Why the White House Doesn’t Want a Clean Debt-Ceiling Bill

Ezra Klein explains that the White House doesn’t want a clean debt-ceiling bill:

A lot of Democrats took one look at the McConnell plan, which would raise the debt ceiling without substantive fiscal concessions, and saw their way out of this mess. But not the White House. What’s come clear in recent weeks is that the Obama administration is much more intent on reaching a major deficit deal, and much less intent on making revenues a major part of it, than most observers assumed.

That’s led them to offer Republicans a deal that is not only much farther to the right than anyone had predicted, but also much farther to the right than most realize. In addition to the rise in the Medicare eligibility age and the cuts to Social Security and the minimal amount of revenues, it’d cut discretionary spending by $1.2 trillion, which is an absolutely massive attack on that category of spending.

This deal isn’t just a last-ditch effort to save the economy from the damage of a federal default. The White House would far prefer this deal to the McConnell plan, or to the $2 trillion deal that was under consideration during the Biden negotiations.

So why is the White House so intent on savaging Democratic priorities?  Klein lists five reasons, which readers can analyze for themselves.  Reasons 1,4, and 5 are typical Beltway nonsense, relying on the good faith of congressional Republicans and the idea that there are some “independents” out there who think that the deficit is important.  Reasons 2 and 3 make sense, but are entirely speculative because they depend upon specific contours of a deal that we don’t have yet.

But of course Ezra’s just a reporter.  Who knows?  He could be completely wrong.  He has been before.  Personally, I still entertain hope that the White House’s silence on the McConnell Plan stems from its knowledge that any embrace of such a plan would kill it.  In any event, Klein clearly doesn’t understand the magical, Zen-Master, Ninja, 11-dimensional chess playing abilities of our President, which served him so well in last year’s midterms.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

20 thoughts on “Why the White House Doesn’t Want a Clean Debt-Ceiling Bill”

  1. Jonathan:

    How do I say this? I don’t know precisely where I stand on all this; I guess the qcuik and dirty summary is that while I think his political instincts are pretty crappy, on macroeconomics and macroeconomic policy, calling me a Krugmanobat is pretty accurate. Also, I’m generally pretty open to whatever Jared Bernstein is arguing for. I think that means that I am neither a Republican nor an Obamabot.

    That said, you have to do something about your tone. It is too sour, and is not going to help you win friends (probably low on your list of priorities) and influence people (much higher, I imagine).

    I read your recent posts and think you’ve spent too much time, lately, sucking lemons. I know what those lemons are, I’ve been sucking them too, but then, I don’t blog, and there’s a reason for that (well, there are many, but that’s neither here nor there).

    Before you write, or at least before you post, you have to rinse out your mouth with something sweeter, or at least neutral. You are not helping your cause at all.

  2. Uh, I’m largely an independent, and I think deficits matter.

    I mean, currently I wouldn’t vote for a national Republican no matter what. They’ve gone stark, raving mad, and keeping them out of office is extremely important. So: right: one cannot rely on the good faith of the GOP. But that doesn’t mean I’m a something else, just for the record. I do have a fondness for the Dems… But I’m not that averse to “savaging” certain Democratic priorities. One can be inclined to have a social safety net without thinking that it comes with a pony. I don’t know of any non-arbitrary way to decide what levels of e.g. Social Security and Medicare are reasonable. So I’m willing to say: we can have what we can pay for. By all means, raise taxes on the rich–raise the hell out of them if possible. But we do live in a democracy, and we do have to triangulate here. I suppose I’m more sanguine about such things, being the kind of liberal too fallibilistic to take his own side in an argument with much conviction. Deride Obama if you will, but, as I’ve said before, the man is doing a surprisingly good job with the hand he’s been dealt.

  3. I’m really curious, marcel, about what part of this post you thought was unduly bitter. I mean, okay, the last sentence is intended ironically, but I think you have unusually sensitive ears if you find that fatally off-putting.

    As it happens, I think the ironic final sentence was insufficiently bitter. Jonathan appears to be assuming that Obama’s ends were not, in fact, well-served by the election of a Republican House. As I see it, Obama is rolling the dice with the entire economy in order to push through massive cuts in discretionary spending. I don’t see any way he would have attempted this with a Democratic House.

    I think, marcel, if you aspire to be Reality-Based (a dubious aspiration in my book, but one that is widely shared here), you have to assess arguments by their merit. For the Reality-Based, even the question of Jonathan’s bitterness ought to be assessed by whether that bitterness is merited.

  4. > But I’m not that averse to “savaging” certain [ruling class] priorities. One can
    > be inclined to have a [global, empire-quality military] without thinking that it
    > comes with a pony. I don’t know of any non-arbitrary way to decide what
    > levels of e.g. [war, weapons, and military spending] are reasonable.
    > So I’m willing to say: we can have what we can pay for.

    Fixed that for you. Just for the record, thanks to the last “fix” Social Security currently has a surplus of around $2 trillion and is considered solvent far past our ability to foresee what future Congresses and economic events might bring. It is just that the Republicans and their friends, having borrowed that $2 trillion to throw a giant party for the wealthiest and most bellicose amongst their circle, now refuse to pay it back.


  5. marcel, I’ll add that the Reality-Based often argue, as you do, against undue emotional investment in political debate. This is one reason that, on a policy level, the Reality-Based keep getting their lunch eaten by the denizens of Fox News.

    Policy change is often preceded by an observable increase in “bitterness” among members of the public.

  6. politicalfootball:

    I think Krugman, Bernstein, and for that matter, Dean Baker, to take 3 with whom I am familiar, are all emotionally invested in the political debate. And I don’t think any of them hurt their cause by their tone. Their is a sourness to JZasloff’s posts that I, for one, find not so much offputting as tedious. I am not asking “Oh, why can’t we all be reasonable here,” which I think is the position you ascribe to me. Be angry. Be funny. Use ridicule. Even be bitter if you can figure out how to make it work, and not be tedious. But I cannot recall that sourness, at least without humor, ever helps in realizing goals.

  7. Marcel is of course right. Sure, the President is actively attacking his own base and advocating spending cuts that will fall disproportionately on the poor and cause unemployment to go even higher, and he’s colluding with Republicans instead of discrediting their ideas, and pretty much just betraying the people who voted for him to appease the people who hate him, and us, but CAN’T WE BE PLEASANT?

  8. I’m basically where Marcel is (combined with Cranky Observer, as I’d take an axe to the Pentagon budget *before* I went after, say, social security), except for one difference: I’m not longer suffering under the delusion that my preferred policies are best advanced by people like me (or rather, exclusively by people like me). The whole “gentlemen, ladies, let us be reasonable!” thing doesn’t work. I wish it did, but it doesn’t. I am not an effective salesman, and a politician is an ideas salesman.

  9. Maybe if we could get a few politicians to BUY ideas instead of selling them? Ideas like “If the Democrats approve Social Security cuts I’ll never vote for a Democrat at any level again.” (That’s the content-filter-safe version of the proposition. The original wasn’t “sour” so much as anatomically impossible.)

  10. I’m with Winston, but with a twist. In my dream, Obama gets his deficit deal because his 11-dimension chess has put the GOP right where he wants them. He then says the American people, “We had to do this to preserve Social Security for future generations. I know it will hurt many of you, and you are rightfully angry. To compensate, I ask that Congress pass a law requiring that Social Security tax be applied to ALL earned income, not just the first $100,000 [or whatever it is these days], and that the first $20,000 be exempt, for both employees and employers, from that tax. It isn’t fair that the rich get off contributing a much smaller fraction of their pay to Social Security than the working class. This will also give potential workers more incentive to take jobs and for employers to create new positions.” Obama deflects/harnesses the anger of the masses and turns the Reps’ “job-killing taxes” meme against them. But as I said, ’tis but a dream.

  11. 1) I think you got to chase where we are back in time…
    2) You got to realize Obama is in the DC bubble, and they are really stuck in time…

    Now I’ll shut up and let Taibbi bring it home:

    The blindness of the DLC-era “Third Way” Democratic Party continues to be an astounding thing. For more than a decade now they have been clinging to the idea that the path to electoral success is social liberalism plus laissez-faire economics – in other words, get Wall Street and corporate America to fund your campaigns, and get minorities, pro-choice and gay marriage activists (who will always frightened into loyalty by the Tea Party/Christian loonies on the other side) to march at your rallies and vote every November. They’ve abandoned the unions-and-jobs platform that was the party’s anchor since Roosevelt, and the latest innovations all involve peeling back their own policy legacies from the 20th century. Obama’s new plan, for instance, might involve slashing Medicare and Social Security under “pressure” from the Republicans.

    Obama Doesn’t Want a Progressive Deficit Deal | Rolling Stone Politics | Taibblog | Matt Taibbi on Politics and the Economy

  12. Thanks for the irrelevant response, Cranky. I suppose the point is some kind of PoMo one that, had I said something different, it would have meant a different thing? Brilliant, that… As for Social Security: talk to the CBO, brother.

  13. I am in no way an independent, and I do care about the deficit. I just don’t think now is the time to cut. And I see *absolutely* no reason to pander to Republicans, who, let’s remember, are the ones who put us in this deficit situation. Again. (With a little help but so what.)

    I don’t want a ninja president. I want one who says what he means. All this tea-leaf reading is garbage. The words people say are generally an accurate guide to what they are going to do, especially when it comes to legislation and negotiation, which are made only of words.

    We could argue about tone if we want, but there’s not much credibility left to say we need to cut Medicare when you just passed an extremely private-sector-friendly ACA. I know, I know, I’m supposed to be grateful, and I am, a bit. But let’s not go crazy. And, the huge tax cut he just extended. And didn’t he promise recently that he wasn’t going to extend them again? Um, was that a LIE? Or am I taking him too seriously?

    We need a challenger, we need to move this debate left, and we need to do it now.

  14. I don’t know, personally I think it’s at least conceivable that Obama is trying avert an economic catastrophe here. I don’t know what all this nonsense about 11th dimensional chess is about. Regardless of whether Obama is as liberal as we all would like him to be, there’s this basic situation here where the entire Republican party has gone berserk and we need at least some of them to vote to raise the debt ceiling. We don’t know yet exactly what percentage of the Republicans in Congress will reflexively oppose whatever Obama proposes, no matter what, not even if it means destroying the economy, but we’re about the find out. Whatever he could or should have done differently in the past, I really don’t see what other options he has right now.

  15. How do you negotiate with the insane? It’s a tricky one.
    Perhaps the only way to win is not to play, which would have required Obama just to use the bully pulpit to attack the republicans as irresponsible and radical.
    But again: they are insane. Would that have led enough of them to refuse to vote for a raise of the debt ceiling, in order to avoid giving Obama a ‘victory’?
    We’ve already seen that they won’t take yes (large cuts and closing of loopholes) for an answer.

  16. And I’m sorry, but the idea of a primary challenge is nuts. Forget it. It’s not going to happen. The choice next year isn’t going to be between Obama and some hypothetical ideal candidate who’s going to do everything you would do if you were President. It’s going to be between Obama and either a soulless and incompetent hack like Mitt Romney or a bomb-throwing lunatic like Michele Bachmann.

  17. > Regardless of whether Obama is as liberal as we all would
    > like him to be, there’s this basic situation here where
    > the entire Republican party has gone berserk and we need
    > at least some of them to vote to raise the debt ceiling.

    Wow. Just wow. Did you read the transcript of Obama’s press conference today? He made explicitly clear that he deeply believes in the Grover Norquist theory of chopping federal spending, including both Medicare and Social Security [reminder: Social Security in $2 trillion _surplus_], in order to appease a fictional deficit monster that only seems to come out from under its bridge during Democratic presidencies. And of course, when Clinton slew that deficit monster the Republicans took office and /promptly spent the surplus plus added $1.4 trillion of war spending on top/. Obama also explicitly punched progressives right in the gut and said in no uncertain terms that slashing the federal budget and Social Security was the ONLY path he (and one assumes the Democratic Party) is going to take.

    How much would it take? Does Obama have to invite Grover Norquist to go on vacation with his family and endorse Wisconsin Gov. Walker? Maybe that would finally convince.


  18. Have you considered that Obama is triangulating? It worked for Clinton when he was in a similar situation. He is trying to position himself so that at the 11th hour the popular opinion will side with him. It isn’t a bad ploy but unfortunately the Republicans have too many incentives towards default.

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