Wednesday, August 31, 2011

the real deficit: willpower

Howard Gleckman of the Tax Policy Center reports on a not-for-attribution gathering of budget experts where the consensus was that the supercommittee will fail, the sequester will be ordered, but Congress will somehow avoid its implementation. I agree with much of his analysis, but not his conclusions.  I still expect the panel to reach an agreement close to its mandate, triggering at most a small sequester. I don't see the politics of 2012 allowing Congress to agree to anything less than the mandated cut levels.

Libya and NATO

Once again proving its value for those of us who follow international affairs, the Financial Times has an excellent article assessing the lessons for NATO of the Libyan operation. Among other points, it notes,
"Europe lacked not just will. Even where allies wanted to engage, they struggled to find the means."Take a look.

Monday, August 29, 2011


I wish journalists and officials would refrain from trying to find or impose a "doctrine" on recent U.S. foreign policy. As I pointed out months ago, even Ralph Waldo Emerson thought that diplomats had a fetish for foolish consistencies. There are few 95-5 choices in national security; most are closer to 51-49. What may seem wise in one instance is risky or unattainable in another [e.g., Libya cf. Syria]. The latest example is from today's New York Times, where Ben Rhodes of the National Security Council staff claims that America's Libya policy illustrates important principles. Interesting, but not persuasive to me.


I live in a tree-filled community that frequently suffers power outages when strong winds blow through. This weekend the visitor was Hurricane Irene. The first night, the neighbors gathered by candlelight and shared food. [Gas grills and gas stoves allow cooking.] The next day and a half, we did yardwork and relaxed. It helped, of course, that the newspapers were delivered and the plumbing doesn't require electricity.

It is far better to lose power in summer than in winter, when a homeowner fears frozen pipes, ice dams in gutters, and so forth. The daylight also lasts longer.

Now back to business as usual.

Friday, August 26, 2011

broadsheets better

We all like to have our prejudices confirmed. One of mine is that reading a dead-tree newspaper is far better than reading the same material online. Partly it's a matter of experience and comfort, partly a judgment about ease of browsing and so forth.  Jack Shafer in Slate has the same view and even found an academic study showing that retention is better when news is consumed via broadsheet instead of a screen.  I guess we're pretty close to an anecdotal consensus now.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The China threat

In the 1980s, defense hawks working for the Pentagon launched a series of annual reports on "Soviet Military Power."  The reports drew on intelligence assessments, but packaged them in the most alarming way. The Soviet forces were always depicted as 10 feet tall, with no mention of of weak knees or chronic alcoholism. Of course, the reports never indicated the likely collapse of the Soviet empire either.

I understand. Military analysts have to consider worse cases. They emphasize capabilities, regardless of evidence of intentions. But we on the outside have to sprinkle some salt on their analyses.

In the late 1990s, defense hawks were searching for a new enemy to justify large Pentagon budgets. Instead of noticing terrorism, however, they fixated on China -- the "near peer competitor."  A fashionable faction grew up, urging "contain China now," for they expected an eventual power struggle and confrontation. They ignored the bipartisan counter argument that adopting such an approach would become a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy.

In 1999, they succeeded in adding a reporting requirement to the defense authorization bill that makes the Pentagon produce an annual assessment of Chinese military power. The latest one was released this week. In truth, I haven't read it yet. And I doubt that it distorts the classified intelligence estimates.  While knowing China's military capabilities is important, it is not the only factor to consider when developing policies toward China.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Libya "success"

There are many lessons to be learned from the NATO intervention in Libya -- and more to be encountered in the coming weeks and months. One important lesson is that NATO is not as militarily strong as many thought and more expected. Much of the Libya operation depended on US enablers. Yet the prospects for European defense enhancements seems to be slipping.

As the dust settles and the fog of war clears, I'll offer more lessons. Remember, however, that US military analysts still call their after-action studies "lessons learned," but the British -- more accurately -- have long called them "lessons identified."

budget failure

Despite a  new CBO study calculating that the Budget Control Act will cut the projected debt increases in half, I think Stan Collender has a more likely analysis -- that the supercommittee will be another failure, or at least short-lived in its accomplishments.

 I agree but think there will be partial success with enough downsides that the experiment won't be repeated, as was the case with Gramm-Rudman-Hollings in the 1980s. [When the media shortened the label to Gramm-Rudman, I remember Sen. Hollings explaining/complaining that 'we had to start cutting somewhere."]

Saturday, August 20, 2011

broken branch

Tom Mann and Norm Ornstein  lamented changes in Congress that turned it into what they called the "Broken Branch" in 2006. Obviously, things have only gotten worse since then. Jonathan Chait of the New Republic has a good recent diagnosis that I largely share. He points to increased partisanship, disputes over political legitimacy,  and a change in norms. He also notes that more obstructive tactics are just waiting to be discovered.

I'd make the same points in a slightly different way. Partisanship has become more strident because the parties have become more ideological and the redistricting process has tended to strengthen reliable-party constituencies. Questions of legitimacy have been major issues of partisan dispute since the 1990s: starting with Bill Clinton, each president has been viewed as fundamentally illegitimate by a large segment of the opposition party. In Congress, the ideological unity of the parties has reinforced party discipline.

The change in norms is, to me, even more troubling. For whatever reasons -- the way political news is covered, the benefits of stridency for fundraising, the locker-room competitiveness of the players -- even minor political disputes are treated as must-win great battles. Every day is D-Day; every battle is another Stalingrad.

In the Senate, this has led to filibusters or other obstruction on more nominations and almost all legislation. What used to be a last-ditch tool either to publicize a concern or block some broadly popular measure is now a routine device. In the House, it has led both parties, when in the majority, to block proposals by the minority.

I remember when Sen.Jesse Helms [R-NC] discovered that treaty texts could be amended, something not tried since the Versailles Treaty debates in 1919. Suddenly, everybody wanted to amend treaties rather than attaching reservations. Since there are more unused or undiscovered tools for mischief in the Senate's rules, Chait is right to expect more obstruction in the future.

The only remedies are shame from the attentive media and public and rejection by the voters. It would also help to undertake some of the measures urged by Mann and Ornstein to try to restore civility and collegiality in the legislative branch.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Obama's dilemma

Democrats who want the President to be nastier to Republicans and their policies have emotion on their side, but not political logic. Obama ran for president echoing the widely-held public view that Washington was somehow corrupt and Congress was broken. He called for less partisanship and more cooperation.

Once in office, he continued striking that above-the-fray pose, with only minor deviations. Despite vigorous and often effective Republican opposition,  he has achieved numerous legislative victories, though never enough to satisfy his most ardent supporters.

He can't change now. He has established his leadership persona, and he certainly has every incentive to stand apart from the partisanship and vitriol so strong in Washington today. Democrats don't like his criticizing "Congress" and not just Republicans, but that's consistent with his original campaign.

Nor is it reasonable to expect that he would be any more successful in the next 15 months, or on November 6, 2012, if he joins the mudfight now. Few of the undecideds would welcome strident partisanship from the White House.

battles ahead

The debt ceiling sideshow is over, but several major legislative-executive conflicts are just around the corner.

The biggest is over the 2012 appropriations, which have to be passed by September 30. The debt ceiling law sets specific spending caps for 2012 and 2013, but Congress has a lot of flexibility in deciding what gets in under the cap and what gets left out. Failure to agree could lead to a shutdown of unfunded federal agencies and many of the same scare stories that came out as the debt limit took hold.

In the foreign policy field, the busy and very knowledgeable John Rogin of Foreign Policy magazine has a checklist of unresolved issues still facing Congress. Read 'em and weep.

budget sausage

After three happy but hectic weeks with grandchildren, I now have had time to catch up on the news, especially the new budget control act that ended, at least for now, the debt ceiling crisis.
The new law doesn’t, by itself, cut government spending or make reforms to mandatory [entitlement] programs. Instead, it establishes several processes that push the government in those directions. It also creates incentives for Congress to pass a Constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget and for the new supercommittee to reach bipartisan agreement on additional spending cuts of at least $1.2 trillion over the next decade.

Lawmakers cobbled together several provisions of previous budget control laws, especially from the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings law that contained automatic across-the-board “sequesters” and the 1990 Budget Enforcement Act that capped discretionary spending with specific dollar amounts. They added the idea of the Senate’s Republican Leader, Mitch McConnell [R-Ky], to allow some debt ceiling increases subject to vetoable resolutions of disapproval by Congress. Surprisingly, they restored the 1987 firewall protecting security spending and in particular programs for international affairs, veterans, and homeland security.
And they built in some loopholes. Spending for “Overseas Contingency Operations” – the $127 billion line item for Pentagon and State Department activities for ongoing wars and against terrorists – is exempt from the budget ceilings. As under earlier budget laws, Congress can also declare certain expenditures “emergencies” to get around the caps, although there are limits in the amounts allowed for disaster relief. Some domestic programs get special treatment or protection, but not the IMF as in earlier years.

The new law has several provisions to prevent Senate filibusters or procedural challenges to the various measures allowed under the new processes. No amendments or procedural delays can be used on the debt ceiling disapprovals or the supercommittee recommendations [if they can agree on something] or on the balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

So what’s likely to happen? The debt ceiling is safe until 2013, for a 2/3 vote overriding a presidential  veto of a resolution of disapproval seems unlikely. The constitutional amendment has to be voted on between October 1 and December 31, but a 2/3 vote is unlikely for the latest version of that measure, which would require California-style supermajorities to increase taxes.

There there’s the supercommittee. If a majority does not agree on at least $1.2 trillion in additional cuts by November 23, then a full-scale “sequester” occurs in January, half of which must come from the Pentagon budget and some of the non-defense cuts must come from entitlement programs. This is supposed to scare lawmakers into making balanced and sensible cuts and perhaps even raising some revenue through changes in “tax expenditures” [also known as tax loopholes].

My first reaction was to agree that those automatic cuts were too draconian to be acceptable. And in fact, the very small first Gramm-Rudman-Hollings cuts were still deemed to be so disruptive, Congress found ways to evade ever facing them again.

On further study, however, I’m ready to predict a muddle-through. If the new panel packages the cuts tentatively agreed by the Biden group [$800 billion] and adds a few more items, the sequester would be limited to the difference, spread over nine years. Those figures would be painful, of course, but not as painful as $133 billion in any one year. 

Such a not-quite-good-enough outcome kicks the problem down the road to the 2012 elections and the expiration of all the Bush tax cuts. That may not help the country much, but it would probably look good to the politicians on all sides.