News out of the nation's capital, both local and national angles, is for the most part worse than you think.
First the good news that Rep. Norm Dicks, the senior member of the state's congressional delegation, cast his 20,000th House vote earlier in the week — a number exceptionally hard to reach. Dicks, unlike many senior and influential House members, shows up for all important votes. He has been a workhorse rather than a showhorse. Yes, he is seeking reelection next fall.
Our Seattle Mariners blew all three games of a series with the Washington Nationals, managed by former Mariners' interim manager Jim Riggleman. In the first game, they blew a four-run lead with two outs in the ninth inning. Starting Mariners' pitchers Doug Fister, Erik Bedard, and Michael Pineda pitched brilliantly but relievers let them down and their teammates simply could not get clutch hits with men on base — although facing mediocre starting pitching by the Nats. An ominous portent as they head back to Seattle for a long homestand.
Now, some predictions about the big stuff.
War and peace: President Obama's Wednesday night speech, announcing withdrawal of 30,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September, 2012, appeared a transparent political move that is unlikely to please hawks, doves, or the generals running the Afghan war. After the announced withdrawal, some 70,000 troops will remain in Afghanistan — the number stationed there before Obama sent an additional 30,000 to undertake a "surge."
Obama declared semi-victory in Afghanistan, indicating indigenous Afghan forces should be able to keep order there after September, 2012, and that the remaining U.S. 70,000 troops could continue to be withdrawn steadily thereafter. Commanders and supporters of the intervention are dubious that this can be achieved. Doubters in both political parties (and I am among them) believe that the Taliban will harass our forces over the next few months, causing as many casualties as they can, and then will simply wait for them to leave after Obama's announced deadline.
If this sounds familiar to you, consider the latter stages of the Vietnam War. President Richard Nixon, feeling domestic political pressure, kept making public announcements of troop drawdowns, asserting that the South Vietnamese were closer to being self sustaining. He ended the military draft, also to suppress dissent. At the same time he escalated bombing of North Vietnam — something we cannot do in Afghanistan — and tried behind the scenes to make a deal with Hanoi. North Vietnames troops ended up with a victory parade in Saigon as U.S. forces and embassy staff left in a fire drill.
Obama also talked of pressuring Islamic fundamentalists in Pakistan and defended the U.S. participation in the Libyan civil war, still the subject of congressional debate over its constitutionality.
Bottom line: Obama did what he could to blunt, short term, domestic unrest over the Afghan intervention. Odds of long-term success are well below 50 percent. I expect a replay of the Vietnam endgame.
Debt and the economy: On Thursday morning, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor walked out of bipartisan debt-reduction talks being chaired by Vice President Joe Biden. Cantor stated that Obama and House Speaker John Boehner would have to take the lead from this point. The stated objective of the talks is to set in motion long-term changes to cut some $2-5 trillion from the present $14-trillion federal debt before the federal debt limit is formally reached about Aug. 2 This exercise is taking place while the economic recovery has slowed dangerously and some near-term spending or tax-cut stimulus is called for.
Earlier in the week Fed Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke lowered the Fed's growth and employment forecasts for the year ahead but, at the same time, said the Fed's "quantitative easing" (i.e., continuing massive purchases of government securities) had ended. If public anxiety about long-term debt were not so great, the Fed might well continue its bond purchases and White House and Congress might agree on some short-term adrenaline for the 2011 economy.
Voters, however, do not want to hear about more expensive stimulus packages. (Obama a few days ago joked about "shovel-ready projects" not apparently being shovel ready; a bad joke to make while unemployment remains high and disillusion is widespread about the initial stimulus program.) Tea Partiers and House Republicans, in particular, will not hear of more short-term public spending. House Democrats, increasingly liberal since their moderate wing was largely eliminated in 2010 elections, want tax increases on upper-income types and generally oppose stimulative tax cuts.
House Speaker Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, if not under pressure from Tea Partiers, would agree to lift the debt limit Aug.2 without tying debt-reduction to the action. But their troops will not let them do so. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has made the exercise more complicated by falling back on the old warning that "Republicans want to destroy Social Security and Medicare," while knowing at the same time that targeted debt reduction simply cannot be done without cutting into those programs' long-term spending path.
The Congressional Budget Office released early in the week an Alternative Fiscal Scenario, which it termed its realistic assessment of the spending path over the next decade. The CBO projected that current federal debt would rise from 70 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by the end of 2011 to 97 percent of GDP by 2020 and then to 187 percent of GDP by 2035. (The 40-year average is 37 percent of GDP). After 2035, the CBO said, debt and debt service would simply be uncontrollable. Yes, far worse than Greece.
The CBO estimated, by the way, that $1.4 trillion could be saved short term if the interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya were ended. The Biden group might seize on this number and try to include some of it in their debt-reduction package.
How can the White House and Congressional Republicans and Democrats find common ground before Aug.2? They could find tax increases not called tax increases by eliminating many billions in "tax expenditures," such as the ethanol subsidy, from current and future budgets. But insiders in the talks say those loopholes and subsidies could not get stripped in the matter of a month.
Could Democrats accept some near-term stimulative tax cuts, such as a suspension of individual and business payroll taxes, to jump start the economy now? Could Republicans accept some corporate if not personal tax increases to help balance the long-term books? Would both parties agree, in principle, on down-the-road percentage reductions in Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to get to their targeted debt reduction?
Bottom line: In the month remaining, the White House and congressional leaders of both parties are likely to leave stimulus to the Fed, which already has said it has used up its available weapons. They'll cut trillions off future debt only by in-principle agreement on targets, deadlines, and future methods to be employed. So-called discretionary spending can be cut somewhat but those cuts would be only a sliver of those needed. Some Defense savings might be projected.
But it is entitlement programs where the money lies. The CBO report pointed out that continually rising health-care costs, combined with the aging of the Boomer generation, would drive those programs sharply upward unless they are checked now. No one will want to get to specifics regarding entitlement cuts before the 2012 election.
We shall have to count on rare moderation and statesmanship among the negotiators to get us past the magic Aug. 2 date without a crisis. As a practical matter, the U.S. credit rating need not be damaged by a failure to agree. Nor would a massive flight from the dollar likely take place. But financial markets would act as if that were happening — making it self-fulfilling — unless some compromise agreement is nailed down. Odds of that happening are perhaps 55-45.
All this is prelude to what promise to be particularly nasty, partisan 2012 national elections.
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