Sunday, July 31, 2011

Debt Deal: No New Taxes!

Although tax revenue is historically low and federal spending is historically high, the tentative debt agreement (see earlier essay on Dissenting Justice) would not include a mandate to implement or even discuss tax increases. Instead, the deal would slash 2.8 trillion dollars from federal agencies over the next ten years. It would also create a special bipartisan "Super Committee" in Congress to allocate spending cuts (note: the full Congress would have to approve these cuts for them to have the effect of law).

The deal, however, would not require the special committee to consider any tax increases. The combination of lower tax revenue and higher spending, however, has created the historically high federal budget deficit. Nevertheless, Senator Mitch McConnell says tax increases are definitely "off the table." Senator Durbin says that keeping taxes off the table is a "serious mistake." The National Journal has more analysis.

Question: What exactly does Obama gain from this "deal" -- except for an increase in the debt ceiling, which (except for a few moments in history) has been routinely granted?

Debt Ceiling Deal: Preliminary Observations on the Deal AND Obama

The Washington Post reports that Democrats and Republicans have nearly reached a deal in the ongoing talks to raise the debt ceiling. The WaPo article contains a summary of the tentative agreement:
The emerging agreement calls for raising the $14.3 trillion debt limit by up to $2.4 trillion in two stages, with the debt limit rising unless two-thirds of both chambers of Congress disapprove, according to officials in both parties familiar with the talks. That would extend the Treasury’s borrowing authority into 2013, satisfying President Obama’s demand to avoid another showdown over the issue in the heat of the 2012 presidential campaign.

The first stage would pair an increase of roughly $1 trillion with cuts to government agencies of about the same magnitude over the next decade. In the second stage, a special congressional committee would be created to identify additional savings later this year. The size of those savings would dictate the size of the second debt-limit increase, giving Republicans the dollar-for-dollar matchup they have demanded between spending cuts and the debt-limit increase.

Spending Cuts -- What Spending and What About Tax Increases?

The WaPo article indicates that the budgetary cuts would come exclusively from spending cuts to government agencies. The article, however, does not mention which agencies would receive the bulk of the cuts. Nor does the article indicate any specific cuts to the major ticket items in the federal budget -- defense, Medicare and Medicaid. Social Security is "off-budget," but it definitely contributes to the nation's tax burden, and, according to recent analysis, places a strain on the deficit as well.

Furthermore, the article does not mention that the deal includes any measures that would raise tax revenue. Most economists conclude that tax cuts implemented during the Bush presidency (and extended during the Obama administration) have contributed to the deficit.

Moreover, according to a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll, most of the public, including a majority of Republican voters, favors a mixture of spending cuts and tax increases to resolve the deficit. Indeed, with tax revenue being historically low (a result of tax cuts and the recession) and spending being historically high, the deficit has reached its record level.

Nevertheless, the tentative deal, as summarized by the WaPo, does not contain any measures that would mandate tax increases. A one-sided approach -- especially one that does not focus on the major spending items -- seems doomed to fail. For more on the tax issue, see this follow-up essay on Dissenting Justice.

Obama: Tough or Not?

President Obama has received a lot of criticism for not being tough during negotiations. This crisis provides an occasion to test that claim. During the early phase of the crisis, former President Bill Clinton advised Obama not to blink during the debt crisis. President Clinton endured many battles with Republicans during his presidency over the federal budget.
Republicans favored deep spending cuts and often threatened to "shut down" the government unless they got what they wanted. Clinton always maintained his ground and took the Republicans to the mat.

During those battles, Clinton inevitably emerged with greater public support. Clinton utilized the media to portray his foes as unfair and unreasonable. As a result, the Republicans came across as narrow-minded, unreasonable and selfish. Indeed, these struggles ultimately led to the demise of Newt Gingrich and his famed "Contract With America."

Obama has clearly allowed the crisis to go to the final round -- just as Clinton did during his budget battles. For that, he appears tough in his stance. Obama, however, has become somewhat weak during the final phases of the debt negotiations. Rather than using the media to portray the extremist House Republicans as being outside of the mainstream -- as indicated by opinion polls -- Obama instead has retreated to his comfort zone and has demanded that the parties reach a compromise.

This approach suggests that the battle over the debt ceiling involves a debate among two reasonable and rational parties. All that these parties need to do is reach a consensus. But the Republican approach -- particularly as expressed by members of the House of Representatives -- is far from reasonable. The most questionable aspect of the House Republican approach was the inclusion of a proposed balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. This proposal is a bad idea for many reasons. Furthermore, even if it were a good idea, it had no chance of passing in the Senate. Democrats and many Republicans oppose the measure. But rather than relenting, the House Republicans, who claim to oppose government waste, wasted time by sending a bill to the Senate that included the proposed amendment. The Senate promptly tabled the bill.

Obama has failed to capitalize on behavior like this to portray the more extreme Republicans (primarily Tea Party-backed politicians) as reckless and dangerous. Unlike Clinton, it is unclear whether Obama will emerge from these talks with more public approval. He lost a moment to control the public debate and during the most critical moments of the talks has come across as a mere mediator between two opposing parties.

During his presidential campaign (starting with the Democratic Primaries), Obama promised to build bridges, to end the bickering and nasty politics of Washington, and to act as a conciliator rather than fighter. Indeed, that was a primary narrative that distinguished him from his leading opponent, Hillary Clinton.

This approach won favor with the nation -- especially younger voters who naively believed that it was possible for one person to alter the political culture of the nation. While compromise and consensus have a lot of value in politics, fighting and toughness are also important. It seems unclear whether Obama has the desire or ability to exhibit these latter traits. His desire for compromise will probably provoke a lot of debate for the remainder of his presidency (this term and the next one if that occurs).

Update: The WaPo also reports that the tentative deal would include a future vote on the proposed balanced budget amendment. According to the WaPo, however, "the plan calls only for a vote on such an amendment, not the passage of one.

This is confusing language. It is unclear whether Congress can vote on a constitutional amendment but not send it to the states for ratification if a majority of both houses approves the measure. Also, it is unclear what good this does. The public already knows that House Republicans want the amendment; they already approved it. An empty and meaningless vote in the future would not add to the discussion.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Every Murder Victim Has A Story: Ebony Franklin Update


On December 10, 2010, Dissenting Justice reported on the murder of 17-year-old Ebony Franklin. Franklin was among several teen homicide victims in the Washington, DC late last year. Franklin was stabbed repeatedly and stuffed in a trash can in the Columbia Heights section of NW Washington.

Earlier this year, police arrested Franklin's father, Rodney McIntyre, and charged him with murdering his daughter. Prior to his arrest, McIntyre claimed that police were harassing him rather than looking for his daughter's killer. Police evidence, however, indicated that McIntyre had sexual contact with Franklin before her death. Earlier this week, he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder.

Interestingly, when police first announced McIntyre's arrest, they stated that they had evidence of a "sexual relationship" between Franklin and her father. Many media outlets repeated this language. Several commentators (including myself) criticized the use of this language. Women who are savagely murdered by men after sexual contact with those same men typically did not consent to sex. In the plea agreement, prosecutors describe the attack as a sexual assault, even though McIntyre only pleaded guilty to first-degree murder.

Homicidewatch.org has more on this case, including documents related to the plea agreement.

Who Cares About LGBT Workers?

The Employment Non-Discrimination Act would prohibit employers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. ENDA has been introduced in Congress multiple times, but it has never passed. While federal law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, and other categories, it does not address sexual orientation or gender identity. Furthermore, only a handful of state law prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. In most states, such discrimination is perfectly legal.

Although LGBT workers remain vulnerable to discrimination across the nation, ENDA has not received much attention from the media and from many groups that advocate for LGBT rights. Instead, same-sex marriage and the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell have occupied most of the recent headlines and have dominated the contemporary advocacy of LGBT social movement organizations.

While supporters of same-sex marriage often point to the economic benefits associated with marriage, ENDA would also potentially improve the economic situation of LGBT individuals by reducing their exposure to workplace discrimination. Furthermore, DADT is a classic example of employment discrimination. But, while DADT only focuses on military service members, ENDA would end discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity among most employers nationwide. Logically, if same-sex marriage and the repeal of DADT are valuable elements of LGBT rights, then ENDA is equally (or even possibly more) valuable. Nevertheless, it remains on the back burner.

LGBT People and Employment

Two recent studies demonstrate the importance of ENDA to LGBT rights. Both of these studies report the experiences with discrimination of LGBT. The first study, released by the Center for Work Life Policy, shows that 48% of self-identified LGBT college educated professionals remain closeted in the workplace. During an interview with NPR, Karent Sumberg, an economist who conducted the research, stated that most of the closeted individuals expressed fear of career reprisals as the reason why they hid their sexual orientation and gender identity.

In addition, the Williams Institute, a research center on sexual orientation and gender identity at UCLA, recently released a study which concludes that about one-fourth of LGB (not "T") workers report experiencing job discrimination or harassment based on sexual orientation in the past year. Among transgender individuals, the number was a staggering 78%. The Williams Institute, like the Center for Work Life Policy, also concludes that significant numbers of LGBT individuals remain closeted at work. Furthermore, the study reports the findings of prior studies (on this issue, the work of economist Lee Badgett is the most prolific), which demonstrate that LGBT individuals tend to earn less and face greater rates of unemployment than similarly situated heterosexual and gender-conforming individuals.

Why So Little Attention on ENDA?

Despite this research, most of the nation's discussion of LGBT rights has focused on DADT and same-sex marriage. The impact of workplace discrimination, however, is very wide ranging, and it undoubtedly affects poor individuals, women and persons of color in the LGBT population even more dramatically. With all of this evidence, the lack of attention to ENDA is both perplexing and disturbing.

If employment issues are so important to LGBT individuals, why do social movement organizations that advocate LGBT rights spend so much of their time on marriage and military concerns? It is hard to document the reasons, but the following arguments present potential explanations.

First, marriage and the military provide symbolic value in US culture. If LGBT people obtain access to these institutions, advocates believe (rightfully or wrongfully) that they will have shifted the very terrain of LGBT rights discourse. Some commentators, like Andrew Sullivan, have argued that this would complete the entire mission of LGBT equality (in his book Virtually Normal).

The lack of attention to employment discrimination could also result because people who dominate mainstream LGBT social movement organizations live in jurisdictions that prohibit sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination by employers. Because they are not vulnerable in their own workplaces, this issue may seem less important to them.

Furthermore, as LGBT critics have long observed, many of the people who direct the advocacy of LGBT social movement organizations have relative privilege in society (based on gender, race and class). As a result, they do not have to worry about job losses as much as more vulnerable persons within the population of LGBT individuals.

Although the foregoing arguments might explain the relatively lower priority given to ENDA among some LGBT social movement organizations, they cannot excuse reducing ENDA to obscurity. Class issues matter for LGBT individuals. Economic concerns exist outside of marriage. And job security is a concern for civilian LGBT workers. Based on the most recent research and the unprotected status of LGBT workers in most states, the passage of ENDA should receive far more attention from the media and from LGBT social movement organizations.

Debt Ceilings, the Constitution, Taxation, Spending: Some Analysis

The debt ceiling talks continue in Congress, as the August 2 deadline approaches. Some commentators and politicians have urged President Obama to consider paying the nation's debt by invoking the Fourteenth Amendment as a source of power. Section Four of the Fourteenth Amendment states that: "The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payments of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned." This provision was intended to guarantee that the nation paid all of its debts related to the Civil War. But contemporary Supreme Court doctrine does not limit the Fourteenth Amendment to its original meaning.

Although the validity of a Fourteenth Amendment option remains unclear, a colorable argument exists to justify Obama paying the nation's debt despite the existing statutory limit. Obama, however, has said he does not wish to pursue this path. Even if he does so, it is unclear whether the federal courts would resolve the issue. In order to bring a suit in federal courts, plaintiffs must have standing. Supreme Court precedent, however, has denied standing to individual lawmakers seeking to challenge the constitutionality of executive action and federal statutes. Given this precedent, it is quite likely that the courts would not review the constitutional questions associated with this controversy. Absent judicial intervention, the matter would remain with Congress and the Executive to decide.

Once the debt ceiling drama has subsided, the nation needs to engage in a very meaningful (i.e., not theatrical and immature) discussion of its priorities. Support for deficit reduction is very high. Support for cutting entitlement spending and raising taxes are very low. These two positions are in conflict.

The largest budgetary items include Medicare, Medicaid, Defense and Social Security. Yet, Republicans have focused their most recent rhetoric on the costs of federal workers, while Democrats have blasted corporations that do not pay taxes. These items, however, only represent a fraction of federal expenditures and revenue. Unless the big ticket items receive attention, then spending will never fall significantly.

Furthermore, it is abundantly clear that the tax cuts that Congress passed during the Bush era -- and which Congress extended during Obama's presidency -- have also contributed to the deficit. Republicans generally do not want to repeal the tax cuts, and the public has historically disfavored anything that signals tax increases. Nevertheless, decreasing revenue has the same impact on the budget as increasing spending. They both go in the "negative" column. Indeed, as FactCheck has analyzed, the deficit is at an historically high level because tax revenue is historically low and spending is historically high. There is room for both parties to concede ground.

Finally, the role of the recession in enlarging the deficit needs further analysis. The recession has caused government revenue to plunge. Fewer people are working, and business activity has dropped sharply. Consequently, tax revenue has also declined. The decline in revenue has increased the deficit as well. Part of the deficit situation is therefore only a momentary issue. When the economy becomes healthy again, revenue will increase, which will alleviate the strain on the federal budget. Moving the economy beyond the recession must therefore become part of any discussion about curbing the level of the deficit.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Balanced Budget Amendment: A Terrible Idea

The "Balanced Budget Amendment" is one of the worst proposals to receive attention in Congress this year. Two versions of the proposed constitutional amendment exist; the House approved a measure yesterday.

Although the House and Senate versions differ, the proposed amendment, if passed, would generally mandate that Congress balance the national budget each year. It would also require that a supermajority of Congress approve any tax increases, legislation to raise the debt ceiling or a decision to run a deficit during any particular year. Both measures propose exceptions during times of military crisis.

Many observers doubt that the Senate will pass a Balanced Budget Amendment. Hopefully, cooler heads will prevail in the Senate because the proposed amendment is a terrible idea for several reasons.

First, the proposal suffers because it looks like a piece of legislation rather than constitutional text. Throughout the nation's history, the Constitution has provided boundaries for governmental power. The Constitution, however, is drawn in broad terms, which makes it flexible enough to endure across time (as Chief Justice Marshall argued in Marbury v. Madison).

The proposed amendment, however, would alter this sensible approach to the Constitution. Its terms would rigidly prescribe behavior in a setting that screams for flexibility: planning how to allocate the nation's vast financial resources. Such decisions, that depend upon factors that undoubtedly vary across time, are appropriately made by Congress each year. The Framers of the Constitution wisely allocated spending and taxation power to Congress, but they did not hobble Congress with details that would bind the country to one tightly drawn path.

Furthermore, the proposed amendment could potentially turn each budgetary cycle into a constitutional nightmare. Federal judges wisely believe that they should reach Constitutional questions whenever some other legal principle cannot solve cases. This amendment, however, would force Congress annually to craft budgets around detailed constitutional text. Decisions to tax and spend are naturally very heated. These decisions, however, will likely become even more explosive if they implicate complex constitutional text.

It is also unclear who would interpret the meaning of the proposed amendment. Although courts routinely engage in constitutional interpretation, they are not usually involved in budgetary matters. It is pretty unlikely that federal courts want to enter the thicket of annual budget battles. Indeed, the courts could rely upon a host of procedural rules and other doctrines to avoid such contests (like standing and the political question doctrine).

If the Supreme Court declines to interpret the meaning of the proposed amendment, then Congress and possibly the president would have that job. This, however, would likely make the terms of the amendment vulnerable to short-term political interests -- which would defeat the purpose behind the amendment itself: creating a permanent barrier to budget deficits and tax increases.

Wise commentators have noted other problems with the proposed amendment. Potentially, Congress could hide some of its spending by placing it "off-budget" -- like Social Security. It could also legislate that certain spending take place across several years, rather than all at once. Indeed, scheme like these allow state governments to achieve balanced budgets (required by state law).

Passing a budget is a serious task; so is amending the Constitution. Proposed constitutional amendments rarely succeed. Hopefully, the proposed Balanced Budget Amendment, with all of its flaws, will face a similar fate as the hundreds of other unsuccessful attempts to alter the Constitution.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Obama Follows Clinton's Advice And Seemingly Prevails

According to news reports, leading Republicans are appearing to cave in the debt ceiling negotiations. Apparently, GOP lawmakers are prepared to vote to raise the debt ceiling in three installments over the next year.

This impasse reminds me of the many budget squabbles between President Clinton and Republicans. Even though GOP lawmakers frequently threatened to "shut down" the government, Clinton would stand firm. In the end, the GOP would capitulate, and Clinton would emerge with greater popularity. Sources say that Clinton advised Obama to use the playbook he employed against Republicans. Apparently Obama followed Clinton's advice, and it has seemingly worked. What exactly was wrong with "two presidents"?

Please bear in mind that neither side would have allowed the government to default on its debt. Instead, this was just a game of political chess. One side had to concede eventually. Lacking any tenable economic theory for its reckless position, the GOP gave up first (just as I predicted).

The moral of the story for Obama: Fighting can actually work -- especially if you are indisputably correct on the issue.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Social Security and the Deficit: FactCheck

Earlier this year many Democrats and progressive bloggers argued that Social Security payments do not contribute to the national deficit. This claim is not true, and FactCheck.org provides relevant analysis.

Now that Obama has put Social Security on the table in debt-reduction negotiations, a political storm over the subject has erupted. Progressives must approach the stability of Social Security from a realistic perspective. This blog post does not suggest any particular course of policy, but facts should inform public debate on the subject.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Obama Puts Social Security on the Chopping Block -- Just Like He Promised As A Candidate!!

Reports that President Obama might settle ongoing negotiations over the nation's massive debt by making cuts or other changes to social security has alarmed many liberals and progressives. Although these reports have stunned many Democrats, Obama's recent position should not surprise people who listened carefully during his presidential campaign.

In 2008, Obama repeatedly attacked John McCain, arguing that, if elected, his Republican opponent would slash social security. Obama, by contrast, said he would preserve benefit levels by raising the income cap on payroll taxes that finance social security payments. Obama's relentless attacks on McCain regarding social security helped to shore up support from elderly and traditional liberal voters.

Nevertheless, while candidate Obama criticized McCain, he conceded that he would consider cuts to social security as well. During a 2007 Democratic candidates debate at Dartmouth College, for example, Obama stated that he believed and that he had previously stated that everything should be "on the table" in order to save social security. Obama has made similar statements since his election. During a 2010 interview on MTV, for example, Obama affirmed his earlier position that all options with respect to social security "are on the table."

Democrats should consider the substance of any proposal that Obama makes. Perhaps cuts are necessary. Maybe raising the retirement age is fiscally sound. Or maybe eliminating the cap on payroll taxes is the best solution. But Democrats should not act surprised by Obama's negotiating position. As usual with Obama, the substance is in the fine print for those who pay attention.

Religious Extremism Alert: Man Kills Four-Year-Old Boy Because He Thought He Was Gay

People who spew and tolerate religious extremism have another reason to suffer criticism. A man in North Carolina has allegedly killed a four-year-old boy, whom he believed was gay.

According to news reports, Peter Lucas murdered Jadon Higganbotham weeks after he killed 28-year-old Antoinetta Yvonne McCoy. Law enforcement officials have not identified a motive in McCoy's slaying.

McCoy and Higganbotham lived at the same North Carolina address as Lucas and several other individuals. Lucas is allegedly the spiritual leader of the group of individuals affiliated with the radical Black Hebrews (or Hebrew Israelite) religious sect.

According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Black Hebrews believe that "homosexuals" should be put to death. The SPLC report also links members of this religion with other acts of antigay violence.

UPDATE: Members of the faith also have posted videos online which call for the murder of gays and lesbians.
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