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Friday, October 1, 2010

THE REPUBLICAN PLEDGE: POLITICS AND POLICY

The Congressional Republican “Pledge to America” has been announced. While it was instantly derided by Democrat officials and liberal pundits it is at least a window into what a Republican controlled House and/or Senate might look like in January, 2011. Admittedly, coming just weeks before the November elections it is at least a part election ploy or “tactic” if one seeks a kinder label. But it is also a good idea since the few Republican legislative initiatives offered in the current Congress have been lost in the obscurity of subcommittees, and majority Democrat offerings. Democrats have convinced some voters that the Republicans are the “party of no” who have no ideas. The ideas in the Pledge are few and mostly general in nature but worth examining.

Republicans in Congress and in the general public, along with numerous independents have expressed unhappiness with President Obama’s health care reform act and several states are suing in federal court to overturn it. The Pledge states it’s intention to repeal the act and replace it with a new, simpler version. While this is a good idea, it is, in the current time frame, just electioneering. Even if Republicans gained majorities in both the House and Senate which is unlikely, any such repeal legislation would be first filibustered to death by Democrats in the Senate and even if somehow ultimately passed, would face certain veto by Obama. Since overturning a veto takes a two thirds majority in both houses, this part of the Pledge will have to wait for a Republican president which can’t happen before 2013, following the 2012 election. Still, the prospect of a framework for a simpler health care reform is interesting. The Republicans would retain the most desirable parts i.e. not allowing insurance companies to deny coverage for previous conditions and disallowing lifetime limits on coverage. The creation of “high risk” pools for the chronically ill and previously uninsurable has already been accomplished in several states. The further emphasis on tax deductible health savings accounts and tort reform to reduce health care provider’s exposure to enormous medical liability claims also make sense.

However, the ideas for health care reform change do not specifically address two important areas: the reported 35 million citizens who are uninsured and the high costs of both health care and health insurance coverage. The fact that the Obama plan doesn’t address the costs issues specifically does not make the Republican ideas any better in this respect.

In terms of “government reform”, the ideas are interesting and mostly positive but also mostly window dressing. They would require the sponsors of bills to cite the Constitutional authority which allows their bill. Much of Constitutional authority is based on federal court interpretations of “implied” powers” making such a legislative requirement impractical and subject to further endless interpretation. This part of the Pledge is clearly aimed at much of the Republican base who feel that government has usurped too much power in opposition to the Constitution’s promise of limited government.

A more common sense proposal also in the Pledge is that of limiting the scope of bills to their primary purpose and not allowing numerous extraneous amendments intended to “buy” the votes of hesitant members.

The Pledge also addresses government spending, as it should. It suggests a freeze on government hiring in “non-security’ areas and cuts to the Congressional budget. It would also freeze discretionary i.e. non-entitlement, spending. Job creation data nation-wide shows that most of the jobs added in the last few months have indeed been government jobs, not private sector jobs which actually produce goods and services. Freezing discretionary spending is a start but most of the federal budget is consumed by entitlements i.e. Social Security, MediCare which are both expanding at dangerous rates and are political “hot button” issues. Exempting security related expenditures takes cuts to the Defense Dept. off the table in terms of political debate but with a defense budget in excess of 700 billion dollars, that part of overall federal spending will have to be addressed no matter which party controls Congress.

Republicans would also stop further spending already authorized under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) passed during the Bush Administration and the “stimulus” bill passed under the Obama Administration. This is an interesting proposal since much of these funds have yet to be spent and are “back loaded” in terms of job creation in the near term. It is worth revisiting these bills to judge whether the costs to the ballooning federal deficit and debts can be justified by the benefits of the expenditures specifically authorized, many of which have been identified as simple “pork” targeted towards parochial interests.

National security has historically been a Republican owned issue and the Pledge makes a couple of token promises in this area. First, tapping into public sentiment, they promise no civilian criminal trials for terrorists and second, no non-germane amendments to the Defense Appropriations bills. This a clear shot at Senate Majority Harry Reid who attached a citizenship for college attendance or military service amendment for illegal aliens who had been in the country before their 16th birthday and another repealing the military’s current ban on openly gay service members. A third promise is to fully fund a missile defense system. None of these issues is high on the list of financially strapped voters but they “keep the faith” and are intended to draw a distinction between the Republicans and Democrats who support the opposite positions. Republicans also want to keep the terrorist prison at Guantanamo Bay open which makes sense and anyway Obama hasn’t been able to find anywhere to transfer the prisoners.

On jobs, which is the major issue in this year’s campaign, Republicans promise to keep the so called “Bush tax cuts” arguing that more money in private hands stimulates the economy. They would also reduce federal regulations on businesses and allow “small businesses” to deduct the first 20% of business income from tax liabilities. These are common sense positions but may not be broad enough to stimulate much enthusiasm by themselves. Many Democrats say that “tax cuts for the rich” would add a huge amount to the deficit but then they are arguing for another massive stimulus of government spending to create jobs which would do the same thing. A deficit wary public may find the Republican’s less dramatic solutions more attractive.
In a swipe at the Obama Administration’s opposition to the Arizona immigration law and lawsuit against the state, the Pledge states that it would “reaffirm the authority of state and local law enforcement to assist in immigration enforcement. Since federal immigration control is ineffective and under staffed this is another common sense position, but the federal courts have taken over the debate about local participation and that is where the issue will ultimately be decided. However, with large majorities of American voters supporting Arizona’s legislation, this is a political savvy addition to the Republican’s political statement.

The remainder of the Pledge is standard conservative feel good rhetoric: “honor the Constitution, especially “original intent” and the 10th Amendment which implies limited federal powers. The Republicans also seek to dramatize the difference with Democrats and again excite their base on the social issues: “honoring families” i.e. “traditional marriage, “life”, an anti-abortion position, although no specifics are stated, and finally support for private faith based organizations.

The major omission in the Republican plan is a strategy for dealing with the ballooning deficits, now running @$1.3 trillion and the accumulated federal debt which hovers around $13 trillion. The Pledge contains a commitment to reduce spending by $100 billion annually but doesn’t provide specifics. Democrats have offered no credible strategy either, preferring to quibble about “extending the Bush tax cuts for the rich”, whom Obama defines as anyone making in excess of $250,000. Removing these taxes will supposedly add $700 billion to federal coffers over ten years, certainly not enough to deal with the deficit or retire the debt. Eventually, both parties will be forced to face this politically dangerous issue, but not in the months leading up to an election. The unpleasant realities are that the entitlements, Social Security and Medicare, which Republicans and Democrats all swear to protect, have to be adjusted to account for the increasing number of elderly entering the programs. Eligibility will have to be delayed and benefits reduced somehow, sometime. However, such changes will just slow the growth of the deficit and debt. To reduce those obligations revenues will have to be increased. That means additional taxes, there is simply no way around it. With only half of federal tax filers actually paying taxes, more broad based taxes will need to be considered. A gasoline tax and/or a federal sales tax will have to be on the table at some point but it will take politicians of unusual courage to stray from the easier strategies of tax cuts to “grow economy” and thus produce more tax revenue (the Laffer Curve of the Reagan era) and more taxes on the “rich” who pay most of the taxes now.

So what the Pledge essentially does is restate some familiar, general conservative themes while throwing in a few specifics to counter the accusation that the party offers no meaningful ideas to deal with the economic crisis. It should serve that purpose by bringing some comfort to moderates and independents who are looking for an excuse to vote their anger at the Democrats who have been in charge of Congress for four years and at all levels for two years and can no longer run away from the persistent problems of the country by simply saying “Bush did it.”

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