Republicans will remain stubbornly, and foolishly, intransigent — insisting on concessions that would inflict pain on the middle-class.

If that happens, I predict that President Obama will let us sail over the so-called “fiscal cliff.”  He knows this wouldn’t do any permanent damage to the economy.  As Rutgers reported today, even Wall Street does not seem panicked by the prospect: “Investors have peered over the cliff and realized they are looking at a gentle slope . . . . some investors say lawmakers still have time in early 2013 to strike a deficit-reduction deal without imperiling the economy. A survey of 62 Wall Street money managers released on December 5 showed market losses would be manageable if the U.S. goes over the fiscal cliff, even though worries still run deep.

Many on Wall Street understand that, early in the spring, the administration could undo Draconian spending cuts, while lowering tax rates for the 98%. Public pressure will ensure that happens. (In the meantime, the Treasury Secretary could lower withholding rates so that middle-class Americans didn’t suddenly see their paychecks trimmed.)

But taking a ride down that slope would do lasting damage to the GOP.  Polls show that voters would blame Republicans. This is why I think that, in the end, Republican leadership in Congress will do whatever it must to make a deal before January.  As I indicate in the post below. Tea Party extremists in the Republican party are being side-lined.

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Obama Wins Round One of Budget Negotiations

CNN is reporting that the “Fiscal cliff deal is down to wrangling over the details.” While others in the media continue to say that talks are stalled, everything I know about both the economics and the politics of the situation tells me that CNN is right.

At 4:30 this afternoon, CNN updated its story: “Both sides agree the wealthy will pay more, so now fiscal cliff  talks come down to how much Republicans can wring out of the White House in return for giving in on taxes.

“To President Barack Obama, it’s all about first locking in additional revenue from raising taxes on high-income owners, an outcome the GOP has long rejected.”

President Obama had made it clear that negotiations over government spending on safety nets such as Medicare wouldn’t begin until Republicans accepted a higher marginal tax rate for individuals earning over $200,000 and couples earning over $250,000.

The president dug in, and, according to CNN, he has won round one.

“Retiring Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette of Ohio told CNN on Thursday that he sensed a shift in the House GOP approach during a conference meeting the day before.

“A GOP source told CNN that talks between staff members on both sides resumed Thursday for the first time this week, after Obama and Boehner spoke by phone the day before.”

A Two-Step Approach

It is not clear whether negotiations over so-called “entitlements” will be concluded before the end of the year. But CNN, reports

“All signs point toward a two-step approach sought by newly re-elected Obama — an initial agreement that would extend lower tax rates for income up to $250,000 for families, while letting rates return to higher levels from the Clinton era on income above that threshold.”  That agreement on taxes will be signed and sealed before the end of the year.

“Even conservatives such as Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal acknowledge the obvious — taxes on the wealthy are going up despite opposition by Republicans.

“‘Whatever deal is reached is going to contain elements that are detrimental to our economy,’ Jindal wrote Thursday in an opinion piece published by Politico. ‘Elections have consequences, and the country is going to feel those consequences soon.’”

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As We Approach the Fiscal Cliff: What is the GOP’s Primary Goal?

In theory, the GOP’s main concern is the deficit. We must reduce it they say—and we must do it now–or face a financial Armageddon. But somehow or other, “cutting the deficit” always turns out to mean “reducing entitlement programs.”

Let me suggest that cutting those entitlements programs is the GOP’s primary goal.

Why would I say this?

Earlier this week , wh en Republican House speaker John Boehner presented his party’s counter-proposal for solving the budget deadlock, he once again put lifting the eligibility age for Medicare from 65 to 67 near the top of his list. Yet, it you take a hard look at the numbers, it becomes clear that this proposal would not save money–or strengthen the economy. Moreover, entitlement programs did not create the current deficit.

Begin with forcing seniors to wait until they are 67 before they can apply for Medicare. As I explain in the post above, this proposal simply shifts costs to employers, the states, everyone buying insurance in the Exchanges, other Medicare beneficiaries, and 65 and 66-year-olds themselves. It does not lower the nation’s total healthcare bill. Indeed, the GOP’s remedy would wind up costing us twice as much as we now spend providing Medicare benefits for people who are 65 and 66. (See graph in the post above).

I am not  the first person to make this argument. The Kaiser Family Foundation and the Center for Budget Policy and Priorities  offer  eye-opening numbers that prove the point.  One would think that, if the GOP’s main goal were to save the economy, Republicans would be interested in these numbers.

One would be wrong.  They ignore them (and seem to have persuaded the mainstream media to follow suit.) Why would conservatives close their eyes to the financial facts? The GOP has an agenda, and it’s not about the deficit. The party’s main fear is “creeping socialism.”

Conservatives use the deficit as an excuse for slicing benefits that they acknowledge will inflict pain on the people who most depend on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security—the elderly and the poor.

 

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