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Morning Feature – Hope, Fear, and Tea Leaves in Budget Talks and Marriage Equality (Non-Cynical Saturday)

December 8, 2012

Morning Feature

Morning Feature – Hope, Fear, and Tea Leaves in Budget Talks and Marriage Equality (Non-Cynical Saturday)

Both the ‘fiscal cliff’ budget talks and the Supreme Court’s decision to hear two marriage equality cases offer reasons to hope … and cause for concern. (More)

Hope, Fear, and Tea Leaves in Budget Talks and Marriage Equality (Non-Cynical Saturday)

First the actual news: President Obama accepted House Speaker John Boehner’s request for private, one-on-one budget talks, and the Supreme Court agreed to review both a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act and the Ninth Circuit decision overturning California’s Prop 8.

And that’s pretty much it for the actual news. No one except President Obama and Speaker Boehner knows exactly what was said in their discussions. I could find no source confirming that they met at all yesterday, but they may have. As for the marriage equality cases, while I’d guess that at least one or two Justices have already made their decisions on ideological grounds, I hope most will at least wait to read the parties’ briefs.

The rest is hope and fear based on the reading of tea leaves.

Budget Talks: Outline of a Deal, or Trial Balloon?

Yesterday the Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein reported on what may be the outline of a budget deal:

Talk to smart folks in Washington, and here’s what they think will happen: The final tax deal will raise rates a bit, giving Democrats a win, but not all the way back to 39.6 percent, giving Republicans a win. That won’t raise enough revenue on its own, so it will be combined with some policy to cap tax deductions, perhaps at $25,000 or $50,000, with a substantial phase-in and an exemption for charitable contributions.

The harder question is what Republicans will get on the spending side of the deal. But even that’s not such a mystery. There will be a variety of nips and tucks to Medicare, including more cost-sharing and decreases in provider payments, and the headline Democratic concession is likely to be that the Medicare eligibility age rises from 65 to 67.

The New Yorker‘s Jonathan Chait thinks the Medicare eligibility age is an issue on which Democrats should be willing to deal:

This seems like a useful time for liberals to sort out the difference between budget ideas we don’t like and budget ideas we can’t or shouldn’t accept. (Ezra Klein has some other sensible ideas here.) Many of my liberal wonk friends have been making the case against raising the Medicare retirement age — see Sarah Kliff, Matthew Yglesias, and Jonathan Cohn. Their basic case is that raising the Medicare retirement age is a really stupid way to save money because it just forces people to stop buying health care through Medicare, which is relatively cheap, and start buying it through private insurance, which costs way more.

They’re all totally right about this. Still, when the question comes to what concessions the Democrats are going to have to accept, rather than what policy makes the most sense, raising the Medicare age seems like a sensible bone to throw the right. For one thing, it has weirdly disproportionate symbolic power, both among Republicans in Congress and establishmentarian fiscal scolds. Mitch McConnell and Erskine Bowles alike would regard raising the retirement age as a sign of serious belt-tightening and the “structural reforms” conservatives say they need. Meager and inefficient though the savings may be, they pack a lot of punch in delivering Republican votes.

What’s more, raising the Medicare retirement age would help strengthen the fight to preserve the Affordable Care Act.

Chait goes on to argue that 65- and 66-year-old seniors would bring additional political pressure to implement and strengthen rather than block and weaken the ACA. Maybe so, but the New York TimesPaul Krugman still thinks raising the Medicare eligibility age is a terrible idea:

First, raising the Medicare age is terrible policy. It would be terrible policy even if the Affordable Care Act were going to be there in full force for 65 and 66 year olds, because it would cost the public $2 for every dollar in federal funds saved. And in case you haven’t noticed, Republican governors are still fighting the ACA tooth and nail; if they block the Medicaid expansion, as some will, lower-income seniors will just be pitched into the abyss.

Second, why on earth would Obama be selling Medicare away to raise top tax rates when he gets a big rate rise on January 1 just by doing nothing? And no, vague promises about closing loopholes won’t do it: a rate rise is the real deal, no questions, and should not be traded away for who knows what.

Dr. Krugman predicts there will be “hell to pay” if President Obama accepts this deal, and he may be right. But keep in mind that the only Democratic leader who has yet spoken directly on it is House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who told the Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent “I am very much against that, and I think most of my members are. I don’t see any reason why that should be in any agreement.”

The what-if-well-maybe-oh-no is happening, pundits insist, because she didn’t use words like “deal breaker” or “red line.” This may be unnamed sources floating trial balloons, or it may be simply the Beltway Blather Brigade and their sworn duty to never let an absence of information force an empty news cycle.

It’s important to remember that this is about more than the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. The December 2010 deal, set to expire at the end of this month, also included extended unemployment insurance benefits, the extended payroll tax cut, and other still-needed stimulus programs. So-called “cliff-divers” eager to let the 2010 deal expire and force Republicans to vote against tax relief for 98% of Americans don’t mention those other cuts … and most would hurt hardworking families very quickly.

The Marriage Equality Cases

Similarly, the absence of real information about why four Supreme Court Justices voted to take the marriage equality cases has not deterred celebrations by LGBT activists. As California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom told Bloomberg:

Today marks the beginning of the end for a California journey that started eight years ago when San Francisco issued same-sex marriage licenses. By agreeing to hear the Proposition 8 case the U.S. Supreme Court could end, once and for all, marriage inequity in California.

Yes, that’s one possibility. The other is that aging conservative Justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas think this may be their last chance to block marriage equality, before age and more state initiatives like those that passed last month leave the Court’s right wing with no cards left to play. They may be counting on 76-year-old Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion overturning state sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas, to join the conservative bloc as he did in the Affordable Care Act case.

University of Texas-Austin law professor and Supreme Court historian Lucas Powe told TPM he doesn’t think that’s likely:

“I don’t think justices get in this position very often because everybody knows what the judgement of history is going to be,” Lucas Powe, a Supreme Court historian at the University of Texas-Austin School of Law, told TPM before the court’s announcement. “I don’t think think anybody doubts that gay marriage is coming – it’s only the issue of time. This is one of those times where no matter what you think you know you’re going to be wrong if you oppose it.”
“I think Kennedy’s vote is very secure,” Powe said. “I think there are comfortably five votes to overturn DOMA. … Kennedy has a libertarian streak – he has written the key gay rights opinions and I think he will continue to do so.”

Maybe so, but Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig was one of many legal experts who made a similar argument about Justice Scalia and the Affordable Care Act. Just sayin’.

UnSpun authors Brooks Jackson and Katherine Hall Jamieson called cynicism “another form of gullibility,” as cynics disbelieve news stories before weighing the evidence. I don’t think that’s a huge risk here. Again, the only solid evidence is that President Obama and Speaker Boehner are or will be talking one-on-one, and the Supreme Court will hear two marriage equality cases. The rest is speculation – reading tea leaves – and that requires a healthy dose of skepticism. On both the budget talks and the marriage equality cases, both panic and celebration are … premature.


Happy Saturday!

  • addisnana

    There is an art to watching the news dispassionately. It is hard to care deeply about some of the issues and realize that one does not have all the information or really any role to play in what gets negotiated. I did as the President asked and called and emailed my members of congress. Beyond that, I’m trying hard to not waste my energies on a premature reaction. Patience is called for and I’m working on my patience as I type.

    I am so not fond of all the disaster metaphors – cliffs, apocalypse, killing (as in the job creators), etc. I think it just adds to the anxiety levels. It may create readers for the pundits but what do they know anyway?

    • NCrissieB

      Unfortunately, the news media have a vested interest in the intensity of your emotional response. The more passionate you are about a story, the more time you’ll spend reading that website or watching that channel. Actual, source-able news is difficult and expensive to gather and verify. It’s cheaper and easier to offer speculation about what might happen … and that speculation can be packaged to be very evocative. That said, political leaders to have unnamed sources float so-called “trial balloons,” to test public response and to see how other leaders may react, so we shouldn’t dismiss such stories out-of-hand. Still, healthy skepticism suggests it’s not yet time to panic about Medicare.

      As for the Supreme Court, as an appellate attorney I learned not to make bold predictions about how courts would decide cases. I hope the Court will take this opportunity to protect marriage equality as a fundamental right, as they did in Loving v. Virginia. But it’s way too early to celebrate.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • Jim W

    Looking at the Crystal ball I see little chance that The Early Retiree Reinsurance Program will disappear before the ACA polls take over.

    The program ends on January 1, 2014, when early retirees and their families, along with others, will be able to choose from a range of coverage options that will be available in new competitive private health insurance Exchanges.

    I am waiting for details, not speculation.

    • NCrissieB

      Waiting for details is an excellent plan, Jim. We just don’t know enough about either story to panic or celebrate yet.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • Gardener

    I sure hope they won’t raise the age for Medicare. I have a friend who can’t afford insurance and he’s just limping around with a hernia, waiting for Medicare……..

    Maybe we should quit subsidizing oil companies instead?

    • NCrissieB

      I oppose raising the eligibility age for Medicare for several reasons, Gardener. It won’t save much (if any) money, because 65- and 66-year-olds are, as a group, the healthiest seniors on Medicare. Taking them out of the Medicare pool would make that program even more risk-heavy. And as Mike notes below, adding those 65- and 66-year-olds to the general risk pool would put upward pressure on health insurance premiums for younger Americans.

      That said, we don’t know whether this is being negotiated, or the terms under which it’s being discussed. If it were phased in over the 10-year term of the cost analyses being bandied about, it may be that few would even notice the change … as set against the many families who would be hurt in January without extended unemployment benefits and the other elements of the 2010 budget deal.

      Without the more details about the package – what will change, when, and what existing programs will be protected – it seems wise to withhold judgment.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • LI Mike

    I will be one unhappy camper if the Medicare age is extended. Do the health insurance companies want 65 and 66 year-olds to play havoc on their risk pools? The larger point is that it isn’t Medicare or Medicaid that is the problem it is the bloated costs (compared to other 1st world countries) that drives the high Medicare and Medicaid expenses (and drives up taxes and premiums for everyone).

    I also just want to give ACAs cost reducing components a chance to work. ACAs punitive readmission policy is just kicking in (reduce payments to providers who have an unacceptable Medicare readmissin rate.)

    • NCrissieB

      I agree with your analysis, Mike (see my reply to Gardener, above). Still, depending on how the increase is phased-in and how much immediate help for hardworking families President Obama gets in return, it may be the least bad deal available. We just don’t know yet, and I think Dr. Krugman’s “hell to pay” comment is premature.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • Jim W

    The Guardian brings forward two other issues in the Supreme Court will consider.

    The story is not straightforward. In relation to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the Supreme Court justices have agreed to consider the merits of the case. But they have also given themselves a get-out clause.

    They will rule first on whether the executive branch (the Obama administration, which believes DOMA is unconstitutional), has an obligation to defend it; and whether Blag, the Bipartisan Legal Action Group (which House Republican leaders are directing through their majority on the group ), has legal standing.

    • NCrissieB

      There are so many ways the Court could go on these cases, and we must remember the Justices haven’t even received the parties’ briefs yet. What’s more, the Court may ask the parties to brief and argue issues that aren’t in the initial reviews now being bandied about. LGBT activists are feeling good after the wins in November – justifiably – but it’s way too soon to celebrate this Supreme Court move.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • winterbanyan

    It is very hard for me to read the news and not get exercised. I mean, I’m worried because SCOTUS is taking up two such important issued this session: the Voting Rights law and marriage equality. There was a time in the past (long ago) when I would have believed the court would have made a decision based on principles such as ensuring Americans can vote, and requiring equal treatment of all Americans. I am not so sure anymore.

    But you are right, at this point on these stories, I have no information except the most basic. I was anticipating that SCOTUS would overturn ACA, and I was wrong. I’ve given up predicting what these folks will do.

    But I still worry. Raising the eligibility age for Medicare would remove seniors at the healthiest age from the pool. Never mind them having to buy private insurance at high premiums, we’ll be raising the cost of Medicare by the simple act of removing so many still-healthy people from the pool.

    Anyway, I’m working on trying not to anticipate the worst based on little or no information. I haven’t succeeded yet. 🙁

    • NCrissieB

      If we can act in ways that may avert the worst, anticipating the worse can be useful. I’m not sure there’s much we can do about the budget talks other than calling and emailing our elected officials, which I’ve already done. And I know there’s nothing we can do about the Supreme Court’s consideration of the two marriage equality cases. So it’s better to watch and wait….

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::