More About Robert Greenstein

Robert Greenstein

Greenstein is the founder and President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. You can follow him on Twitter @GreensteinCBPP.

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Remembering Tom Foley

October 18, 2013 at 2:21 pm

A giant fell today.  Tom Foley — former House Speaker, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and ambassador to Japan — and the man who, along with Senators George McGovern and Bob Dole, did more than any other lawmaker to build the modern food stamp program and thereby largely eliminate severe hunger and malnutrition in America — passed away.

In this era of political smallness, Tom Foley stands out as the polar opposite.  Erudite, thoughtful, respectful of members of both parties, willing to go the extra mile for an outcome that was both bipartisan and sound, even if it meant relinquishing a partisan advantage — those were his hallmarks.  A current House member recently told me how, as Speaker, Foley would walk to the Republican side of the chamber and sit down next to House Minority Leader Bob Michel to work out fractious issues.

Tom Foley was one of the great figures in my life as well.  In 1977, as a young man working at the Agriculture Department, I found myself representing the new Carter Administration as Congress overhauled the food stamp program in that year’s farm bill.  Foley repeatedly called me to his side during the House Agriculture Committee’s weeks-long “mark-up” of the bill’s food stamp part, counseling me and offering invaluable advice.  That he could combine such a deep knowledge of the program and of poverty with such a strong appreciation for the concerns of every one of his committee members was astonishing.  He shepherded, through his committee and then the House, what became the Food Stamp Act of 1977, the principal anti-poverty accomplishment of the Carter years.

For me and others, he was an extraordinary mentor.  He was also one of the most decent human beings I have ever met.

Last week, I had the opportunity to see him a final time and say good-bye.  We talked about how far the nation has come — in no small part due to him — from the late 1960s when medical researchers found severe hunger across very poor parts of the deep South and Appalachia, with rates of nutrition-related deficiencies and conditions among children akin to those in some Third World nations.  “I’ll never forget what many of us working together were able to achieve,” Foley told me.  “I will always remember that.”

Well, I will never forget him.  I’ll always remember the kindness he embodied, the wisdom he imparted, and the example he set.

His is a life worth celebrating.  In our age of cynicism, Tom Foley showed that our political system can produce dedicated and effective leaders who make this country a better place for tens of millions of their fellow Americans.

Ryan’s Proposal: More of What Got Us Here in the First Place

October 10, 2013 at 9:19 am

While some in the media are portraying Paul Ryan’s op-ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal as a breakthrough that offers hope of ending the impasse over the government shutdown and debt limit, it is nothing of the sort.

The column is heavy on PR and spin; parsing the first part of it requires separating inaccuracies from half-truths.  Particularly noteworthy is the opening, which labels President Obama as the culprit.  “He’s refusing to talk,” Ryan laments.

Actually, Obama reiterated Tuesday that he’s ready to talk and that everything — including health care — can be up for discussion, but the government needs to reopen first and everyone needs to back off the threat of default.  So, the issue isn’t whether to talk, which all sides seem to want to do.  The issue is whether to talk while one side holds federal programs and the nation’s credit rating hostage, threatening to keep the government shut and let the nation default if it doesn’t get its way.

A walk down memory lane may put Chairman Ryan’s complaint about Obama’s refusal to talk in its proper perspective.

In September, Obama made a big concession to Republicans to avoid a government shutdown by agreeing to accept, in its entirety, the sequestration funding level that Republicans wanted for their Continuing Resolution to keep the government open after October 1.  Tuesday, he offered another, saying talks could proceed even if Republicans opened the government and raised the debt limit only temporarily (such as for a few weeks).

That would enable Republicans once again to threaten shutdown and default in a few weeks if the talks didn’t produce an outcome they liked.  Nevertheless, House Speaker John Boehner immediately rejected the offer.

Meanwhile, after insisting that the Senate pass a budget resolution, House Republicans have refused to proceed to a budget conference with the Senate for the past six months after the Senate did as they asked.  Before that, it was Boehner, egged on by hard-liners in his caucus, who walked out of — and terminated — the Obama-Boehner budget negotiations of last December, even though the two sides weren’t far apart.

That clarifies what Ryan means when he says Obama is refusing to talk.  He and House Republican leaders evidently want to negotiate only while they are holding a government shutdown and prospects of a default over the President’s head to gain leverage in the talks.

Beyond that, the policy formulation that Ryan presents in his op-ed is deeply cynical.  It calls for an agreement — on Republican terms.  Here, too, a bit of history will provide useful context.

Hoping to re-start the failed negotiations of December, Obama proposed in his fiscal year 2014 budget several controversial cuts in major entitlement programs that most Republicans favor and many Democrats oppose — such as the “chained Consumer Price Index” in calculating annual cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security and other benefit programs, increases in Medicare premiums for more affluent beneficiaries, and some increases in the Medicare cost-sharing charges that beneficiaries bear.  Obama explicitly offered these proposals as part of a larger budget deal through which Republicans would agree to increased revenues that policymakers would generate by curbing some tax credits, deductions, and credits that are collectively known as “tax expenditures” (and which former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan has appropriately termed “tax entitlements”).

Before House Republicans pulled the plug on the December negotiations, Boehner had tentatively agreed to more tax expenditures savings alongside entitlement changes.  But, in his op-ed, Ryan now proposes to pocket the entitlement savings that Obama offered as an overture, with no revenues in return.  He also disingenuously cites the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget as supporting these entitlement changes without noting that both institutions have supported them as part of larger deficit reduction packages that also raise substantial revenues.

So, here’s Ryan’s offer:  negotiations while the government is shut down and default looms, and an agreement in which all deficit reduction comes from budget cuts and none from increased revenues.

Progress?  Hardly.  It’s the very type of posture that has put us on the narrow ledge on which the nation now finds itself.

While Government Remains Shut Down, Republicans Propose Another Committee — And One That’s Not Supposed to Discuss Revenues

October 8, 2013 at 4:28 pm

Critical government services have been shut down for over a week, federal employees and contractors are going without pay, and the nation is fast approaching a potentially catastrophic default on its obligations.  But instead of addressing these problems, the House Republican leadership now wants to appoint a committee (termed a “working group”) to recommend ways of reducing the deficit — without raising any revenues.  The proposal — which the House will vote on later today — is deeply disappointing.

Not only does the legislation do nothing to reopen the government or avoid default, delaying badly needed action on these fronts while the working group talks.  It doesn’t even set up meaningful deficit reduction discussions — unlike the 2011 supercommittee, its focus is to include only spending cuts and not revenues.

The bill directs the working group to recommend “reforms in direct spending programs” — in other words, budget cuts in Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, SNAP (food stamps) and other such programs — without recommendations to rein in even a single unproductive tax break used by special interests or corporations with well-connected lobbyists or to consider any other revenue-raising measures.

The working group could, for example, propose trimming Social Security’s cost-of-living adjustments or increasing Medicare’s premiums and co-payments, but not an increase in the amount of earnings subject to the Social Security payroll tax.  That is hardly a recipe for a fair and balanced deficit-reduction plan.

In short, this is yet another measure through which House Republicans seek to look reasonable and to deflect criticism, while failing to move off their unbalanced agenda or lift their ransom demands.

Moreover, we have been down the “committee” road before, and it led to a dead end.  The Budget Control Act of 2011 established the so-called supercommittee to identify more than $1 trillion in deficit-reduction measures.  The supercommittee failed to agree, however, and meat-axe sequestration cuts in both defense and non-defense discretionary spending took effect as a result.

And, it should be noted the House and Senate both passed budgets back last spring, creating an opportunity for a discussion on budget priorities.  Despite efforts by Senate Democrats to initiate a conference to negotiate a budget agreement, Republicans have rejected these overtures.  If there is now a desire to negotiate, creating a new process with a new working group is not the answer; it’s only a diversion from the task at hand.

The appropriate step now is not another diversionary tactic, but for the House to pass a clean continuing resolution and an increase in the debt ceiling.  And this bill isn’t just unhelpful — it could actually harm the economy because it would push off action on the shutdown and the debt limit while the working group talked.

Finally, it would affirm that it’s acceptable to hold the economy hostage over demands that a faction of one political party cannot otherwise win.

History Isn’t Repeating Itself — This Shutdown Is Different

October 8, 2013 at 9:12 am

Former Reagan Administration official Joseph Morris argues that there’s nothing unusual about policymakers using a government shutdown to work out policy differences.  In an October 2 Washington Post column, he claims the Reagan years prove it and, therefore, people should stop criticizing House Republicans for shutting down the government to extract changes in health reform.

But the evidence that Morris cites undercuts his arguments.  This time indeed is different, and it’s far more dangerous to the economy and the functioning of American democracy itself, as the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman wrote last week.  The only precedent for this shutdown is the long, harmful, and ultimately unsuccessful 1995-96 episode, in which House Republicans tried to force President Clinton to sign into law parts of House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America.”

Morris points to several occasions in the 1980s when the President and Congress didn’t reach agreement in time on appropriations bills or a continuing resolution (CR) and, consequently, the government shut down.

But as Morris acknowledges, those shutdowns occurred largely because of disagreements over the funding levels for the CR or appropriations bills themselves, and the shutdowns were short.  Prolonged shutdowns did not occur because lawmakers in one chamber, already satisfied with the funding levels in a CR, sought to extract highly controversial changes on other policies unrelated to CR funding levels — like health reform.  The brief shutdowns Morris cites were not exercises in hostage-taking.  They were mostly disagreements — quickly resolved — on the levels at which the CRs should operate.

In the current shutdown, by contrast, Congressional Democrats have agreed to accept in toto the CR funding levels that Republicans seek — continuing the 2013 funding levels, and thereby accepting (for the term of the CR) the 2014 sequestration level for non-defense discretionary programs while placing defense funding above this year’s sequestration level.  Although House Democratic leaders said in September they wouldn’t support these CR funding levels, Senate Democrats then accepted them, and last week, House Democrats announced they’d accept them in a CR as well.

That’s unlike Morris’ Reagan-era episodes.  He misses the basic point — if we legitimize action by hardline Congressional factions to shut down the government indefinitely if they don’t get dramatic policy concessions they can’t otherwise win, that will likely become a regular feature of Congressional politics and our political system will become still more dysfunctional.

In a trenchant analysis, the Center for American Progress’ Scott Lilly highlights other deficiencies in arguments like Morris’.  He explains that prior shutdowns other than the Clinton-Gingrich confrontation in 1995-96 were extremely brief and often occurred over weekends or holidays.  A Congressional Research Service analysis shows that every one of the 1980s shutdowns that Morris cites lasted only one to three days, and in the majority of those cases, at least one of the days came on a weekend.

That’s why, as we’ve previously said, the current situation is different and is fraught with peril.  And it’s why Friedman, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank, ourselves, and other observers have emphasized that the President is right not to negotiate or make concessions in return for re-opening the government or raising the debt limit.  We should not reward and enshrine hostage-taking and extortionate tactics as a basic part of American politics.

“Emerging” House Republican Offer Could Spell More Trouble on Shutdown, Default

October 7, 2013 at 3:42 pm

The nation may be in for more trouble on the government shutdown and debt limit than many commentators realize — if Robert Costa’s recent National Review piece accurately reflects House Republicans’ thinking on their next steps.  In “The Emerging Offer,” Costa describes the “offer” that House Republican leaders are assembling, which suggests that what House Republicans will portray as a reasonable, middle-ground compromise is anything but.

The offer largely represents yet another effort to push — as ransom for President Obama and Congress to pay in exchange for House Republican agreement to reopen the government and raise the debt limit — a set of highly unbalanced policies that are favored by one end of the political spectrum.  The offer, Costa reports, will likely include:

  • A mechanism for “revenue-neutral” tax reform.
  • Cuts in Social Security and various other benefits through the “chained CPI.”
  • Medicare changes affecting beneficiaries.
  • Other entitlement program cuts.
  • Repeal of the medical device tax, which helps finance an expansion of insurance coverage under health reform.

So, Republicans get lots of budget cuts, a repeal of the medical device tax, and revenue-neutral tax reform that devotes all savings from politically achievable curbs on tax deductions, credits, and other preferences (known as “tax expenditures”) solely to lowering tax rates, with none for deficit reduction?  As we’ve explained, this would effectively take any revenue contribution to deficit reduction off the table for years to come, virtually ensuring that future deficit reduction must come entirely from budget cuts.

And for … what?  In return for all of these concessions, and for enshrining the use of threats of massive harm to the government and the economy as a legitimate political tool, House Republicans would agree to let the government do its job — to resume normal operations and pay its bills on time.

And if the President and congressional Democrats do not accept this deeply unbalanced package, then what?  Do House Republicans keep the government shut down and even let the government default later this month?

As our readers know, we believe that policymakers should consider the chained CPI (with protections for low-income or very old Americans), increases in Medicare premiums for affluent beneficiaries, and various other entitlement changes — but only as part of a larger deficit-reduction package in which Republicans agree to substantial revenue increases from curbs on ineffective or low-priority tax expenditures, address sequestration, and set adequate domestic discretionary funding levels.  But the formulation that Costa reports is very different.  It should be unacceptable for two basic reasons.

First, the President and Congress should make no concessions in return for re-opening the government or raising the debt limit, or else hostage-taking — in which congressional factions threaten to shut down the government or default (or actually force one or the other) — will become a regular feature of the American political landscape.  That’s a prescription for a great nation’s decline.

Second, carefully designed savings in entitlement programs and well-designed increases in revenues must go hand in hand.

Adding to concerns about the “offer,” I suspect that House Republicans will craft their framework for “revenue-neutral” tax reform so that, in fact, it opens the door to substantial revenue losses that would worsen deficits in future decades.  We’ve explained that corporate tax reform that’s revenue neutral in the first ten years would likely lose substantial revenue in subsequent decades.  (Key reductions in corporate tax expenditures now under discussion would raise much less money after the first ten years than in the initial decade; as a result, the White House has called for corporate tax reform that’s deficit neutral in subsequent decades as well as in the first ten years so it doesn’t swell long-term deficits.)

In addition, it’s widely understood that the tax-reform package that House Ways and Means Committee chair Dave Camp is assembling will use timing gimmicks on the individual side of tax reform as well in order to make revenue measures that would lose money on an ongoing basis appear revenue neutral in the initial ten years.  One way to do that, for example, is to change the tax treatment of various types of retirement savings so that taxpayers pay, in the first decade, tens of billions of dollars in taxes they are now scheduled to pay in future decades.  Such timing gimmicks can make a tax-cut package look revenue neutral in the first ten years while creating a big revenue hole after that, deepening our longer-term fiscal challenges.

Observers will need to look carefully at the tax-reform instructions or framework, if and when House Republicans unveil the offer that Costa writes about.  They will need to see whether it includes measures to assure real revenue neutrality over time or, instead, requires neutrality only in the initial decade and fails to bar the widespread use of timing gimmicks that would swell deficits in future decades.

All in all, what’s very troubling is that House Republican leaders, with the shutdown continuing and default drawing ever closer, are thinking that somehow they can present this “emerging offer” as something that passes for major progress and a reasonable offer.