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Posted at 6:37 AM ET, 12/23/2010

Wonkbook: The 111th Congress is over. How will the 112th compare?

By Ezra Klein

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One reader called it 'the Angry Birds' Congress. Majority Leader Harry Reid said it was a "goose on steroids." By the time the 111th gaveled out yesterday, everyone agreed that its final session had been anything but lame. And the rest of the Congress merits that respect, as well. Its frenetic level of activity was enabled by historic majorities (notably in the Senate) and action-inducing events (like the financial crisis), but the rush of legislation it passed, often in difficult circumstances, is testament to Reid and Pelosi's desire and ability to use the majorities they were given. And they did. From health-care reform to financial regulation to food safety to the tax deal to tobacco regulation to the stimulus, the laws they wrote will reshape the safety net, the regulatory state, tax policy, the country's built infrastructure, and much more.

The question now becomes how the 112th Congress will work. The House GOP has already released its rules. They include "CutGo," wherein tax cuts will no longer need to be paid for, a live reading of the Constitution on the House floor, barring former congressmen who now work as lobbyists from the House gym, posting the text of legislation at least 24 hours before it gets considered, and changing the "Committee on Education and Labor" to the "Committee on Education and the Workforce" because, well, the GOP is not so friendly with the labor movement.

It's the Senate, however, where things have taken a surprising turn: All returning Democrats have signed a letter to Reid calling for filibuster reform. That's surprising now, and would've been unthinkable a year ago. What they mean by filibuster reform isn't yet clear -- it's not ending the filibuster, but it could be as much as the full Merkley package, or as little as empowering Reid to negotiate with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell over cloture delays -- but either way, it puts the minority on notice that continued routinization of procedural obstruction won't be met with mere sighs from the majority, but with rule changes that might eventually deprive the minority of those tools. The letter may just be a warning shot, but it could turn into much more if Democrats feel the warning wasn't heeded.

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Every returning Democratic Senator wants to reform the filibuster, reports Dan Friedman: "All Democratic senators returning next year have signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., urging him to consider action to change long-sacrosanct filibuster rules. The letter, delivered this week, expresses general frustration with what Democrats consider unprecedented obstruction and asks Reid to take steps to end those abuses. While it does not urge a specific solution, Democrats said it demonstrates increased backing in the majority for a proposal, championed by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., and others, weaken the minority’s ability to tie the Senate calendar into parliamentary knots. Among the chief revisions that Democrats say will likely be offered: Senators could not initiate a filibuster of a bill before it reaches the floor unless they first muster 40 votes for it, and they would have to remain on the floor to sustain it."

Chalk it up to Mitch McConnell, I argue: "[Democratic] unity stems from an unlikely source: Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has mounted more filibusters in the past two years than occurred in the ’50s and ’60s combined. Uncontroversial bills like an extension of unemployment benefits that passed 97-0 and food-safety legislation that passed with 73 votes frequently faced multiple filibusters and months of delay. The minority has been so relentless and indiscriminate in deploying the once-rare failsafe that the majority has finally decided to do something about it."

The 111th Congress has adjourned, report David Fahrenthold, Philip Rucker, and Felicia Sonmez: "A Congress that was dominated by Democrats passed more landmark legislation than any since the era of Lyndon B. Johnson's 'Great Society.' Congress approved an $814 billion economic stimulus, a massive health-care overhaul, and new regulations on Wall Street trading and consumer credit cards. The list grew longer during this month's frenetic lame-duck session: tax cuts, a nuclear arms treaty and a repeal of the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy on gays in the military. But the 111th Congress will also be remembered for endless filibuster threats, volcanic town hall meetings, and the rise of the tea party. All were symbols of a dissatisfaction that peaked on Nov. 2, with a Republican rout in the midterm elections."

A bill providing health benefit to 9/11 relief workers has finally passed Congress, reports Felicia Sonmez: "After a years-long battle and a bout of last-minute opposition by Senate Republicans, the House on Wednesday passed a bill that would provide $4.2 billion in compensation and long-term health-care benefits for first responders who became ill from working at Ground Zero in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, sending the measure on to President Obama for his signature. The bill passed Wednesday evening by a vote of 206 to 60 after House leaders had held open the vote for more than an hour, presumably for members who were still hustling to make their way over to the Capitol on the final day of the 111th Congress' lame-duck session. Missing Wednesday's vote were nearly 170 House members, 100 more than had been missing in action for the previous day's votes."

The 111th Congress' accomplishments are reflected inthe 112th's main goals, writes E.J. Dionne: "The new Republican House majority is devoted less to a bold agenda of its own than to repealing, scaling back or derailing the accomplishments of the outgoing majority. The fact that wiping out what they call 'Obamacare' is a unifying priority for the conservative newcomers is a backhanded compliment to those who enacted it: Yes, it was a big deal after all, and in the forthcoming debate, reform's supporters will get a second chance to make the case for what they did. Republicans also hope to undercut financial reform, giving the law's supporters the opportunity to explain more clearly why a financial system with loose rules becomes little more than a casino operated by people in much nicer suits than those worn by the average croupier."

Got tips, additions, or comments? E-mail me.

Indie pop interlude: First Rate People's "Girls' Night".

Still to come: Merrill Lynch spent two years selling itself toxic assets; Medicare is declining to use its own databases to police fraud; George Will sees common ground between President Obama and Rep. Dave Camp; a bill to protect whistleblowers failed in the Senate; the US is challenging China at the WTO on wind power; and a cat is deeply confused by his own reflection.


Economy

Merrill Lynch sold itself toxic assets, report Jake Bernstein and Jesse Eisinger: "Two years before the financial crisis hit, Merrill Lynch confronted a serious problem. No one, not even the bank's own traders, wanted to buy the supposedly safe portions of the mortgage-backed securities Merrill was creating. Bank executives came up with a fix that had short-term benefits and long-term consequences. They formed a new group within Merrill, which took on the bank's money-losing securities. But how to get the group to accept deals that were otherwise unprofitable? They paid them...The group, created in 2006, accepted tens of billions of dollars of Merrill's Triple A-rated mortgage-backed assets, with disastrous results. The value of the securities fell to pennies on the dollar and helped to sink the iconic firm. Merrill was sold to Bank of America, which was in turn bailed out by taxpayers."

Economic growth beat projections in the third quarter: http://on.wsj.com/i4dkGt

Fannie and Freddie were central to creating the foreclosure crisis, report Zachary Goldfarb and Ariana Eunjung Cha: "Fannie and Freddie, the largest mortgage companies, shaped the practices being challenged in courtrooms around the country. They picked law firms that could foreclose fast and paid them based on how many foreclosures they could process. Speed was essential because delays cost the companies money - and, after they were taken over by the government two years ago, meant losses for taxpayers, too. Not only did the companies urge swift foreclosures, but in at least one case Fannie executives also greenlighted working with a firm that they knew firsthand had engaged in legally questionable practices, according to documents and interviews with lawyers and industry officials."

Greater consumer spending and business hiring is forming a positive feedback loop: http://on.wsj.com/emsl3E

Obama should be able to compromise with incoming Ways and Means chair David Camp, writes George Will: "His aim is 'fundamental' tax reform, understood the usual way - broadening the base (eliminating loopholes) to make lower rates possible. He would like a top rate of 25 percent - three points lower than Ronald Reagan achieved in 1986, with what proved to be perishable simplification...If Barack Obama is accurately reported to be considering serious tax simplification and lower rates, he will have an ally in Camp - up to a point. Serious arguments about taxes are never just about taxes. They are about government's proper size and purposes. Concerning that, Obama differs with Camp, who says: 'Washington doesn't have a revenue problem. It has a spending problem.'"

Classic comics interlude: Calvin & Hobbes strips about snowmen.

Health Care

Medicare isn't using its own records to stop fraud, report Mark Schoofs and Maurice Tamman: "There are plenty of reasons why Medicare often fails to stop questionable payments up front. To protect law-abiding doctors and hospitals--the vast majority--Medicare is required to pay nearly everybody within 30 days. Medicare says it is reluctant to suspend payments to providers who may have made honest mistakes, out of concern that beneficiaries might go without needed treatment. Law-enforcement agencies and Medicare contractors, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of Medicare fraud cases, can't investigate and prosecute them all. Sometimes, prosecutors and investigators ask Medicare to keep paying so as not to tip off targets of an investigation. But a central problem is that Medicare hasn't fully exploited its most valuable resource: its claims database, a computerized record of every claim submitted and every dollar paid out."

The ACLU is pushing the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services to require Catholic hospitals perform abortions: http://wapo.st/gaT7bC

The EPA will offer testing for a water supply carcinogen, reports Lyndsey Layton: "The Environmental Protection Agency is suggesting that water utilities nationwide test their drinking water for hexavalent chromium, a probable carcinogen, after an independent survey released earlier this week found the chemical in tap water drawn from 31 cities. The EPA said Wednesday that it is issuing guidance to the utilities explaining how to test for the chemical but is not requiring tests at this time. The agency said it will also give technical help to the 31 cities identified in the survey - including Washington and Bethesda - so they can set up a monitoring and sampling procedure for hexavalent chromium, a chemical made famous by the film 'Erin Brockovich.'"

Domestic Policy

A bill to help whistleblowers has failed in the Senate, report Jeffrey Smith: "A bill giving federal employees expanded protections against retaliation for blowing the whistle on waste, fraud and abuse died in Congress on Wednesday night, after a 12-year lobbying effort won last-minute unanimous approval for it in the House but failed to gain similar approval under special voting rules in the Senate. A single unnamed senator put a hold on the bill, which had already passed the Senate by voice vote in a more controversial form, just before the chamber adjourned for the Christmas holiday. That decision denied the Obama administration - and many Republican supporters - a victory that accountability advocates have long sought."

Some municipalities are dealing with retiree benefits through bankruptcy: http://on.wsj.com/haBKjr

States have enacted dramatic education cuts, writes Robert Reich: "California has reduced K-12 aid to local school districts by billions of dollars and is cutting a variety of programs, including adult literacy instruction and help for high-needs students. Colorado has reduced public school spending in FY 2011 by $260 million, nearly a 5 percent decline from the previous year. The cut amounts to more than $400 per student. Georgia has cut state funding for K-12 education for FY 2011 by $403 million or 5.5 percent relative to FY 2010 levels. The cut has led the state’s board of education to exempt local school districts from class size requirements to reduce costs."

Adorable animals getting disoriented interlude: A kitten gets confused by his own reflection.

Energy

The US is challenging China at the WTO over wind power, reports Sewell Chan: "The Obama administration accused China on Wednesday of illegally subsidizing the production of wind power equipment and called for discussions at the World Trade Organization, the first step in a trade case sought by American steelworkers. It is the second time in less than four months that the administration has accused China of violating world trade rules. The move escalates the trade tensions between the world’s largest two economies over clean energy, a sector that the administration views as a technological frontier in which American companies are struggling to remain competitive. Washington is challenging a special government fund in China that awards grants to makers of wind power equipment."

The price of oil has finally recovered from the financial crisis, report Russell Gold and Carolyn Cui: "Rising demand for petroleum--notably from U.S. motorists and Chinese manufacturers--has helped push oil above $90 a barrel for the first time since the early days of the financial crisis. The recovery in oil prices is an encouraging sign of world growth, but the spike in crude, if unchecked, also could pose problems for consumers whose incomes remain pinched. Crude oil closed above $90 on the New York Mercantile Exchange on Wednesday for the first time since October 2008, after prices fell in the early months of the financial crisis and global recession. The price of crude had held above $80 for much of 2010, and crept up in recent weeks. Crude's rise is hitting motorists in the wallet. The average price for a gallon of gasoline reached $3 for the first time in two years."

China is near a coal shortage, reports Huang Jingjing: "A severe coal shortage has caused power supplies to factories and residential neighborhoods to be temporarily suspended across seven provinces and regions, as the nation's energy shortage worsens. Coal reserves have been emptied by a huge surge in power demand, prompted by a cold weather front that swept China last week, according to the State Grid Corporation, China National Radio (CNR) reported Sunday. In northwest Shaanxi Province, 14 major thermal power stations had only enough coal stocks for four days, with two others already empty. Due to this worrying state of affairs, many enterprises and residents in the province have received notice of impending power cuts, according to the local China Business View."

Closing credits: Wonkbook is compiled and produced with help from Dylan Matthews, Mike Shepard, and Michelle Williams. Photo credit: Alex Brandon/AP.

By Ezra Klein  | December 23, 2010; 6:37 AM ET
Categories:  Wonkbook  
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Next: A productive Congress doesn't weaken the case for filibuster reform

Comments

Could it be the reason a few GOP moderates joined with Dems to pass START, 911, DADT, etc, was to weaken Dems justification for filibuster reform?

After all, the GOP can now argue, with such historic success and bipartisanship as happened in the lame duck session, there is no need for such reform.

Posted by: lauren2010 | December 23, 2010 7:34 AM | Report abuse

Ezra

That 50s & 60s talking point regarding the filibuster is useless as-is.

Please post a chart showing how many filibusters were used by each party since, say, 1900.

Posted by: lauren2010 | December 23, 2010 7:41 AM | Report abuse

Abolish or downsize the IRS and use those inspectors to instead ferret out medicare and SS fraud.

Make the tax code simple and get rid of loopholes. It's the heath and SS costs that need to be scrutinized.

Posted by: lauren2010 | December 23, 2010 7:44 AM | Report abuse

great article on Medicare abuse that never gets talked about and the saddest part of that story is that those abused are now going to be FORCED upon us due to PPACA. Most private plans have a cap for example on physical therapy for a reason. Not because evil insurers want you to suffer but because if after the standard 20-30 visits physical therapy isn't working then it isn't likely to work and the only ones to benefit further are doctors. Healthplans across the US now are being forced to increase these to unlimited or much higher than now levels because of PPACA. Another reason that if people think this will cost less or save money they're absolutely fooling themselves.

Now onto the liberal lie that Medicare has a 3% administration cost. It doesn't. It hides costs. One way is that it pays doctors within that 15-30 day window that allows fraud up to $100 Billion per year. The fact that they don't use their own information to attack fraud is fed by the fact that since they pay so little to doctors (in comparison to private plans) I expect those that make these decisions feel they can't spend the time necessary to ensure claims are paid correctly and to actual patients. And heck its not their money so who cares.

I'd be interested to see how many of medicare's claims are auto-ajudicated. I'd be willing to bet its close to 90% if not higher. that little oversight just breeds fraud but again who cares, its not CMS' money. There's plenty more where that came from. Not to mention the fact that insurers are already bound in many states by prompt payment laws so they've show the way that it can and is being done.

You want to save billions in medicare fraud. require 20-30% of claims to be ajudicated by an actual claims examiner. Word will get out and the fraudulent providers will scatter like cockroaches.

Posted by: visionbrkr | December 23, 2010 9:35 AM | Report abuse

Liberal Ezra's earlier comment regarding medicare administrative costs: "A more straightforward estimate, according to experts I've spoken to, would be in the range of 5 to 6 percent."

So at least he's not claiming 3% like some other dirty liberals.

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2009/07/administrative_costs_in_health.html

Now that we know some people think liberals lie when they say those costs are 3%, I wonder if conservatives lie about their opposing numbers?

The heritage says those costs are actually higher than private insurers.

http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2009/06/medicare-administrative-costs-are-higher-not-lower-than-for-private-insurance

I don't know. I will bow out now since this is not an area of my expertise, pointing out only that liberals aren't the only one's who lie. Conservatives are quite good at it too.

RARE IS ANY ISSUE WHERE BOTH SIDES AREN'T LYING ABOUT SOMETHING.

In the past I've looked into enough heritage claims to know they aren't always truthful. But hey, I gave you their link so you can read it and decide for yourself.

My guess is that vision's been taking his cues from heritage. Personally, I'd never depend on an agenda driven conservative think tank for data or for opinion advice.

And don't forget that comparing health systems is a lot more complicated than just comparing administrative costs. You have to also look at such things as recission practices, claim denials, affordability, rejection policies, and most importantly, whether an elderly person actually gets care or not if medicare exists or not.

So while vision frets about the truthfulness of medicare administrative costs, I fret about whether 100,000s of elderly Americans are getting quality care. And if anyone says they'd get the care they get now if we didn't have medicare, I'd say they are lying.

Posted by: lauren2010 | December 23, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

lauren,

I thought you weren't going to talk to me? Sure I fret that 100,000 elderly are getting quality care but I'm also worried that millions of elderly will CONTINUE to get quality care so I'm for using the private sector's ways of attacking fraud and abuse of the systems.

Did you bother to link to the WSJ article with the physical therapist billing one year nothing to medicare and the next 11.2 million (which physically would be impossible even if they worked 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year? Or do you just see my name and think "attack"?

I have no doubt conservatives lie about their numbers too and the truth lies somewhere in the middle but now that more truth is given to medicare's ACTUAL admin costs (remember they also don't show the costs of purchasing and maintaining their buildings etc) and the fact that an MLR now will stop (er slow down) liberals from claiming insurers spend 30%+ on profits or admin. To me they're probably about the same when you factor in also fraud and waste and abuse for both. Sure medicare saves more because they pay doctors less but that's offset by insurers that investigate fraud, waste and abuse more than medicare does.

Its not as if one or the other has the market cornered on how to administer healthplans.

Also Medicare has a built in advantage of it being a captive market as opposed to private insurance not being captive.

Posted by: visionbrkr | December 23, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

My guess is that vision's been taking his cues from heritage. Personally, I'd never depend on an agenda driven conservative think tank for data or for opinion advice.


Posted by: lauren2010 | December 23, 2010 10:15 AM | Report abuse

oh and I've NEVER linked to a heritage article (still haven't as i didn't to this one) so do me a favor and don't tell me what I have or haven't done if you don't know what the truth is. Don't try to paint me into a corner as a "conservative" so I must be lying or at least stretching the truth. How does the old saying about assuming go? Oh yeah.

Posted by: visionbrkr | December 23, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

"Rising demand for petroleum--notably from U.S. motorists and Chinese manufacturers--has helped push oil above $90 a barrel for the first time since the early days of the financial crisis>

Well no not really. Oil trades as a proxy for the dollar, and absent major events like natural disasters, financial disasters and wars, has a price that is fairly insulated from demand.

For instance last week the government reported the biggest drop in weekly inventory numbers in 8 years and yet the price of oil was flat on the day. Furthermore Goldman has estimated a 2011 year end price for oil at $110, (I think that's either low or late) a rise of 22% while the IEA forecasts a rise in worldwide oil demand of only about 4%.

There is also no shortage of oil production capacity to account for this, as the world is currently awash in oil.

Just a reminder of how the WSJ reporting has gone downhill since Murdoch took over. They focus much more on the slant of the stories now, than the actual reporting.

Posted by: 54465446 | December 23, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Actually, I see the flurry of activity of this Congress, including some of that fabled bipartisanship everyone on the pundit circuit is so fond of, as just the beginning. I think that the Republicans' attitude toward wielding power has changed and will continue changing now that they actually have some power to wield. Now that they have it, they are going to start worrying about losing it. It's one thing to rile up your base and get them to the polls by promising to destroy Obama and keep the Democrats from "ramming health care down our throats," but it's another thing to try to figure out the effect that your own affirmative actions, now that you are in a position to take them, will have on your re-election chances.

Posted by: randrewm | December 23, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

vision

where did I attack you?

Do you have an issue with people like me pointing out the big picture in opposition to you drilling down to just one detail and then implying (I'm sure it wasn't intentional) only liberals are lying about medicare administrative costs?

I may or may not have been wrong about where you get your data (just to be clear, I never accused you of linking to heritage, rather I simply GUESSED just like I said), but do you think it's possible, just possible, the WSJ and other conservative opinion authors got their data and analysis from the heritage? I'd say it is VERY possible.

Hey, if I upset you with my guess that you got your data and analysis from heritage, then I apologize.

Seriously, here, shake my hand.

But why would you ask me if I "bothered" to post a link to a WSJ article that I didn't even know existed? I'm a little puzzled by this one. After all, I did post two links in my comment (one from a liberal and one from a conservative think tank) whereas you did not post ANY links in your comment. Isn't it a bit unfair to sort of chastise me when in fact I posted more links than you?

Really, calm down, vision. My post was very nice. Don't get so excited. I thought you'd appreciate me being nice to you and responding to your excellent post pointing out that sometimes we have to be skeptical about what we are being told. That's very true. Only, we need to be skeptical about everyone, not just liberals. Wouldn't you agree?

But because your post seems to have painted all liberals as liars (you didn't specify a name, and I'm NOT saying you INTENTIONALLY meant to paint all liberals as being liars on this issue)--well, I just wanted to point out the liberal Ezra Klein (on whose blog you wrote about these liberal liars) actually (by evidence of his earlier comments, which I linked to) agreed with you at least to some extent, so I figured you would appreciate someone clearing that up for you.

Relax, we're all friends here.

I actually agree with many things you say, until you start saying things like "the liberal lie" (again, it implies conservatives aren't lying about the same issue) and start drilling down to only one side of the issue or minor details that cloud the big picture.

I think when we all keep the big picture in mind, we can all agree that medicare is beloved by elderly Americans, and it has saved many 1000s of lives and makes life much easier for millions others when no other dependable and affordable insurance program was available for them; and also, as time goes by we'll have to fine tune the way we deliver health care to people to ensure all people have equal access regardless of income and health status, and that costs are controlled, the number of doctors increased, and that we try to find ways of allowing as many private insurers to participate in all this so that we can ensure these programs are sustained in perpetuity.

You agree

Posted by: lauren2010 | December 23, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

As a general rule, if you can shave at least a half point off your current interest rate, it is a good idea to refinance. If you currently have a home mortgage above 7%, the time is now to make a change. Look online for "123 Mortgage Refinance" they gave me the lowest rate than everybody else which is 3.21%.

Posted by: gracewynn | December 24, 2010 1:16 AM | Report abuse

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