Last week, House and Senate Republicans unveiled their respective budget resolutions for fiscal year 2016. As a quick glance at the documents shows, what is old is new again for the GOP. Each claims to balance the budget within 10 years. Despite the national debt's share of GDP forecast to remain stable over the next decade, the House Budget Committee plan delivered by Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) claims to slash $5.5 trillion in federal spending during the same time frame, while Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi's proposal cuts $5.1 trillion. Each GOP-controlled chamber promises to repeal Obamacare and yet still offers no alternative to replace it.
But in these Republican budget outlines chocked full of magic asterisks, mystery savings, savage cuts to the social safety net, and a laundry list of policies to be determined later, one favorite conservative gimmick--block grants--may be the cruelest of them all. Gutting Medicaid spending and divvying up what remains among the states won't mean new flexibility to tailor their own programs to "to most efficiently and effectively serve low-income families in their communities." Instead, the states will eliminate health coverage for tens of millions of their residents, including many who had government insurance before the Affordable Care Act was signed into law.
Of course, you'd never know that from the happy talk in the Senate and House budget resolutions.
Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin created quite the uproar when he condemned Senate Republicans for sending Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch to "the back of the bus." But Durbin didn't need to reach all the way back to Rosa Parks in 1955 to denounce the GOP's grotesque obstructionism. The story of Judge Michael Mukasey in 2007 is the perfect comparison to make that case. After all, despite his refusal to repudiate--or even acknowledge--President Bush's illegal regime of detainee torture, Mukasey was confirmed as AG by the new Democratic-controlled Senate in 53 days.
But at day 134 of the Loretta Lynch waiting game, the second-ranking Senate Republican says he feels "zero" pressure to bring her vote to the floor. But on November 6, 2007, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) felt differently when a Republican sat in the Oval Office:
Judge Mukasey's nomination has been delayed now for almost seven weeks. It is imperative that the President has his national security team at full strength and the unnecessary delay of Judge Mukasey's nomination has prevented that. He deserves an immediate up-or-down vote by the full Senate.
Long before the GOP used the human trafficking bill as the latest roadblock to Lynch's confirmation, Cornyn declared both that he wouldn't vote for her and why. "Her testimony, expressing support for the president's unconstitutional executive action [on immigration enforcement] and her support for a number of the president's other policies, make it impossible for me to vote for her nomination." But when the nominee belonged to President Bush and the issue was waterboarding, Senator Cornyn demanded an immediate up or down vote.
In September 2007, then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) took to the op-ed pages of The Hill to pressure Democrats to confirm the successor to the hapless Albert Gonzales:
For the past several months, our Democratic colleagues have asked for a new attorney general. They have spoken at length about the importance of the Justice Department, and the urgent need to install new leadership there as soon as possible. Democrats said they want someone with "integrity" and "experience" who "respects the rule of law," and who can "hit the ground running"...
Now is the chance for our Democratic colleagues to prove they meant what they said. If they were serious when they cried out for new leadership at the Justice Department, they will follow Senate precedent and evaluate Judge Mukasey based on his record of service, not their own political agenda.
The Democrats' agenda, one shared by some Republicans like Lindsey Graham (R-SC), was to end American violation of U.S. and international law over waterboarding and other so-called "enhanced interrogation techniques." But Mukasey refused to say during his confirmation hearings whether waterboarding was torture ("If it amounts to torture, it is not constitutional"), even Graham was disgusted:
If he does not believe that waterboarding is illegal, then that would really put doubts in my own mind because I don't think you have to have a lot of knowledge about the law to understand this technique violates the Geneva Convention and other statutes.
But Graham along with all 44 of the other Republican Senators voted for Mukasey's confirmation on November 8, 2007. Democrats didn't just give Mukasey the up-or-down vote Cornyn demanded two days earlier. Seven of them, including Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Charles Schumer (D-NY) voted for him as well. And as it turned out, Attorney General Mukasey was a hyper-partisan defender of the Bush torture team, both in and out of office.
As for Mitch McConnell, the man who now has stopped progress on the months-old Lynch nomination dead in its tracks, the elevation of Attorney General Mukasey was a complete victory. As McConnell put it on the day of the Senate Judiciary Committee vote on November 6, 2007:
Judge Mukasey has waited almost seven weeks for a vote. This process has gone on long enough. Judge Mukasey deserves to have an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor this week. And I believe he will be confirmed with strong bipartisan support.
Of course, that was then and this is now. And now, Democrat Barack Obama is the President of the United States. The Republican standard for the first African-American woman chosen as Attorney General by the first African-American President to replace the first African-American Attorney General is different. As John Cornyn put it during Lynch's confirmation hearings:
"You're not Eric Holder, are you?" asked Senator John Cornyn of Texas, a Republican who allies of Ms. Lynch believe could be persuaded to vote for her confirmation.
"No, I'm not, sir," she replied.
No, Loretta Lynch is not Eric Holder. And as Attorney General Holder and President Obama suggested this weekend, she's not Rosa Parks, either. But Loretta Lynch is Michael Mukasey, or more accurately, his mirror image.
Which is why Republicans have no grounds for blocking the up-or-down vote and confirmation she is long overdue.
Monday, March 23 isn't just the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Affordable Care Act. The day also marks five years since then Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) promised the GOP response would be "'repeal and replace,' 'repeal and replace.'" But with the possibility that a Supreme Court ruling in the King v. Burwell case could soon end health insurance subsidies for millions of Americans in the 34 states that chose to use the federal exchange, the GOP still has no replacement.
That makes Paul Ryan's message to the affected states not to establish their own exchanges doubly ironic. After five years of GOP failure to live up to its "repeal and replace" pledge, why should they trust Ryan's promise of a new Republican health care plan by June 20? Just as cynical, the Obamacare exchange model the House Ways and Means Committee chairman continues to criticize is essential to the Medicare voucher scheme Paul Ryan has been pushing for years.
Of course, you'd never know that from Ryan's recent public statements. As the Wall Street Journal reported Friday, "Rep. Paul Ryan urged state lawmakers to resist setting up state insurance exchanges if the Supreme Court rules that key parts of the Affordable Care Act can only continue if they do so."
"Oh God, no...The last thing anybody in my opinion would want to do, even if you are not a conservative, is consign your state to this law," the Wisconsin Republican told state legislators Thursday during a conference call organized by the Foundation for Government Accountability, a conservative think-tank. The foundation provided a recording of the call...
Mr. Ryan, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and the GOP vice presidential nominee in 2012, asked the state legislators to hold firm and promised them congressional Republicans would have alternative health-care legislation--with an official cost estimate--introduced by June 20. The bill, he said, would revive lower-cost, limited coverage insurance plans in states that didn't want their own exchanges. Currently, 37 states use HealthCare.gov.
"If people blink and if people say this political pressure is too great, I'm just going to sign up for a state-based exchange and put my constituents in Obamacare, then this opportunity will slip through your fingers," he said.
But when it comes to his Medicare privatization scheme to dramatically shift health costs onto future seniors, that is precisely what Paul Ryan wants to do. As I noted back in the fall of 2013, Ryan needs the exchange model to work almost as much as any Democrat. As Ezra Klein first explained two year before, the voucherization of Medicare contained in Ryan's "Path to Prosperity" blueprint and the GOP budget based on it requires Medicare exchanges:
The current Medicare program is completely dissolved and replaced by a new Medicare program that "would provide a payment - based on what the average annual per-capita expenditure is in 2021 - to purchase health insurance." You'd get the health insurance from a "Medicare Exchange", and "health plans which choose to participate in the Medicare Exchange must agree to offer insurance to all Medicare beneficiaries, thereby preventing cherry picking and ensuring that Medicare's sickest and highest cost beneficiaries receive coverage."
Familiar, indeed. Alice Rivlin, who worked on Ryan's first version of the voucher, later confirmed to Klein that the idea was almost identical to the Affordable Care Act:
If Ryan-Rivlin will unleash ferocious innovation that holds costs down, then so too should the Affordable Care Act. So at the end of our conversation, I asked Rivlin, who supported PPACA, if I was missing something. She laughed. "I keep talking to Paul and trying to convince him of that," she said. "But even if he agreed with me, he couldn't say so."
Of course, Rep. Ryan also couldn't publicly say that his underfunded voucher scheme would inevitably lead to rationing as costs were shifted to seniors often unable to pay them. Sadly for Ryan and the 95 percent of Congressional Republicans who voted for his budget, the Congressional Budget Office could. By 2030, CBO concluded Ryan's plan would cost seniors an extra $6,500 a year on average, with beneficiaries on the hook for 68 percent of their health care expenses. While the2012 and 2013 versions of the Ryan plan (which would continue traditional government insurance as one "public option" for seniors buying a Medicare plan with their subsidy) would not be as painful, the same cost-shifting dynamic remained.
To strengthen the Medicare program to serve the needs of both current and future retirees, the budget would reform the Medicare program and put it on sound financial footing for generations to come. For those workers currently under the age of 55, beginning in 2023, those seniors would be given a choice of private plans competing alongside the traditional fee-‐for-‐service option on a newly created Medicare Exchange. Medicare would provide a premium-‐support payment either to pay for or offset the premium of the plan chosen by the senior.
The Medicare Exchange would provide seniors with a competitive marketplace where they could choose a plan the same way members of Congress do. All plans, including the traditional fee-‐for-‐service option, would participate in an annual competitive bidding process to determine the dollar amount of the federal contribution seniors would use to purchase the coverage that best serves their medical needs. Health care plans would compete for the right to serve Medicare beneficiaries.
So far, Obamacare has been very successful at slowing the growth in health care costs as consumers 64 and under choose from a growing number of private insurance plans on the ACA exchanges. Like most in his party, Paul Ryan wants to bring that to an end. Instead, he wants to use pretty much the same process to let millions of the oldest, sickest and costliest patients to select private alternatives to government coverage.
Whatever happens in Tuesday's elections in Israel, Americans will have learned two valuable lessons. For starters, when it mattered most on U.S. policy towards Iran, Republicans supported a foreign leader over the President of the United States. Just as important, when that leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, declares, "Israel has no better friend than the U.S and the U.S. has no better friend than Israel," he's telling a half-truth. As the record shows, even as Bibi escalates his demands for diplomatic cover and military assistance from the United States, his government blocks American objectives at every turn. He is America's friend without benefits.
Consider, for example, the immediate aftermath of Netanyahu's unprecedented March 3 speech to Congress. Less than 24 hours after using the global stage the GOP provided him to sabotage the international negotiations to limit the Iranian nuclear program, Bibi made a new request of Washington: hundreds of millions of dollars in American funding for new missile defense systems to counter Iran:
A Republican congressional source told CNN that the Israelis are asking lawmakers to approve more than $300 million in additional U.S. funding for missile defense systems, above the $155 million the Pentagon is already requesting from Congress.
For the first time, the source said, Israel is asking the U.S. for procurement funding for the Arrow 3 missile, designed to counter longer-range Iranian ballistic missiles, and the David's Sling missile defense system, for shorter-range Iranian weapons.
That ask comes even as the Pentagon faces tighter budgets at home and, as U.S. National Security Adviser recently put it, "Last year, we provided Israel with the largest package of security assistance ever."
But that's not the only favor the nuclear-armed Israel made even as its government pushes the U.S. towards military action to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. In January, Netanyahu asked Congress to block $400 million in U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority if President Mahmoud Abbas sought recognition by the International Criminal Court (ICC). As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, Israel's refusal to turn over $125 million in tax revenue collected on the PA's behalf isn't just causing real suffering the occupied territories:
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned last month that pressuring the authority financially might oblige it to disband, which under international law would oblige Israel to govern the West Bank by itself. The State Department also opposed the authority's decision to join the ICC, saying it was "counterproductive and [did] nothing to further the aspirations of the Palestinian people."
But Kerry didn't just help Israel block potential war crimes investigations by the ICC. Two weeks ago, Kerry and the Obama administration ran interference for Israel before the UN's Human Rights Council. As the National Post detailed:
"No one in this room can deny that there is an unbalanced focus on one democratic country," he said, decrying the fact that no country other than Israel has a permanent agenda item on the council's schedule. "It must be said the (council's) obsession with Israel actually risks undermining the credibility of the entire organization"...
"We will oppose any effort by any group or participant in the U.N. system to arbitrarily and regularly delegitimize or isolate Israel," he said. "When it comes to human rights no country on earth should be free from scrutiny but neither should any country be subject to unfair or unfounded bias."
And what has the United States gotten in exchange as Israel's last, best friend on earth? The back of Benjamin Netanyahu's hand.
Consider the peace process and the establishment of a Palestinian state. This hasn't just been the official policy of Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama. Polls show American support for the two-state solution, including by nearly a two-to-one margin among American Jews. As President George W. Bush explained on January 10, 2008 following meetings with Palestinian President Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Olmert:
"The point of departure for permanent status negotiations to realize this vision seems clear: There should be an end to the occupation that began in 1967. The agreement must establish Palestine as a homeland for the Palestinian people, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people. These negotiations must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized, and defensible borders. And they must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent."
"I think that anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state today and evacuate lands is giving attack grounds to the radical Islam against the state of Israel," he said in a video interview published on NRG, an Israeli news site that leans to the right. "There is a real threat here that a left-wing government will join the international community and follow its orders."
In reversing the position he announced during his 2009 Bar Ilan address, Netanyahu returned to the posture he held previously. Bibi, after all, opposed the 1993 Oslo Accords, which he said were "against my principles and my conscience" and were based upon "an enormous lie." He also fought against the Ehud Barak's proposals to Yassir Arafat during the Clinton administration and refused to support the 2008 offer his predecessor Ehud Olmert made to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during the Annapolis peace process led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Even Netanyahu's much-hyped 2009 Bar-Ilan speech represented little movement forward towards a two-state solution he has long opposed. As his late father, the legendary Zionist Benzion Netanyahu put it:
"He doesn't support [a Palestinian state]. He supports the sorts of conditions they [the Palestinians] will never accept."
And to be sure, one of the those conditions is the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank that put into question the viability of Palestinian state with contiguous borders. It wasn't just the Obama administration which has press the Israeli government to halt settlement growth. Even with its secret 2004 letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon which gave a wink and a nod to the "natural growth" of existing settlements, the Bush administration publicly admonished Israel repeatedly.
As far back as 2002, President Bush insisted "Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories must stop." Speaking in Jordan on March 31, 2008 during a swing through the region, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated Bush's firm opposition to new settlement activity in the West Bank, even as the Israeli government announced plans to build hundreds of new homes in the occupied West Bank:
Asked, however, about Israel continuing to approve construction of new housing in contested territory, Rice criticized the close U.S. ally.
"Settlement activity should stop - expansion should stop," Rice said.
But as the New York Times just documented, settlement expansion hasn't stopped. And under Bibi Netanyahu, the provocations towards Washington have dramatically increased.
That message from the Likud leader was delivered loud and clear with the first visit to Israel by Vice President Joe Biden. On the very day of Biden's arrival in Israel in March 2010, Bibi announced another major expansion of settlements in the West Bank, a policy opposed by the last three American administrations. Politico described the stark warning Vice President Biden delivered to the Israelis after their public humiliation of him:
People who heard what Biden said were stunned. "This is starting to get dangerous for us," Biden castigated his interlocutors. "What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace."
The vice president told his Israeli hosts that since many people in the Muslim world perceived a connection between Israel's actions and US policy, any decision about construction that undermines Palestinian rights in East Jerusalem could have an impact on the personal safety of American troops fighting against Islamic terrorism.
America's best friend may think a perpetual occupation of the West Bank may be vital to its national security interests, but Biden wasn't alone in making the case that U.S. interests require a different policy. As Foreign Policy detailed at the time, then-CENTCOM commander and conservative idol General David Petraeus made stressed that very point to the U.S. Joint Chiefs. Chairman Michael Mullen was apparently shocked by what he heard:
The 33-slide, 45-minute PowerPoint briefing stunned Mullen. The briefers reported that there was a growing perception among Arab leaders that the U.S. was incapable of standing up to Israel, that CENTCOM's mostly Arab constituency was losing faith in American promises, [and] that Israeli intransigence on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was jeopardizing U.S. standing in the region.
But the slights, insults and very real dangers emanating from America's ersatz best friend Benjamin Netanyahu don't end there. Throughout 2011 and 2012, Israeli leaders suggested Netanyahu would not warn the United States in advance of any strikes the Jewish state might launch against Iranian nuclear facilities. Given the near-certain retaliation against American interests in the region Israel's unilateral action would trigger, the U.S could be caught by surprise and with its defenses down. And doing his dirty work in Washington is "Bibi's Brain," Ron Dermer, who before renouncing his U.S. citizenship was a Republican strategist working with GOP word master Frank Luntz. It was Dermer, the former GOP operative, who clandestinely partnered with House Speaker John Boehner to arrange Netanyahu's March 3 address to Congress and in so doing, put the American tradition of bipartisan support of Israel at risk.
If Netanyahu survives Tuesday's vote, he will jeopardize much more than that in the future. He and his right-wing allies may believe that Judea and Samaria are inalienable parts of Eretz Israel. They make believe a perpetual, but "manageable" conflict with the Palestinians is in Israeli national interest. And Team Netanyahu may also believe that preventive war against a potential nuclear Iran is preferable to giving peace a chance. But these Israeli positions are neither supported by the American people and nor their government.
Regardless of the outcome in Israel, we can all stop pretending Israeli and American national interests are identical. We can also put to finally and forever put to bed the idea that the U.S. has no better friend than Benjamin Netanyahu's Israel.
This week, House and Senate Republicans will unveil their respective budget blueprints for fiscal year 2016. To Chuck Grassley (R-IA) of the Senate Budget Committee tell it, the Republican plan for Medicare should be among the most intriguing areas to inspect. That's because after 50 years of warning that Medicare would end the days "when America was free" because "nothing has had a greater negative effect on the delivery of health care" and therefore must "wither on the vine," Senator Grassley summed up his party's new plans for the program serving over 50 million American seniors. It is preferable, he said, to "just have figures in there."
Converting the traditional government health insurance program for the elderly into an under-funded voucher scheme that CBO analyses confirmed would dramatically shift health care costs onto seniors, Paul Ryan's House GOP budget made it awfully hard for the Republicans to claim theirs was the party that would "save Medicare." But now, The Hill reports, the GOP budget makers want to leave the dirty work of slashing Medicare under wraps:
The Senate GOP blueprint will not propose reforming Social Security, the political third rail that Ryan also avoided as former chairman of the House Budget Committee.
"From the standpoint of a budget, the less words of the English language you use, the better off you are," said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a senior member of the Budget panel.
When it comes to saving money in Medicare and Medicaid, Grassley said it's preferable to "just have figures in there" instead of spelling out specific reforms, as Ryan did.
One GOP senator said Ryan exceeded his authority as budget chairman when he sketched out a detailed vision for overhauling entitlement programs.
"He spent a lot of time working on it but he had no power to write Medicare reform," said the lawmaker, who argued the power to reform entitlement programs lies with the Senate Finance Committee and the House Ways and Means panel.
Despite their overwhelming support for Ryan's roadmap in the past, the GOP's best and brightest have good reason to fear it now. Facing their own members who are demanding increased defense spending and cutting taxes all while balancing the budget in 10 years, Medicare is one of the few big targets left for the budget axe. But Ryan's scheme wasn't just wildly unpopular; it used the same $760 billion in Medicare savings from Obamacare to help offset its gigantic tax cut windfall for the wealthy. Now, it appears, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) and House Budget Committee Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) will "just have figures in there."
Of course, the devil is in the details. And politically, it's much better for Republicans not to let the public see the devil at work. After all, as he admitted in 2009, Tom Price is the devil you know.
"While the stated goal remains noble, as a physician, I can attest that nothing has had a greater negative effect on the delivery of health care than the federal government's intrusion into medicine through Medicare."
During the 2012 campaign, President Obama had a simple message for his would-be Republican rivals and their tough talk on Iran. "If some of these folks think that it's time to launch a war, they should say so," Obama warned, "And they should explain to the American people exactly why they would do that and what the consequences would be."
Three years later, conservatives like Joshua Muravchik are taking Obama's challenge, or at least, the first part of it. In the sequel to his 2006 Los Angeles Times op-ed titled simply, "Bomb Iran," Muravchik on Friday took to the pages of the Washington Post to declare, "War with Iran is probably our best option." But if he is dangerously glib about what it will take to completely neutralize the Iranian nuclear infrastructure ("we can strike as often as necessary") and the real costs in doing so ("we might absorb some strikes"), he is silent about what the world looks like the day after the United States launches its campaign for what he really desires, regime change in Tehran.
Fortunately, leaders of the national security establishments in both Israel and the U.S. have spoken clearly on what war with Iran will look like and what it will cost. Short of a total invasion and occupation of that nation of 75 million people, the deployment of Iranian nuclear weapons can only be delayed, not halted, by military action. And the resulting carnage and chaos throughout the Middle East would make the U.S. conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq seems like picnics in comparison.
At the core of the dispute between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are their different "red lines" with Iran. Throughout, the President has said he will not allow Tehran to actually build a nuclear weapon. As he put it during his 2013 visit to Israel:
I've made the position of the United States of America clear: Iran must not get a nuclear weapon. This is not a danger that can be contained, and as President, I've said all options are on the table for achieving our objectives. America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
"With regards to the red line, I would imagine Prime Minister Netanyahu is referring to a red line over which if Iran crossed it would take military action. And for me, it is unacceptable or Iran to have the capability of building a nuclear weapon, which they could use in the Middle East or elsewhere. So for me, the red line is nuclear capability. We do not want them to have the capacity of building a bomb that threatens ourselves, our friends, and the world."
While it's true the United States received no advance warning about the Israeli bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 or suspected Syrian facilities in 2007, the Iranian scenario is altogether different. Neither Saddam Hussein (then an American ally) nor Bashar Al-Assad posed a serious threat of military retaliation to the one-off Israeli strikes. Crippling Tehran's nuclear capability would require a sustained military campaign that, short of total invasion and occupation, would only temporarily delay the Iranian program. And the danger from an Iranian response is quantitatively and qualitatively of a different magnitude.
At a minimum, thousands of Iranian civilians would die in an American attack against Tehran's nuclear installations. Even if the Israelis alone launch a strike against Iran's nuclear sites, Tehran will almost certainly hit back against U.S. targets in the Straits of Hormuz, in the region, possibly in Europe, and even potentially in the American homeland. And Israel would face certain retaliation from Hezbollah rockets launched from Lebanon and Hamas missiles raining down from Gaza.
That's why it came as no surprise in May 2012 when a majority of Netanyahu's own defense chiefs opposed an Israeli strike on the mullahs' nuclear facilities. That same month, the New York Times reported that Israel's former intelligence chief Meir Dagan "has said that a strike on Iran's nuclear installations would be 'a stupid idea,' adding that military action might not achieve all of its goals and could lead to a long war." Why?
"A strike could accelerate the procurement of the bomb," claimed Dagan, who spoke at a conference held at the National Security Studies Institute in Tel Aviv. "An attack isn't enough to stop the project."
Dagan posited that military action would align the Iranian population behind the regime, thus solving the country's political and financial problems. Moreover, he asserted that in the case of an Israeli strike, Iran could declare before the world that it was attacked even while adhering to agreements made with the International Atomic Energy Agency - by a country that reportedly possess "strategic capabilities."
"We would provide them with the legitimacy to achieve nuclear capabilities for military purposes," he said.
Short of a large-scale invasion and occupation of Iran by American forces, U.S. military action might still only delay the Iranian bomb Tehran would doubtless go into overdrive to produce. That's why former Bush Defense Secretary Bob Gates and CIA head Michael Hayden raised the alarms about the "disastrous" impact of supposedly surgical strikes against the Ayatollah's nuclear infrastructure. As the New York Times reported in March 2012:
A classified war simulation held this month to assess the repercussions of an Israeli attack on Iran forecasts that the strike would lead to a wider regional war, which could draw in the United States and leave hundreds of Americans dead, according to American officials.
And the costs in lives and treasure would be staggering. In November 2012, the Federation of American Scientists estimated that a U.S. campaign of air strikes would cost the global economy $700 billion; a full-scale invasion could have a total impact of $1.7 trillion. Two months earlier, a bipartisan report including signatories Brent Scowcroft, retired Admiral William Fallon, former Republican Senator and Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel, retired General Anthony Zinni and former Ambassador Thomas Pickering warned Americans about the cost of trying to eliminate the Iranian nuclear program once and for all:
A unilateral Israeli attack would set back the Iranian nuclear program by only 2 years and an American attack by 4 years. But if the objective is "ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear bomb," the U.S. "would need to conduct a significantly expanded air and sea war over a prolonged period of time, likely several years." In order to achieve regime change, the report says, "the occupation of Iran would require a commitment of resources and personnel greater than what the U.S. has expended over the past 10 years in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
The anticipated blowback?
Serious costs to U.S. interests would also be felt over the longer term, we believe, with problematic consequences for global and regional stability, including economic stability. A dynamic of escalation, action, and counteraction could produce serious unintended consequences that would significantly increase all of these costs and lead, potentially, to all-out regional war.
After reviewing the results of a 2004 war gaming exercise conducted by The Atlantic in conjunction with leading national security experts, James Fallows last month was moved to ask, "Would a U.S. Strike Against Iran Actually Work?"
Israel doesn't have the military capacity to "stop" Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and neither does the United States, at least not in circumstances short of total war.
If this all sounds like the hypothetical scenarios of a bunch of doves in the Pentagon and the State Department, it is worth recalling the America reaction to the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia which killed 19 U.S. servicemen and wounded hundreds of others. As former Clinton and Bush counter-terrorism chief Richard Clarke recounted in his book, Against All Enemies, President Clinton and the Joint Chiefs contemplated a massive U.S. invasion of Iran in response to the involvement of its agents:
In our meeting with the Pentagon in 1996, Shali was talking about al-out war. The military had a plan for almost any contingency. The plan on the shelf for war with Iran looked like it had been drawn up by Eisenhower. Several groups of Army and Marine divisions would sweep across the country over the course of several months.
Ultimately, President Clinton opted against the invasion of Iran, in part because of the difficulty in proving the U.S. intelligence case against Tehran to the international community. In the end, the U.S. launched a large-scale covert action campaign against Iranian intelligence assets worldwide. Apparently, the message was received with zero distortion; Iran has not targeted United States interests since.
But reducing to zero the risk of potential Iranian nuclear weapons is a challenge that differs in kind and degree from that President Clinton faced. Short of all-out war, only a diplomatic solution offers the chance to prevent Iran's actual deployment of atomic devices. Nevertheless, some Republicans and their allies in the conservative echo chamber are eager to call for that war today.
This week, Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its assessment of President Obama's proposed budget for fiscal year 2016. For those of us prioritizing economic growth over deficit reduction, the picture is a pretty good one. Despite new investments in education and infrastructure, the Obama budget will reduce the projected national debt by $1.2 trillion over the next decade. Thanks to new revenue from capping upper income tax deductions, increasing rates on estates and capital gains, and a one-time, 14 percent tax on the repatriation of corporations' foreign earnings, Uncle Sam's additional red ink is projected to decrease from $7.20 to $5.98 trillion.
But if Washington conventional wisdom says Obama's budget is "dead on arrival," a Republican alternative may be stillborn. There's no mystery as to why. Different groups of Congressional Republicans are simultaneously calling for increased defense spending, steep tax cuts and a balanced budget with a decade. And while the politics of squaring that circle is hard, the math--as the records of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush sadly show--is impossible.
As the New York Times explained this week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) have some tough sledding ahead even before the start of the new fiscal year on October 1:
In April, physicians who treat Medicare patients face a drastic cut in pay. In May, the Highway Trust Fund runs dry. In June, the charter for the federal Export-Import Bank ceases to exist. Then in October, across-the-board spending cuts return, the government runs out of money -- and the Treasury bumps up against its borrowing limit.
Now, for most of the next decade the national debt as a percentage of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) will plateau. (Under Obama's proposal, the annual budget deficit would not exceed 3 percent of GDP in any year from 2016 to 2025.) Despite the absence of any debt crisis, Republican leaders nevertheless want to reach a balanced budget by 2025:
Both Senate Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and his House counterpart, Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) are under pressure to achieve nothing less than balance by 2025. But that's a huge undertaking given the splits in the party over defense spending and the GOP's reluctance still to include new revenues.
Closing a $7.2 trillion hole is hard enough. Doing it while boosting defense spending and slashing taxes is a dangerous fantasy. But that's precisely what some of the GOP's best and brightest want to do.
On defense spending, John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) are leading the charge to do away with the sequestration process introduced with the Budget Control Act of 2011. The price Republicans extracted for raising the debt ceiling and avoiding a U.S. default in August 2011, sequestration automatically cuts defense and discretionary spending. McCain and Thornberry want to do with away not just with the FY2016 cuts, but with the sequester altogether. As The Hill explained:
Under sequestration, the 2016 defense budget will be $500 billion. The White House has submitted a defense budget for $535 billion. McCain and Thornberry went further, arguing it should be $577 billion -- the level planned before sequestration hit.
If the cuts aren't relieved by Oct. 1 or lawmakers don't find areas in the defense budget to cut, $35 billion would indiscriminately be cut from the budget by slashing an equal percentage from every Pentagon program.
But if the hawks want to add a trillion dollars in new defense spending over the next decade, the GOP's tax reform crowd wants to take away at least two trillion more in revenue. That's the potential impact of the proposal from GOP Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Mike Lee (R-UT). Slashing the corporate tax rate to 25 percent, eliminating taxes on capital gains, dividends and estates, compressing individual taxes to two brackets of 15 and 35 percent, and delivering a $2,500 per child tax credit would create yet another hemorrhage from the U.S. Treasury. While the conservative Tax Foundation suggested the revenue loss could reach $1.7 trillion over 10 years, a Tax Policy Center analysis of an earlier, less aggressive version of the plan put the loss at $2.4 trillion within a decade:
[W]hile it is not accompanied by a budget score, the elements that it specifies would add trillions of dollars to the nation's debt over the next decade. It would also likely target the bulk of these new tax cuts to high-income households.
Rubio has plenty of company among the 2016 White House hopefuls. As Bloomberg detailed, "Republicans Vie Over Who Can Cut Taxes Most as Deficit Shrinks." For his part, Rubio admitted that on its own, his tax plan would balloon the national debt. "You still wouldn't bring the debt under control," he said, "You still you have to do the spending piece of it." And just what is the spending piece? As The Hill previously reported:
Rubio said that the tax reform plan would be part of a broader fiscal approach that included revamping entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security to help get long-term deficits under control.
If the likes of McCain and Rubio get their way, the United States would add $10 trillion in new debt--$7.2 trillion from the CBO baseline plus $3 trillion from Pentagon increases and tax cuts--between 2016 and 2025. Yet the new House Budget Chairman Tom Price (R-GA) promised in January that he will get the annual budget deficit to zero within 10 years:
House Republicans will try to balance the federal budget in less than 10 years, the top House GOP lawmaker on budget issues said Monday.
"We will lay out a budget this year that will come to balance within what's called the window, within a 10-year period of time. I hope it's shorter than that," said Rep. Tom Price.
Good luck with that. Non-defense, discretionary spending as a percentage of the American economy is already down levels not seen since the 1950's. As Paul Krugman recently showed, the issue isn't the growth of Social Security or income support programs (i.e. EITC, food stamps, unemployment insurance, etc.), but of health care spending. And in recent years, the federal government has made great progress in reducing the rate of growth for Medicare, Medicaid and the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. So, Republicans like Tom Price or Paul Ryan simply can't there from here unless, that is, they change how math works. And that's what the "dynamic scoring" debate is all about.
Whatever happens, as Treasury Secretary Jack Lew reminded the House and the Senate this week, the debt ceiling will have to be raised soon. As the numbers above show, Uncle Sam's borrowing authority will have to be increased repeatedly in the years ahead. For his part, Senate Minority Leader McConnell pledged there would be no repeat of the GOP's default extortion schemes of 2011 and 2013. "I made it clear after November," he told Face the Nation, "that we won't shut down the government or default on debt." He might want to check first with Chairman Price on that:
Republican Tom Price, the incoming House Budget Committee chairman, said his party could demand steep spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling next year, the most provocative comments by a senior GOP member to date on how negotiations could play out.
The Georgia congressman, during an hour-long briefing with reporters Friday, said the expected mid-2015 debate over whether to raise or suspend the debt ceiling offered Republicans an opportunity to make a sizable imprint on government policy.
"I prefer to think about it as opportunities and pinch points," Mr. Price said.
Unfortunately, most sentient creatures think of that as a disaster.
"Traitors." That's the word the New York Daily News, certainly no friend of President Obama, used on Tuesday to describe the 47 Republican Senators who signed an unprecedented letter to the Iranian leadership designed to sabotage the current nuclear negotiations. Sadly, the Daily News and other media outlets are about six years late in reaching that conclusion. After all, with their record-setting use of the filibuster, unprecedented obstruction of judicial and executive branch nominees, threatened and actual government shutdowns, and most of all, their unheard of debt ceiling hostage-taking, Republicans have been undermining the federal government and the U.S. economy since Barack Obama first took the oath office in 2009.
Consider, for example, the GOP's recurring threats to trigger a sovereign default by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. Until Republicans captured the House in the 2010 midterms, no party has had both of the votes and the intent to block a debt ceiling increase and thereby produce what new Speaker John Boehner deemed "financial disaster, not only for our country but for the worldwide economy."
But when Democrat Barack Obama took the oath of office, the routine practice of boosting Uncle Sam's borrowing authority, performed 40 times since 1980 (including 17 times by Ronald Reagan and 7 by George W. Bush) was jettisoned by Congressional Republicans in 2011 and 2013. During the tense summer of 2011, U.S. job creation faltered, consumer confidence plummeted and borrowing costs jumped as Republicans threatened to bring the global economy to its knees. For its part, Standard and Poor's left no doubt who to blame for its downgrade of U.S. credit:
S&P senior director Joydeep Mukherji said the stability and effectiveness of American political institutions were undermined by the fact that "people in the political arena were even talking about a potential default," Mukherji said. "That a country even has such voices, albeit a minority, is something notable," he added. "This kind of rhetoric is not common amongst AAA sovereigns."
That kind of rhetoric may not be common amongst AAA sovereigns, but it's all in day's work for the Republican Party. Especially, that is, for a GOP determined to block President Obama's nominees at rates never seen during the post-World War II period.
The GOP strategy of blocking the court house doors to new Democratic judges the moment Barack Obama first walked into the Oval Office. Citing research by the Alliance for Justice, in June 2011 ThinkProgress reported:
[T]he Senate confirmed fewer of [Obama's] district and circuit nominees than every president back to Jimmy Carter, and the lowest percentage of nominees - 58% - than any president in American history at this point in a President's first term. By comparison, Presidents George W. Bush, Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Reagan and Carter had 77%, 90%, 96%, 98%, and 97% of their nominees confirmed after two years, respectively.
Senate Republicans' mass obstruction of Obama's judges stands in stark contrast to the treatment afforded to past presidents. Indeed, the Senate confirmed fewer judges during Obama's first two years in office than it did during the same period in the Carter Administration, even though the judiciary was 40 percent smaller while Carter was in office.
As dismal as that record was, it was actually an improvement from a year earlier, when only 43 percent of President Obama's judicial appointments had been confirmed:
It's no wonder Chief Justice John Roberts--again, no friend of Barack Obama and the Democratic Party--urged action in January 2011 to address "the persistent problem of judicial vacancies." Eventually, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) went "nuclear," banning the filibuster on non-Supreme Court nominations. But by 2014, the confirmation rate for Obama's selections still trailed George W. Bush's by 88 to 79 percent. And Obama's choices for both the federal bench and executive agencies had to wait far longer to be confirmed:
Republicans on Capitol Hill also threw up roadblocks to the government departments doing their job. By 2013, the GOP had filibustered 27 of Obama's executive branch nominees, compared to just 7 during Dubya's 8 years in office. The most notorious example concerned the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) created by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill. Republicans, who overwhelmingly opposed the bill, simply declared they would not allow anyone to be confirmed as head of a federal agency created by Congress and signed into law by the President of the United States. As the Washington Post reported in 2011:
An aide to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday that the lawmaker stands by his vow to block any candidate. Late last month, McConnell led 44 senators in a letter to the White House calling for structural changes to the bureau. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has accused GOP opponents of discriminating against Warren because she is female, but McConnell's complaints are much broader.
"It's not sexist. It's not Elizabeth Warren-specific," McConnell spokesman Donald Stewart said. "It's any nominee."
The days when Republicans like Texas Senator John Cornyn demanded as "up-or-down vote" are long gone. As he put it in 2013 during the confirmation process for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel (previously a Republican Senator):
There is a 60-vote threshold for every nomination.
And when they weren't filibustering people, the GOP was blocking legislation at more than twice the rate of any previous Congress. (The GOP Senate minority actually started that practice during the last two years of President Bush's tenure. As Trent Lott (R-MS) put it in 2007, "The strategy of being obstructionist can work or fail. So far it's working for us.")
As even Robert Samuelson (yet again, no friend of Democrats) acknowledged, "From 2003 to 2006, when Republicans controlled the Senate, they filed cloture 130 times to break Democratic filibusters. Since 2007, when Democrats took charge, they've filed 257 cloture motions." The Republicans didn't merely eviscerate the old mark for cloture motions and filibusters after their descent into the minority in 2007. As Paul Krugman detailed in late 2009, the GOP's obstructionism has fundamentally altered how the Senate does - or more accurately, doesn't do - business:
The political scientist Barbara Sinclair has done the math. In the 1960s, she finds, "extended-debate-related problems" -- threatened or actual filibusters -- affected only 8 percent of major legislation. By the 1980s, that had risen to 27 percent. But after Democrats retook control of Congress in 2006 and Republicans found themselves in the minority, it soared to 70 percent.
Now, as the Washington Post three years ago, total obstructionism is the new normal for Republicans.
When the GOP hasn't blocked legislation from getting a vote, Republicans in Washington and the states have done their damnedest to derail it after the fact. Here, the comparison between President Bush's Medicare Part D prescription drug plan and Obamacare is quite instructive. As you may recall, most Democrats opposed the $400 billion, unfunded Medicare Rx program. But when its rocky launch left millions without prescription coverage, Democrats in DC and the states nevertheless rallied to make President Bush's bungled program work.
Of course, the GOP response to the Affordable Care Act has been different in kind and degree. Republicans have staged over 50 repeal votes without offering an alternative. They've launched multiple lawsuits against Obamacare's individual mandate, its Medicaid expansion and its contraception coverage provisions. GOP leaders in many red states rejected Medicaid expansion and blocked the work of "navigators," despite the fact that Medicare has used the same outreach approach for over 20 years. The result is that millions of Americans, primarily in Republican-led, southern states, are needlessly uninsured and thousands will die each year as a result.
The unprecedented Republican politics of spite don't end with Obamacare. After their successful 1990's crusade against the Internal Revenue Service, Congressional Republicans are now attacking Uncle Sam's tax collector with a vengeance. Congress has reduced the annual IRS budget for five straight years, even as the number of returns continues to grow and the "tax gap" between what Americans owe and what they actually pay has grown to an estimated $500 billion a year. Thanks to its much smaller staff and periodic employee furloughs, IRS customer service levels have plummeted and refunds delayed. It's no wonder Jonathan Chait so aptly labeled the Republicans the "the pro-deficits, pro-tax evasion party." Or as IRS chief John Koskinen lamented last year:
"I have not figured out either philosophically or psychologically, why nobody seems to care whether we collect the revenue or not."
The answer, sadly, is that the political party that hates government wants to make sure no one else runs it. As Robert Draper revealed, the GOP's best and brightest met on the night of President Obama's inauguration to plot a strategy to do just that. As California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, now the second ranking Republican in the House, put it:
"If you act like you're the minority, you're going to stay in the minority. We've gotta challenge them on every single bill and challenge them on every single campaign."
It wasn't just that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's announced goal was "for President Obama to be a one-term president." As Vox reminded readers on Tuesday:
A few months later, McConnell acknowledged that Republicans had decided to deny President Obama any bipartisan support, not because they necessarily opposed each and every initiative, but to hurt Obama politically. "We worked very hard to keep our fingerprints off of these proposals," he said. "Because we thought -- correctly, I think -- that the only way the American people would know that a great debate was going on was if the measures were not bipartisan."
But when partisan tactics intentionally produce more debt, economic damage and dead Americans, this is no longer a question of politics as usual. There are two words to describe the people who wouldn't stop there, but would actively try to blow up the President's foreign policy--and the entire Middle East--twice in one week. One word is "Republicans." The other is "traitors"--the one The Daily News used today, six years too late.
Note that "traitor" is being used with a small "t" and not as defined by the Constitution. But what Republicans have done--and continue to do--has resulted in real damage to the United States and the American people.
In less than a week, Congressional Republicans have taken two unprecedented steps to undermine the foreign policy of a sitting American president. Last Tuesday, they offered Capitol Hill as a global stage to a foreign leader--Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel--to sabotage the U.S.-led nuclear talks with Iran. And this weekend, 47 GOP Senators sent a letter to the leadership in Tehran warning the Islamic Republic that Congress-or the next president-could blow up any nuclear deal at any time.
That's right. In the wake of the arms-for-hostages scandal that engulfed President Reagan in 1986, the minority Republican response to the Congressional Iran-Contra investigation declared that Congress, not the White House, had done something wrong.
Joined then by Utah Senator Orrin Hatch (who also signed this week's letter) among other GOP leaders, Cheney didn't just denounce the majority's findings as "clearly cast in such a partisan tone," but insisted President Reagan had the constitutional authority to ignore the Congressional ban on aid to the Nicaraguan Contras:
"Judgments about the Iran-Contra Affair ultimately must rest upon one's views about the proper roles of Congress and the President in foreign policy. ... [T]hroughout the Nation's history, Congress has accepted substantial exercises of Presidential power -- in the conduct of diplomacy, the use of force and covert action -- which had no basis in statute and only a general basis in the Constitution itself. ... [M]uch of what President Reagan did in his actions toward Nicaragua and Iran were constitutionally protected exercises of inherent Presidential powers. ... [T]he power of the purse ... is not and was never intended to be a license for Congress to usurp Presidential powers and functions."
The Iran-Contra scandal, as you'll recall, almost laid waste to the Reagan presidency. Desperate to free U.S. hostages held by Iranian proxies in Lebanon, President Reagan provided weapons Tehran badly needed in its long war with Saddam Hussein (who, of course, was backed by the United States). In a clumsy and illegal attempt to skirt U.S. law, the proceeds of those sales were then funneled to the contras fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. And as the New York Times recalled, Reagan's fiasco started with an emissary bearing gifts from the Gipper himself:
A retired Central Intelligence Agency official has confirmed to the Senate Intelligence Committee that on the secret mission to Teheran last May, Robert C. McFarlane and his party carried a Bible with a handwritten verse from President Reagan for Iranian leaders.
According to a person who has read the committee's draft report, the retired C.I.A. official, George W. Cave, an Iran expert who was part of the mission, said the group had 10 falsified passports, believed to be Irish, and a key-shaped cake to symbolize the anticipated ''opening'' to Iran.
But in his November 18, 1987 press conference unveiling the minority report, Cheney rejected any notion of wrong-doing by the Reagan administration. "The bottom line, however, is that the mistakes...were just that," Rep. Cheney announced to the nation, "mistakes in judgment, and nothing more."
There was no constitutional crisis, no systematic disrespect for ''the rule of law,'' no grand conspiracy, and no Administration-wide dishonesty or coverup. In fact, the evidence will not support any of the more hysterical conclusions the committees' report tries to reach.
In 1989, the future Defense Secretary and Vice President made it clear that his objection to Capitol Hill butting into the President's constitutional powers to conduct diplomacy applied to every issue and every occupant of the Oval Office. As he put it in an address to the American Enterprise Institute:
[C]ongressional overreaching has systematic policy effects. It is important to be clear at the outset that my argument is about systematic effects, not individual policy disagreements. For example, Congress' efforts to dictate diplomatic bargaining tactics, as well as the efforts by individual members to conduct back channel negotiations on their own, make it extremely difficult for the country to sustain a consistent bargaining posture for an extended time period, whomever the President and whatever the policy. [Emphasis original.]
Fast-forwarding to 2015, it's no wonder Democratic leaders are outraged by what White House Press Secretary John Earnest decried as "the continuation of a partisan strategy to undermine the president's authority." And if was an honest man, Dick Cheney would be outraged, too.