Obama’s bargaining strategy and tactics with regard to deficit cutting over the past three years have proven to be an unmitigated disaster. From the idea of seeking a ‘grand bargain’ with Teapublicans in the House of Representatives in 2011, to the debt ceiling and sequester deals of August 2011 that resulted in $2.2 trillion in spending-only cuts and no tax hikes whatsoever on the rich, to caving in on the so-called ‘Fiscal Cliff’ this past January 1 that resulted in taxing only the richest 0.7% and allowing $4 trillion in Bush tax cuts to continue permanently—Obama’s bargaining strategy and tactics have proven a case example of exactly what not to do in negotiations.
Obama’s first error was to believe that by offering hundreds of billions in entitlement cuts back in the summer of 2011 in exchange for revenue hikes that Republicans would agree to raise taxes a mere year before the 2012 elections. Obama and the Democrats subsequently further believed that by linking $1.2 trillion in sequestered spending-only cuts in August 2011, as part of the debt ceiling deal that Republicans would not allow $500 billion in sequestered defense spending cuts take effect and would agree to some tax hikes in exchange. Obama then made the error this past December thinking Republicans would discuss tax revenue proposals after they agreed to the minimal $60 billion in Bush tax cut extensions (aka ‘Fiscal Cliff’) on January 1, 2013. Or that Republicans would have to agree to some kind of tax revenue enhancement deal on March 1 when the sequestered defense cuts would take effect, or March 27 when the government ran out of money. But the Teapublicans proved him wrong in every one of these accounts. How and why did this all happen? And will Obama and the Democrats continue to get outmaneuvered in the coming final round of deficit negotiations that commences with Obama’s latest budget, to be announced on April 10?
Some Key Questions of Strategy
The question is why have the Teapublicans agreed to the token January 1 tax hikes? Why did they agree to allow the $1.2 trillion sequestered cuts, including defense spending, go into effect? Why did they not engage in brinksmanship again on March 1 or March 27, unlike they did in August 2011? And why will they not go to the brink again on the debt ceiling issue when it arises once more in May?
The answer to the first question is Teapublicans in the House got a tax deal they simply couldn’t refuse on January 1, a deal which their big corporate campaign benefactors, the Business Roundtable, wanted and helped engineer together with the Obama administration. They got to keep $4 trillion of the Bush tax cuts, which are now permanent and which include nice ‘sweeteners’ (i.e. further tax cuts) like no more Alternative Minimum Tax and an even more generous Inheritance tax than Bush himself had introduced.
However, after having blocked with Obama prior to the January 1 deal to push through token tax hikes on only the wealthiest 0.7%, the Roundtable has since ‘switched sides’ and adopted the Teapublicans position with regard to subsequent entitlement spending cuts.
In February 2013, the Roundtable came out with its position paper on the matter of sequestered cuts and entitlement spending. It proposed to cut the social security COLA adjustment, introduce a means test for Medicare, raise the eligibility age for both Medicare AND social security to 70, and convert Medicare into a voucher system in 2022. That’s exactly the Teapublican-Paul Ryan program. With big corporate interests now in their corner firmly with regard to entitlement cuts as the primary focus of deficit cutting, why should the Teapublicans agree to any further tax hikes on the rich? And with the Roundtable and CEOs now firmly on their side, and the tax cuts successfully decoupled from the spending cuts, why should the Teapublicans go to the brink over shutting down the government on March 27? By March 1 they were already almost three-fourths of the way to the $4 trillion deficit target, with a total of $2.8 trillion in spending cuts and token tax hikes. That leaves only $1.2 trillion to go!
By letting the March 1 sequestered cuts take effect, the Teapublicans in effect did to Obama on the topic of defense spending what Obama had the opportunity to do to them on the topic of Bush tax cuts on January 1 but didn’t take. Obama could have let all the Bush tax cuts expire on January 1, and then reintroduced middle class tax cuts only on January 2. That would have put the Teapublicans in the position of having to vote down middle class tax cuts. But he didn’t, and settled for the paltry 0.7% hike on taxes on the wealthy, some of which will undoubtedly be reversed again, buried deep in the legislation, when the major tax code negotiations conclude later this year. The Teapublicans, by allowing the sequestered defense cuts to take effect on March 1, can also always reintroduce legislation piecemeal later this year to restore many of the defense cuts.
It’s not surprising that Republican Senator, Lindsey Graham, and others in Congress, in recent weeks have offered ‘deals’ amounting to another $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction. That number is not coincidental. Graham’s proposal is for $600 billion in social security and medicare cuts and another $600 billion in unspecified tax revenues. $1.2 trillion is now the remaining ‘target’ number.
To repeat: Why should Teapublicans precipitate a political crisis over the March 1 or March 27 deadlines? Why should they repeat the debt ceiling crisis on May 18? They’re winning hands down.
What Obama May Propose
Having agreed to decouple tax cuts on January 1 and having been outmaneuvered on March 1 and March 27, and with Teapublicans signaling there will be debt ceiling crisis in May, Obama has been stripped of all his leverage points in bargaining. He has no ‘stick’, only more ‘carrots’ to offer and his opposition knows it. Obama has left only the option to offer even more social security, medicare and Medicaid cuts. And throughout March he has continued to do so unilaterally once again. Not just offering once again to cut COLA adjustments for social security but to suggest his willingness to confront big cuts—in the $600 to $700 billion range—for medicare and social security and more for Medicaid. Even more specific reductions will be forthcoming in weeks to come.
But Obama has planned all along to cut social security and Medicare. He made that clear in his signing of the Bush tax cuts deal on January 2, 2013, during which he stated: “Medicare is the Main Cause of Deficits”. And again, in his February State of the Union address, Obama publicly noted he ‘liked the Simpson-Bowles’ recommendations concerning Medicare cuts.
And what are the Simpson-Bowles recommendations for Medicare cuts?
A new $550 a year deductible for Parts A and B of Medicare and provide only 80% coverage for Part A instead of the current 100% (which would require another $150-$300 a month in private insurance to cover the remaining 20%, much like Part B now). That together amounts to another $195-$350 taken out of monthly social security checks to cover, when the average for social security benefit payments is only $1100 a month today. In other words, Medicare benefits will not be cut. Its just that if seniors want to maintain current levels of benefits they’ll have to pay even more for them. Alternatively, they can choose to have fewer benefits and not pay more. It’s all about rationing health care, just as Obamacare for those under 65 is essentially about rationing—as were Bush’s proposals to expand health savings accounts (HSAs) and Bill Clinton’s health maintenance organization (HMOs) solution.
In his typical bargaining approach of ‘let’s make a unilateral offer and see what the Teapublicans do’, in recent weeks Obama has again unilaterally offered to reduce social security COLA increases that will take more than $230 billion out of the pockets of seniors. He has also proposed to introduce a means test for the wealthy, which Teapublicans will begin to extend down to the middle class. As for Medicare, watch for the Simpson-Bowles recommendations in some form to appear, likely scaled in over time. If not in the budget itself, then surely in negotiations that follow. Readers should also note that Obama last week announced higher payments to medicare health providers, while simultaneously planning in his budget cuts for seniors. But Medicare ‘cuts’ will not be mandated benefit reductions. Instead, seniors will have to pay more for the benefits they have, or opt for lower benefit coverage. Social Security Disability recipients will be also significantly impacted by the forthcoming proposals. And Republican state governors will be permitted to reduce their spending in part on Medicaid. And of course, almost certainly there will be the changes to social security: reduction of cost of living adjustments, means testing, and a raising of the eligibility age at least to 67 and later possibly even higher.
With only $1.2 more to cut in deficit spending to reach the Simpson-Bowles $4 trillion target, and Obama offering again his $600-$700 billion enticement in entitlement spending cuts, a deal is closer than ever before. Watch therefore for the full $600 billion in social security, medicare, and Medicaid to take effect, the effective date of the changes to be ‘backloaded’ in later years of the decade and certainly not before the next midterm elections in 2014.
Expect defense spending cuts of no more than half the $500 billion proposed in the sequester, and nearly all of which will be from withdrawals from middle east (Afghanistan, Iraq) operations and not equipment spending. After 2014, most will be recouped as defense spending on naval and air force equipment and operations will ‘ramp up’ for the shift of US military focus to the pacific. The Army brass had its land wars in Asia; now it’s the turn of Navy and Air Force in the pacific.
That leaves only a ‘token’ tax revenue increase of about $200 billion over the coming decade, or a paltry $20 billion a year, which will come in difficult to estimate phony tax ‘loophole’ closings. Major cuts in corporate taxes later in 2013 will not be included or ‘calculated’ in the grand bargain $4 trillion deal. In addition to big cuts in the top corporate tax rate, look for multinational corporations’ tax breaks and tax forgiveness on the $1.4 trillion they are presently sheltering in offshore subsidiaries as well. And of course small-medium business will be thrown yet another tax cut bone to buy into the deal. In exchange, the middle class will pay more in terms of limits on deductions and exemptions.
In retrospect over the past three years, and especially since November 2012 elections, the ‘grand bargain’ looks less like a bargain and more like a ‘grand collusion’ between the various parties—Teapublican, Big Corporate, Obama, and the pro-corporate wing of Democrats in Congress that have had a stranglehold on the Democratic party since the late 1980s.
This is not the Democratic Party of your grandfather that agreed to introduce Social Security in the 1930s and that proposed Medicare in the 1960s. This is the Democratic Party, and the Democratic President, that has agreed with Republicans and Corporate America to begin the repealing in stages of these very same programs—programs that are not ‘entitlements’ but are in fact ‘deferred wages’ earned by Americans over the decades that are now being ‘concession bargained’ away without any say or input. Not content with concessions from those workers still in the labor force, capitalist policymakers are intent on concessions on social wages now coming due in the form of social security and medicare benefits.
It’s not a grand bargain; it’s a charade and a ‘grand collusion’ from the very beginning from Simpson-Bowles to the present.
What Should Be Done
Writing letters to Congress won’t change anything. What is now necessary is to begin the formation nationwide of ‘Social Security-Medicare Defense Clubs’. After all, that’s how Social Security started in the first place. Neither party proposed it in the 1930s initially. In fact, Roosevelt initially publicly advocated Social Security should not be part of the New Deal. A grass roots protest, organized by the clubs forced him and the Democrats to reverse this position just before the midterm 1934 elections and support the proposal for Social Security. Now it’s time to reform the clubs to defend social security. And the first action should be to call for a million person march on Washington to reverse whatever cuts are surely forthcoming in the weeks ahead.
Jack is the author of ‘Obama’s Economy: Recovery for the Few’, 2012, which provides a history of deficit cutting in the US and predictions of its impact. His blog is jackrasmus.com. For a video presentation on social security and medicare given recently to the Progressive Democrats of America, see his website at http://www.kyklosproductions.com/videos.html.