Friday, June 11, 2021

Dance of the Squares


Square dance, Skyline Farms, Alabama. 1937. Ben Shahn, photographer. FSA/OWI, Library of Congress, via Johns Hopkins University Press.

Revealed in paragraph 11 of the New York Times version on this new Senate infrastructure proposal:

The five Republicans are Senators Rob Portman of Ohio, Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. The Democrats are key moderates: Senators Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Mark Warner of Virginia, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Jon Tester of Montana.

I'd been kind of wondering why MSNBC, CNN, and NPR didn't seem to be mentioning any of their names except Romney's and Sinema's, and also just who they were. The inclusion of Casssidy is a bit of a clue: he's not known the way the others are as a "moderate", but he was the big surprise among the Republicans who who voted to convict Trump in the second impeachment, as did Romney, Murkowski, and Collins, while Portman (who's leaving the Senate because he can't get along with the Trumpers), said Trump's conduct on 6 January was "inexcusable" and represented a violation of his oath of office but claimed the impeachment itself was illegal. In other words, they represent the anti-Trump faction, which is kind of interesting, but probably can't put together the ten Republican votes that would be needed to pass the plan in regular order (they might get to eight with Toomey and Burr, who are also retiring, and conceivably Sasse, who isn't).

Which suggests the proposal, such as it is

The framework is expected to include about $579 billion in new spending as part of an overall package that would cost about $974 billion over five years and about $1.2 trillion over eight years, according to two people familiar with the details, who disclosed them on the condition of anonymity. The outline is expected to address a narrower range of physical infrastructure projects and to avoid the Democratic push for tax increases; but it is also likely to suggest indexing the gas tax to inflation as one of the mechanisms for paying for the plan.

isn't meant to be taken entirely seriously as a proposal. Nothing like it would seem to have a chance of passing in the House, as it's apparently removed all the climate change initiatives to satisfy all the GOP semanticists determined to die on the hill of "What does 'infrastructure' really mean?"—or a chance of getting signed by President Biden either, with the regressive gas tax proposal, as Biden discreetly communicated as soon as the story came out.

It's weird to see Tester's name there too—he's called for "twenty-first century infrastructure" with a focus on rural broadband access ($100 billion in the Biden plan) and vast increases in housing supply. He doesn't come up for reelection until 2024 and Shaheen and Warner till 2026, so whatever the three of them are up to may be directly related to their relative freedom from worry on that score.

We could try to think of this, in line with my general view of the process at the moment, as meant to provide further cover to Manchin and Sinema (and perhaps Collins and Murkowski) in the establishment of what great compromisers they are. But there's a more complex possibility, based on the inner workings of the reconciliation procedure, which begins with the idea of two things, a House bill and a Senate bill, that need to be reconciled—that's the move, bringing the Senate version into budgetary harmony with the House version, that can be done with just 51 votes.

If you'll recall the drama of the Affordable Care Act, it began in the Senate, in the four-month window when the Democrats were just barely able to put together 60 votes, between the time of Arlen Specter's party switch (April 2009) and Al Franken's belated accession to his seat (July) and the time of Edward Kennedy's death (August), and they wrote and passed the original Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The House, meanwhile, was working on its own more or less more generous bill, which they would pass and submit to a conference committee to come up with a final version that Senate and House could vote on. 

But the unexpected election of Republican Scott Brown to replace Kennedy threw this normal process into chaos, since the Senate would no longer have enough Democrats to push the conference version through. So instead (Speaker Pelosi and President Obama rejecting Rahm Emanuel's plea to forget about it and do some more modest reform), the House passed the Senate bill as it was and a second bill to amend just its budgetary provisions, the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act (education because it also included some legislation on student loans), which the Senate could then pass with a simple majority, and which added the following, among other provisions, to the previously passes PPACA:

  • Increasing tax credits to buy insurance
  • Eliminating several of the special deals given to senators, such as Ben Nelson's "Cornhusker Kickback"
  • Lowering the penalty for not buying insurance from $750 to $695
  • Closing the Medicare Part D "donut hole" by 2020, giving seniors a rebate of $250.
  • Delaying the implementation on taxing "Cadillac health-care plans" until 2018
  • Requiring doctors treating Medicare patients to be reimbursed at the full rate
  • Setting up a Medicare tax on the unearned incomes of families that earn more than $250,000 annually.
  • Offering more generous subsidies to lower income groups. Households below 150% of the federal poverty level would pay 2-4% of their income on premiums. Health plans would cover 94% of the cost of benefits.[19] Households with incomes from 150-400% of the federal poverty level ($88,200 for a family of four) would pay on a sliding scale from 4-9.8% of their income on premiums, rest will be covered by government advanceable, refundable tax credit. Health plans would cover 70% of the cost of the benefits.[19][20]
  • Setting a penalty for a company with more than 50 workers not offering health care coverage after 2014, of $2,000 for each full-time worker above 30 employees. For example, an employer with 53 workers will pay the penalty for 23 workers, or $46,000.[19]
  • Increasing Medicaid payment rates to primary care doctors to match Medicare payment rates, which are higher, in 2013 and 2014.[19]
  • Having the federal government pay all costs of expanding Medicaid under the reform until 2016, 95% in 2017, 94% in 2018, 93% in 2019, and 90% thereafter. Some states that already insure childless adults under Medicaid would receive more federal money for covering that group through 2018.

Which was, as Vice President Biden said, a big fucking deal, and not your Governor Romney's idea.

In 2021, the dancers will have to do a different dance (as Schumer and Biden and of course Pelosi are extremely aware), but if the Senate could pass some budget bill—any budget bill—under regular order, it could follow the same rhythm: 

  • Senate passes something that can get 60 votes (let's say a trillion-dollar bill with revenue estimates based on the Group of Seven minimum corporate tax proposal), 
  • House passes it, as is, but 
  • also passes an Infrastructure Reconciliation Act amending the budgetary provisions of the first bill (bringing the spending up around $2 trillion and introducing the higher corporate tax rate, the new marginal income tax rate, and new enforcement provisions for IRS), 
  • Senate takes up the Reconciliation Act under reconciliation rules (limited debate, limited amendments all of which must be germane to the bill, and passed by a simple majority), and Bob's your uncle.

And in fact I don't know what other rhythm it could follow (which doesn't mean there's no alternative, only that I don't know very much—but compare this primer from CBPP). But that initial step, the 60-vote Senate bill, is the prerequisite for the process in this version at least. And it has to come in the form of a bill that 10 Republicans and probably a couple of Democrats as well can vote for either without realizing what the implications are, or without admitting they realize it. Which is kind of awkward. 

The initial product has to look both like something they'd all be ready to vote for, and something Biden would be ready to sign, before they move to turn it upside down and into something the Republicans intend to stop. And that would explain why they're all talking about it with such maddening indirection, and even more why the political press, in particular, seems to have no idea what's going on.

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