A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to President Obama’s 2014 Budget Plan

It’s time to Break It Down!

I’m surprised; shocked would actually be a better word to describe my reaction.  I have checked.  Hell hasn’t frozen over, at least not that I can tell.  Nor is there snow falling on Miami Beach…according to the Weather Channel.  Yet, the GOP, the erstwhile “Party of No” to any measure proposed by President Barack Obama, has been reported to have embraced one of the tenets of the President’s 2014 Budget proposal.

Now it goes without saying, any proposal that could induce Republican leaders to speak supportively of a proposal submitted by the President is bound to be controversial on some front…and this one is.  In devising and proffering a budget, the President has proposed a new inflation measure — known as the chained consumer price index, or chained CPI — which would reduce Social Security benefits by only about 0.3 percentage points per year. But over the long run, it would save enough to wipe out as much as 20 percent of the program’s 75-year funding gap.

The GOP-led House of Representatives is moving ahead to conduct hearings on the proposal.  Republican Rep. Sam Johnson of Texas, chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee, has scheduled for Thursday the first public hearing looking at Obama’s proposal, The Washington Post reported. In addition, the panel’s health subcommittee will hold hearings on proposals by Obama that seek to control Medicare costs.
Representative Johnson is among the GOP members praising the President for including the chained-CPI adjustment in his budget request — saying it was “a first step toward protecting Social Security for today’s workers” — Democrats, conversely, as might be expected, are furious with the President for including the plan.

During a recent meeting arranged by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Democrats complained that their offices were being inundated with calls form irate constituents.

Politically, this is not a winner. Our brand is the party that brought you Social Security,” Democratic Rep. Rush D. Holt of New Jersey told the Post following the meeting.
As the same time, House Speaker John Boehner is pushing back against Republicans who are criticizing the plan as being harmful to seniors.  That’s because while some GOP members have expressed support for the proposal, as with a number of recent issues, the GOP response runs the gamut.  Some support it, others do not, and still there are those who have declined to commit to a position.
Nevertheless, the top Party official has made his position clear.  In response to Republican Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon calling the President’s Social Security proposal “a shocking attack on seniors,” Speaker Boehner told reporters, “I’ve made it clear that I disagreed with what Chairman Walden said.  This is the least we must do to begin to solve the problem of Social Security.”

This mixed reaction among GOP denizens would be perplexing, were it not for what I like to call the Obama Factor (OF).  That is an apparently intrinsic and irresistible urge for Republicans to eat their loafers, rather than sign-off on any proposal offered by this President.  In other words, the proposal was once a mainstay of the GOP’s deficit-reduction overtures to the White House.  In that regard, like so many previous proposals by President Obama that were born as GOP initiatives; once again, we see at least some members of the vaunted Republican Party deciding that what they once thought was a fantastic idea…now stinks to high heaven.

That’s the GOP I have come to recognize over the past five years.  This new attitude exhibited by Speaker Boehner is an eerie thing.  Frankly, I do not know what to make of it.

Apparently neither do some RepublicansRepresentative Walden’s potentially off-message comment provoked swift rebuke from the powerful Club for Growth, the conservative advocacy group that supports the measure as a starting point for reining in spending on government entitlement programs.

The club quickly assigned Walden a place on its “Primary My Congressman” list of Republicans who deserve a GOP primary opponent because they are insufficiently true to conservative ideals.

“We always knew Greg Walden had a liberal record, but he really cemented it with his public opposition to even modest entitlement reform,” said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola.

The cost-of-living proposal, long promoted by economists who say the government’s inflation adjustments are too generous, would shave a few dollars off the monthly checks of seniors, veterans and others who receive Social Security and other government benefits.

Chained-CPI would also apply to the tax code, bringing in revenue by capturing more taxpayers at higher rates as the tax brackets are adjusted more slowly for inflation.

Naturally, Democrats, say the change would hit the most vulnerable members of society, who should not be targeted for deficit reduction.  But influential GOP thought-benders such as Grover Norquist, of Americans for Tax Reform, also oppose the proposal, suggesting it would violate the group’s anti-tax pledge unless the added revenues were applied to lower taxes elsewhere in the tax code.

So what, you ask, is today’s lesson?  The lesson is one I gleaned years ago, and that we now have yet another empirical standard to validate.  Even as the Speaker of the House is trying to marshal GOP troops to support a proposal for which his Party fought valiantly during recent in-the-trenches hand-to-hand combat with Democrats on resolving the debt crisis, Party members are verifying that the OF remains a key litmus test for determining issues they will or will not support.

In a recent discussion after it became clear President Obama’s budget would include Chained-CPI; a policy of which congressional Republicans have proved to be fond, Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman posed a poignant rhetorical question: “Wanna bet that Republicans soon start running ads saying that Obama wants to cut your Social Security?”

In response, some scoffed at the idea.  The point seemed to be, Republicans are extreme, but they are not that extreme.  The GOP is shameless, but not that shameless.  They couldn’t seriously condemn the President for offering a policy Republicans demanded he offer, could they?  Would they?  Of course they could…and they did!

To recap, quickly:

  1. The GOP demanded that President Obama accept Social Security cuts through Chained-CPI.
  2. President Obama, eager to reach a     compromise, grudgingly agreed and offered the GOP the policy concession that had been requested.
  3. The GOP then attacked the President for proposing the policy     they demanded.

By any fair measure, this is insane.  But it’s equally predictable — this is the same caucus that demands Medicare cuts, but then based their 2010 and 2012 campaign strategies in part on attacks that Democrats cut Medicare.

As this 2014 Budget battle continues to take shape, it is clear that President Obama has figured out a way to push both Republicans and Democrats beyond their respective comfort zones.  What is unclear is whether this out-of-the-box gambit (for a Democrat) is a function of superior tactical reckoning, an early indicator of President Obama buying into the tenets of the Bowles-Simpson Commission, an effort to open budget negotiations with a true compromise posture, or if the President has simply figured out yet another way to capitalize on the contemporary state of confusion in which the GOP seems to be at least temporarily immersed.  No matter which option you embrace, it is fair to say, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to President Obama’s 2014 Budget Plan!”

I’m done; holla back!

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