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Getting real about Congress

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"No single vote by any single senator could possibly illustrate everything that is wrong with Washington today," writes Fred Hiatt. "No single vote could embody the full cynicism and cowardice of our political elite at its worst, or explain by itself why problems do not get solved." But, as he says, Mitch McConnell's vote against the Conrad-Gregg deficit commission came pretty close.

McConnell wasn't some closet supporter of the proposal. He was a constant advocate. Here he is last May, for instance: "As I have said many times before, the best way to address the crisis is the Conrad-Gregg proposal." But when it came up for a vote last week, McConnell filibustered it. Asked for an explanation, McConnell offered some nonsense about how people serious about getting the debt under control should have opposed the stimulus. Yawn. If he's not going to try to offer a coherent explanation, I'm not going to bother with a detailed rebuttal.

The issue here isn't whether McConnell is a disingenuous opportunist. That goes without saying. What I'd like to see, however, is for people to begin predicting this sort of behavior rather than being surprised by it.

McConnell's actions cannot be explained by beliefs, which is something that makes people very uncomfortable. But they can be explained by party incentives, which is something that makes people even more uncomfortable. We're very familiar with a model of Congress in which legislators disagree over policy and that causes them to vote against one another. We're much more concerned by the idea that they don't disagree at all, but are simply trying to win the next election.

But the latter does a much better job explaining how congresspeople actually vote. It's impossible to offer a principled explanation for Republicans who voted for the deficit-financed Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit but attacked the deficit-cutting health-care reform bill as too profligate. Similarly, Republicans routinely raised the debt limit when they controlled the Senate, but they hammered Democrats when they did the same thing last month. But the debt, of course, is the product of many presidents and many Congresses (what's up, Bush tax cuts of ’01 and ’03?), and Republicans don't think we should stop paying it.

The problem with believing that Congress runs on ideology rather than electoral interests is that it perpetuates the harmful misconception that legislators of good faith can get together and agree on policy, and that when that doesn't happen, something has gone wrong, or the policy in question is terribly extreme. We tell the public to expect agreement and then tell them to be disgusted when that agreement never manifests. It's a recipe for cynicism, and it's not accurate.

This is how Congress works: The majority party wants to govern. The minority party wants to make the majority a failure at governing. If you want to predict congressional outcomes, you'd do a lot better sticking to those two principles than following the optimistic statements of the media and the bipartisan hopes of the commentariat.

Update: James Fallows is thinking along similar lines.

Photo credit: By J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

By Ezra Klein  |  February 1, 2010; 2:48 PM ET
Categories:  Congress  
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Next: Oldies but goodies in the budget

Comments

Let's hope Obama learns this before 2012!

Posted by: AZProgressive | February 1, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

"What I'd like to see, however, is for people to begin predicting this sort of behavior rather than being surprised by it."

Like how surprised everybody was when end of life counseling became "death panels"? Or that people reacted poorly to the fact the legislation was crafted in private after 8 separate promises to have it aired on C-SPAN? Or that family planning language touched off abortion debates? Or that a fine for non-participation became a jail sentence for folks who didn't buy Obamacare?

Of course, in that case, thoughtful prediction of the nearly inevitable could have crafted better, more passable, less ambitious legislation. In this case, this about face of Mitch McConnell is (a) only really predictable after the Scott Brown victory, where Republicans now see whatever they can do to obstruct the Obama agenda as the key to political victory and (b) not exactly something they could have adjusted the legislation to prevent.

"what's up, Bush tax cuts of ’01 and ’03?"

Sigh. I realize I'm in a serious minority here, looking at the numbers and determining that the Bush tax cuts were, at worst, deficit neutral and, at best, actually increased gross receipts to the federal treasury (via spurred economic growth). But couldn't you at least say (and more accurately, in my opinion), "What's up, Bush's runaway spending? What's up, Department of Homeland Bureaucracy? What's up, Medicare Part D? What's up, war in Iraq and Afghanistan?"

Yes, I'm one of those supply-sider rubes. Apologies.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 1, 2010 3:02 PM | Report abuse

This is where I am ready to blame President Obama most. Yes, that is not a mistake; I do mean what worst kind of politics President has played here.

Argument is like this - he should not have gone for his 'own deficit reduction commission by executive fiat' since it lacks the teeth, real power. The right thing for him to do was, keep on campaigning against McConnell of the world, those GOP Senators who opposed Congressional Commission on Deficit Reduction. Expose them - they criticize Obama then why oppose ' real commission' which could have made difference?

President has reasonably established his 'tax cut' credentials here. Contrary to what GOP wants to blame, he and Dem Congress have NOT increased taxes so far but rather given lot of tax cuts and big thing is 'people understand' that.

So painting these GOP in the corner for opposing 'real Congressional Deficit Reduction Commission with teeth' would really bring this issue to the forth. After all in the end Obama has to make American people aware - do they want tax cuts & deficits or do they want 'targeted tax cuts' & contained deficits.

The best part of this strategy would have been Obama would not have required to bind himself by conceding lot of room by setting up his own commission. Whatever 'deficit reduction' he wants to do; he can do that without his own commission.

Because in the end the problem is about 'selling deficit reduction by cuts and taxes to Congress and American people'; President is fooling by appointing a commission which does not matter.

He needs to take the fight to the street about deficits. Until he does that, he is 'as cynical as McConnell' and is deceiving American people. What a waste.

Posted by: umesh409 | February 1, 2010 3:14 PM | Report abuse

All of this demonstrates why its a pretty solid bet that unless we get some kind of massive game-changing economic growth in the coming years that swamps all these budgetary problems with unexpected new revenue, we're going to see what national bankruptcy looks like.

Lets hope that Winston Churchill was right when he said "the Americans will always do the right thing, after they've exhausted all the other options" because right now our government isnt built for dealing with what we're faced with economically.

Posted by: zeppelin003 | February 1, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Great post!
Just one correction re: "The majority party wants to govern"
The GOP is NOT interested in governing even when they hold the majority.

Posted by: Yoni1 | February 1, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Willis,
No need to apologize for being a supply sider, as long as you promise never to vote again or every try to give me economic advice. Seriously, I understand the Laffer Curve. If marginal tax rates are 99% and you reduce them to 50%, you're very likely going to see enough additional economic activity to counteract the lost revenue from lower the rate. But seriously, lowering marginal rates 3-4%, from 39% to 35%. No way in hell you get enough "spurred economic activity" to make up for the lost revenue. It's hogwash. See http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/10/16/failing-to-pass-the-laffer-test/ and http://www.cbpp.org/cms/?fa=view&id=692
I can't believe we still have to have these conversations. Anytime some talking head say "lower taxes will spur growth and raise revenue" they should be hanged by their toenails.

Posted by: scudderw | February 1, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse

I'm glad to finally see a piece focusing on McConnell's hypocrisy. I feel he should be getting a lot more blame in the media for the obstructionistic behavior in the Senate, rather than just references to the "party of no". Yes, the other Republican Senators should have a spine and do the right thing, in spite of what McConnell tells them to do, but we know that's not going to happen. I'm sure McConnell is using leadership PAC money as an enticement or punishment for their behavior, among other things (which is one more evil wrought by leadership PACs). But they all seem to buy into the theory that they'll benefit in the midterms as a result of their behavior.
Keep pointing out the hypocrites, please!

Posted by: reach4astar2 | February 1, 2010 3:17 PM | Report abuse

"Surprised" by this behavior? Really? This was all painfully obvious since the stimulus vote.

Posted by: scarlota | February 1, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

I'm really, really surprised to hear you say that, Kevin. I don't know anyone who's looked at the numbers and come to that conclusion. I think it's fair enough to be for tax cuts, but even Mankiw doesn't believe they replace themselves in revenue.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | February 1, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

Kevin_Willis said: "I realize I'm in a serious minority here, looking at the numbers and determining that the Bush tax cuts were, at worst, deficit neutral and, at best, actually increased gross receipts to the federal treasury"

Kevin, this is not actually the case. Tax cuts cost revenue.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/10/16/AR2006101601121.html

"Federal revenue is lower today than it would have been without the tax cuts. There's really no dispute among economists about that," said Alan D. Viard, a former Bush White House economist now at the nonpartisan American Enterprise Institute. "It's logically possible" that a tax cut could spur sufficient economic growth to pay for itself, Viard said. "But there's no evidence that these tax cuts would come anywhere close to that."

Economists at the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and in the Treasury Department have reached the same conclusion. An analysis of Treasury data prepared last month by the Congressional Research Service estimates that economic growth fueled by the cuts is likely to generate revenue worth about 7 percent of the total cost of the cuts, a broad package of rate reductions and tax credits that has returned an estimated $1.1 trillion to taxpayers since 2001.

More info available here: http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3036

Together, the tax cuts account for $3.4 trillion of the deficits over the 2009-2019 period. Finally, we added the extra debt-service costs caused by the Bush-era tax cuts, amounting to $1.9 trillion over the period and an astonishing $350 billion in 2019 alone.

Posted by: eelvisberg | February 1, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

Sorry Ezra, but your description of how the minority behaves only describes a Republican minority.

When the Democrats were in the minority, they did make a good-faith effort to govern with the Republican majority. See: '01 and '03 tax cuts, Iraq War, Justices Roberts and Alito, Medicare Part D, No Child Left Behind, et al, all of which garnered some or lots of Democratic votes. After all, Republicans never had a anything close to a filibuster-proof majority. Disagree as I and many Democrats did, there were many who played a constructive role in shaping those policies--e.g. Senator Kennedy with NCLB.

Unlike the reactionary Republicans of today, Democrats in the minority didn't filibuster every piece of legislation just because it wasn't 100% their idea. (And as we've seen, Republicans are now even filibustering their own ideas simply because Democrats agree and are willing to put them up for a vote.)

When Democrats were in the minority, of course they wanted to win back control, but they did so by responsibly articulating where and why they disagreed with Republican policies, not by pulling the emergency brakes while the perfectly sane, healthy, and democratically-elected driver is at the wheel. Republicans just lie about what's in the legislation to get the ill-informed American public (thanks cnn!) to yell along with them. Democracy FAIL.

Posted by: imherefortheezra | February 1, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Willis--

"I realize I'm in a serious minority here, looking at the numbers and determining that the Bush tax cuts were, at worst, deficit neutral and, at best, actually increased gross receipts to the federal treasury (via spurred economic growth)"

This would be the same economy that never regained what it lost since 2000 and led directly to the Great Recession?

Posted by: adamiani | February 1, 2010 3:33 PM | Report abuse

"No need to apologize for being a supply sider, as long as you promise never to vote again or every try to give me economic advice."

Well, I can't promise not to vote--I surely will--but I will certainly do my best never to offer you advice.

"If marginal tax rates are 99% and you reduce them to 50%, you're very likely going to see enough additional economic activity to counteract the lost revenue from lower the rate. But seriously, lowering marginal rates 3-4%, from 39% to 35%. No way in hell you get enough 'spurred economic activity' to make up for the lost revenue."

That makes sense, although it seems to me to argue for larger tax cuts, especially where they would deliver the most money into the private sector. In any case, we are then arguing about the margins, and could perhaps agree that, at some point, taxation becomes counter-productive to increased revenue. Just as I would agree that there is no way a tax cut of top marginal rates to, say, 10%, could ever been made up in increased economic activity. Depending on the nature of the tax--certain taxes, like capital gains, are transaction taxes, and lowering the threshold tends to increase the potential (at least) for more taxable transactions. At the very least, it makes sense to tinker with the capital gains tax (to me) if the folks in Washington are serious about increasing federal revenues. Try it for a year at 10% or 8% and see what happens. If revenues crash, don't renew it and have it reset to current levels. This doesn't seem outrageous, to me.

"I can't believe we still have to have these conversations."

You really don't have to, if you don't want to. It's okay.

"Anytime some talking head say 'lower taxes will spur growth and raise revenue' they should be hanged by their toenails."

Well, then. That's incontrovertible, isn't it?

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 1, 2010 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,

"I don't know anyone who's looked at the numbers and come to that conclusion. I think it's fair enough to be for tax cuts, but even Mankiw doesn't believe they replace themselves in revenue."

No doubt Mankiw is much more knowledgeable on the subject than I. One of my favorite economic lecturers, Timothy Taylor, also doesn't give much credence to the idea that tax cuts stimulate enough economic activity to increase revenues, and I'd have to say he knows more about it than I do.

Yet much of the analysis that concludes that tax cuts have cost the treasury billions seem to assume that GDP is identical to what it would have been (or sometimes less than it would have been) without the tax cuts, and the fact that federal revenues have, in real dollars, increased seems essentially to be ignored. They presume a fixed rate of economic growth that is not guaranteed.

Which is not to suggest I consider bottomless tax cuts a panacea, or that I think the maximum amount of revenues to the federal treasury would be guaranteed by a 1% flat income tax rate (although the notion still appeals to the libertarian in me), just that, at the very least, the "expense" of tax cuts--be they Reagan's or Bush's--seems greatly overstated.

That being said, neither tax cuts nor tax hikes exist in a vacuum. It could be that the economy would have grown more without the Bush tax cuts, or less without Clinton's mild tax increases. At the end of the day, people much more pedigreed than I--or the guy who wants to hang supply-siders by their toenails--don't think tax cuts can spur enough economic activity to offset the loss in tax revenues. I will have to bow to them.

Still, it seems a minor issue at this point, as the Bush tax cuts are expiring. Revenues to the federal treasure will increase accordingly, and I'm sure that will help cover the debt.

Alas, given my limited insights into the issue, I can't help but feeling that the biggest costs Bush inflicted on us were two wars, The Department of Homeland Bureaucracy, Medicare Part D, and a large variety of other bits of budget-busting spending. Bush was no conservative when it came to writing checks for government largesse. As I mentioned before, though Clinton did raise taxes, at least he made some nominal reductions in the size of government. Bush expanded the government tremendously.

Given my druthers, I'd expect we'd better off without the Bush tax cuts and also without the Bush-era government growth. But even better still, we could have skipped the Bush's Big Government initiatives and kept the tax cuts.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 1, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

It's scientific method- we have a hypothesis. Then we run an experiment. And we get evidence that either confirms or disproves our hypothesis.

Where economics diverges from science is that there is never a perfect experiment.
So when we cut marginal tax rates and don't see growth, supply siders can always point to other factors and claim that they biased the experiment, since in the real world you can never "keep all things constant". At some point, though, you have to give in to the mounting evidence that supply-side economics sounds good in theory, but doesn't actually work. We've run the experiment many times, and have a preety good pattern of evidence.

Posted by: Quant | February 1, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

adamiani:

"This would be the same economy that never regained what it lost since 2000 and led directly to the Great Recession"

Do you mean the economy, or the Dow Jones Industrial Average? Because up through 2007, the Bush economy was going gangbusters (if, arguably, much of that was built upon a tissue of lies). Still, unemployment in 2000 averaged 4.0, hovered in the 5.x through 2001-2005, then went to 4.5 in 2006 and 2007. Positive GDP growth through the 2000s. Tax revenues were 1,783b in 2003 and 2,407b in 2006--that's an increase of 40% in 3 years. Even with all those expensive Bush tax cuts.

Revenues for 2001 to 2004 were less than 2000--but 2000 was a banner year for tax revenues. Every year of the Bush administration except 2003 was above 1999 revenues, and every year of the Bush admin was above 1998 revenues, or the revenues of any previous year.

It was not exactly a decade with no positive economic activity. Although, Frankly, the Clinton decade was better, by the numbers. Although some of that was apparently a tissue of lies, too (the dot.com bust).

But, that's really neither here nor there. The Bush tax cuts are expiring. The Democrats own the Whitehouse and the House and the Senate. If the Bush tax cuts have been an onerous drag on the economy, we should soon be free of that burden. Certainly, current budgets are not predicated on the Bush economic plan. Things should be getting much better, very soon.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 1, 2010 4:22 PM | Report abuse

" At some point, though, you have to give in to the mounting evidence that supply-side economics sounds good in theory, but doesn't actually work. We've run the experiment many times, and have a preety good pattern of evidence."

I have difficulty agreeing, but this is, no doubt, some limitation in my own grasp of the subject. I don't think we've really run the experiment many times. Reagan's tax cuts were bundled with a hike in the capital gains tax (and some other tax increases, over time). Then Bush, Senior went along with raising taxes. Yes, Bush lowered taxes, but spent like a drunken sailor. And there was that whole 9/11 thing, which put a damper on the economy for a bit. Then there was the whole "fighting expensive wars on two fronts".

Of course, it's impossible to apply supply-side or demand-side economics in a vacuum, and there are always exception. Many feel the reason why the stimulus hasn't been particularly effective in critical areas--yet--is that it simply wasn't enough. It should have been more, more aggressively pursued.

I think the same argument could be made for tax cuts as a tool for promoting private sector economic growth.

However, I think we might both agree (perhaps) that tax cuts and promiscuous spending make for strange bedfellows.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 1, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

Why is it, then, that the Republicans are so much better at behaving with their own political self-interest than the Democrats? Why Nelson? Why Baucus? Why Lieberman?

Why are the Republicans so much better at preventing this kind of behavior than the Democrats?

Posted by: jacobh | February 1, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

This is an interesting line of thought. When I was in school we learned that there were really 536 parties in Washington with each member of congress, each senator, and the president acting in their own best interests.

But, perhaps these 536 people have learned that their interest is most influenced by the national political climate and that is most responsive to the rise and fall of national parties. And so, now their best interest is to serve their national party.

I wonder what they are teaching in PolySci now?

Posted by: ideallydc | February 1, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

You're right Mr. Willis, we don't have to have this conversation, seeing as discussing this topic with you is more akin to arguing with a dinning room table. I shall take up more productive activities, such as banging my head against the wall.

Posted by: scudderw | February 1, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

@scudderw:

"You're right Mr. Willis, we don't have to have this conversation, seeing as discussing this topic with you is more akin to arguing with a dinning room table."

I've lost to a dining room table. I am appropriately shamed by the comparison.

Please don't bang your head against the wall.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 1, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

"Why is it, then, that the Republicans are so much better at behaving with their own political self-interest than the Democrats?"

Remember who lost in 2006 and 2008. Nobody's invulnerable.

Posted by: tomtildrum | February 1, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

Republicans are so disgusting, they literally makes me sick.

Posted by: impikk | February 1, 2010 6:07 PM | Report abuse

I agree with imherefortheezra: Ezra's description of how the minority behaves only describes the Republican minority. I'd add that as far as I can tell, it only describes Republican behavior starting in the 1990's. Before then, I'd say that the majority of politicians in both parties were patriotic Americans, or at least did a damn good job of pretending they were.

Posted by: KennethAlmquist | February 2, 2010 12:58 AM | Report abuse

I would agree with Ezra except for one thing: Mitch McConnell got elected in 2008, and doesn't have to run again for six years. I have a hard time believing that little maneuvers like the one cited here will have a material impact on him in 2014, and I think he pretty well gets that, too.

He is, however, his party's leader in the Senate, and wants to stay in that job. So that is another vector by which to predict his voting. At this stage in the six-year re-election cycle, he votes against the very commission he advocated for, not for how it will be perceived by voters, but how it will be perceived by other Republican Senators. His constituents aren't even a thought.

Posted by: Rick00 | February 2, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

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