Saturday, January 30, 2010
State of the Union Address: The Good ...
I looked forward to the State of the Union address this year because I was curious about what the President was going to say after the Democrats' loss of a Senate seat in Massachusetts marked the death, or at least a significant delay, of the health care reform legislation that President Obama had been pushing so hard for the last year. He had wanted the legislation to pass before the State of the Union address. Now, what would he talk about?
I found that President Obama said some things that I like, some that I didn't, and some things that were inappropriate. Therefore, I was going to write about the good, the bad, and the ugly, but I found out that saying everything I wanted to say about all three could lead to a blog post nearly as long as the speech itself, so I will just talk about the good this time.
Barack Obama is excellent at delivering speeches and as a politician is also excellent at saying things that people like to hear, including people that disagree with his policies. There are some things he has said over and over again that I agree with, but about which you have to doubt his sincerity because he says one thing and does another. Examples of things I keep hearing him say that I like but are contradicted by his actions are that he wants to be a “post-partisan” President and bring the parties together, that he wants to reduce the influence of lobbyists and special interests in government, and that he is willing to consider all ideas from whatever source.
President Obama has taken a step toward bipartisanship, but it wasn't until after the State of the Union address, and of course after he had been President for a little more than a year. He recently met with Republican members of the House of Representatives in Baltimore. Before that, he had rarely talked with anyone outside his own party. Apparently, he didn't see the need, considering that his party had a significant majority in the House and a “supermajority” of 60 Senators in the Senate. Because of a Senate rule that has existed nearly as long as the Senate itself, it takes a vote of 60 Senators to stop debate on a bill. Without the 60 votes, a minority can filibuster, which means to debate the bill endlessly so it never comes up for a vote. Technically, this means that if he can get all the Democrats to agree on a bill, the Republicans have no power whatsoever. That may work in theory, but in the real world, major legislation is rarely passed without bipartisan support. What the President didn't count on is that not all Democrats think exactly the same and that even without the need to compromise with Republicans, there remained the need to compromise among Democrats. President Obama originally wanted health care reform legislation to pass before the end of July. However, the process of compromising to get bills that got enough Democratic votes to pass delayed the process until Christmas Eve, when the Senate passed a bill similar to, but not identical with the one that the House had previously passed. Since the bills that the House and Senate pass have to be identical before they can become law, more compromise was needed to make them identical. More compromise meant more delay and the delay extended beyond the date of the special election in Massachusetts that deprived the Democrats of the filibuster-proof supermajority in the Senate. So now, to get any major legislation through Congress, the President is forced to do what he should have done voluntarily all along and negotiate with Republicans. If he or the Democratic leadership in Congress had negotiated with enough Republicans to get some of their votes, they probably would have health care reform legislation. Instead they played an all-or-nothing game and, at least so far, have gotten nothing.
As for reducing the influence of lobbyists and special interests, the President has placed several people who had been lobbyists in his cabinet and White House staff. Don't like lobbyists, Mr. President? Then why surround yourself with them? He also made a big deal about accepting ideas from whatever source. Specifically, regarding health care reform, he said that if anyone had any ideas that would make high quality health care more affordable and more available to more Americans without increasing deficits, he is ready to listen. No, he isn't! Several Republicans have suggested ideas that could do exactly that – make high quality health care more affordable and more available to more Americans without raising the deficit. Such ideas include (but are not limited to) tort reform (putting a limit on punitive damages that can be awarded in a medical malpractice suit) and allowing purchase of health insurance across state lines to promote competition and make more kinds of policies available to consumers. Tort reform is not going to happen in legislation that is passed only by Democrats because trial attorneys are one to the biggest sources of campaign contributions to the Democratic party. The President and others in his party may not agree with those ideas, but instead of saying so and arguing against them, they claim that the Republicans offer no ideas and are “the party of no.” I have a lot more to say about health care reform, but I will save that for the future and stay closer to the State of the Union address for now.
President Obama said other things in the State of the Union address that I liked and that surprised me because I had not heard him say them before. They included support for a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants, development of gas and oil offshore, and clean coal technology. He also supported biofuels, but I am undecided whether biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, are a good thing or not. I have too much to say about energy to include in this post, so I will save that for the future. In any event, I would like to see some evidence that his unexpected support for nuclear energy, offshore drilling, and clean coal are serious or just words to appease independents. He also mentioned increasing trade with South Korea, Canada, and Colombia. Since the Congress has refused to ratify free trade agreements with South Korea and Colombia that were negotiated during the Bush administration, I'd say ratifying those free trade agreements is long overdue – and still not likely to happen. Since I work part-time for a community college, his support for revitalizing community colleges is in my personal best interest. However, I don't assume that what is in my best interest is also in the best interest of the American people. A lot depends on the details.
The President talked about cutting taxes on business to stimulate the economy and about tax cuts for the middle class. He would eliminate capital gains taxes on small businesses and providing tax incentives to businesses of all sizes for investments that would lead to hiring more employees or increasing wages. He talked about having tax cuts for the middle class, but when he started talking about specifics he talked about tax credits for raising children, going to college, buying a home, saving energy etc. It is good for taxes to go down, but lowering taxes by tax credits is using the tax code to influence people to behave in ways that the government wants them to behave rather than to raise revenue. It is one of the things that makes preparing tax returns such a chore and waste of time. If the government wants to lower taxes, it should just lower the rates. The tax code needs to made less complicated, not more complicated. Still, I suppose that a complicated plan for reducing taxes is better than none, so on balance I would say that his plan to reduce taxes on individuals and businesses so that businesses can employ more people and individuals have more money to live on is a good thing. However, compared with spending, taxes are a minor and short-term issue, because money that is spent has to be paid with either taxes or borrowing. Borrowing only postpone taxes; it does not replace them. That is the lead-in for the next discussion, the parts of the State of the Union address that were bad.