The Notion | The Nation


The Notion

Unfiltered takes on politics, ideas and culture from Nation editors and contributors.

Is Tim Pawlenty Responsible for the Minnesota Government Shutdown?

Is it a coincidence that six months after Tim Pawlenty finished his term as Minnesota’s governor the state government has been shut down by an impasse over how to balance the budget? Not according to Minnesota Democrats. Pawlenty’s home state critics say he contributed to the predicament in three ways: he failed to correct the structural imbalance in Minnesota’s finances, he balanced his own budget by pushing expenses into the future for which the bills are now coming due and he abdicated his leadership responsibility to help Minnesota find a sustainable budget trajectory.

“Pawlenty’s policies and leadership, or lack of it, on the budget in Minnesota created the setting for the current crisis that we’re in,” says Minnesota state representative Jim Davnie. Pawlenty was insistent during his tenure on sticking to his pledge not to raise taxes.

With the exception of a cigarette tax he agreed to during the 2005 shutdown he stuck to that pledge. (Pawlenty is fond of claiming that he never raised taxes as governor, reasoning that the cigarette tax is a “health impact fee,” with the funds earmarked for healthcare costs to defray the social cost of smoking.) With the state government starved for revenue, Minnesotans have been paying through other means: local property taxes rose regularly to pick up the slack in funding for government services, although Pawlenty then signed a property tax cap in 2008. Meanwhile the state government imposed brutal budget cuts. For example, the University of Minnesota is freezing wages, cutting costs and raising tuition to compensate for a decrease in state funding.

Without increasing revenue, though, Pawlenty was unable to cut spending sufficiently to balance the budget. Instead, “Pawlenty used every budget gimmick and shift,” says Kristin Sosanie, communications director for the Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party. “He borrowed money from K-12 schools and put off payments to falsely balance the budget.” Specifically, since Minnesota budgets on a biannual cycle, the state had given 90 percent of funding for education to localities in the first year and 10 percent in the second year. Pawlenty shifted the balance to 70-30, making his last budget seem balanced but leaving a $1.4 billion hole in the budget that Governor Mark Dayton is trying to balance now. Other “budgetary duct tape” used by Pawlenty in his last year in office, according to the Minnesota Taxpayers Association, includes delaying $152 million in tax refunds. All told, when Pawlenty left office there was a projected $6.2 billion budget shortfall, which Sosanie notes is “the largest in our state’s history and the fourth largest among all states as a percentage of our state budget.” (Federal aid and measures taken by Dayton have slashed the deficit to $5 billion, which is the amount that the current shutdown fight is over.)

Democrats argue that Pawlenty’s budget gimmickry was worse than just leaving a mess for his successors to clean up. “It was all a way to avoid having a conversation about what do we want government in Minnesota to do and how do we pay for it,” says Davnie.

Non-partisan experts on Minnesota politics give Pawlenty a more mixed scorecard. “When Pawlenty took over [in 2003] there already was a structural budget deficit,” notes Lawrence Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota. “Revenues and taxes had been cut during the 1990s while the economy was soaring. Democrats, [former Governor] Jesse Ventura and Republicans were all complicit in that. Pawlenty comes in, the economy is falling down and the structural deficit is already in place. There are two ways of looking at that: blame him for not fixing that, or credit him for muddling through without raising revenues, depending on your political perspective.”

In other words, if you don’t have an ideological fixation with opposing tax increases, then Pawlenty failed. It’s a good thing for Pawlenty’s presidential prospects, though, that he either does share that conviction, or knew that he must act like it if he wanted to compete in a Republican presidential primary. Even so, “muddling through,” as opposed to cutting government down to size, is not a great boast for Pawlenty to run on.

The Pawlenty campaign declined to comment specifically for this story, saying through a spokesperson that “he’s addressed this multiple times,” in television interviews. Typically Pawlenty does so by making the non-sequiter argument that his last year in office did not end in deficit. Pawlenty also maintains it is the fault of localities that raised property taxes to cover the state aid shortfall, since they could have opted to slash services instead.

Value judgments about the proper role of government aside, Pawlenty’s tendency to burnish his image with questionable claims about his budgeting record is indisputable. As Jacobs notes, “Property taxes and city taxes went up, and that was a direct result his cuts in aid to local governments. Pawlenty’s talking point about state taxes ignores the revenue picture for the whole state, where other parts of the state had to make up for his cuts.”

Perhaps most troubling for Minnesota’s future is that Pawlenty participated in undermining the state’s historical bipartisan agreement to adequately fund economic investments. In 1971, Democrats and Republicans, responding to voter discontent over rising property taxes, which funded public education, struck a deal: the state took over the vast majority of education funding so as to hold down property taxes. But the deal was about more than just taxes. Minnesota, seeing the decline in the Rust Belt and flight to warmer Southern states, needed a way to compete economically. Investing heavily in education and other public goods like transportation became its solution. “There was partisan fighting on other issues, but agreement on that because it was the state’s economic model,” says Jacobs. “That agreement has collapsed.” Pawlenty, and other conservative Republicans, prioritized low taxes and spending ahead of that as a priority. The result? Minnesota is losing its historical edge in education.

Now Dayton, a Democrat, has succeeded Pawlenty. He won in a terrible year for his party on a platform demanding that the rich pay their fair share of social costs. The current budget battle pits his commitment to coupling spending cuts with some revenue increases with the new, right-wing Republican majority in the statehouse refusing any tax increases. It’s the federal budget battle in miniature. And, much like in Washington, the former Republican chief executive is partly to blame for the fiscal mess he left.

John Mackey: The Death of a Football and Union Legend

In death, legendary Baltimore Colts tight end John Mackey will undoubtedly be remembered for how he played the game. The 6' 2" 230-pounder who played from 1963–72 set the standard for his position, combining speed and power like no tight end who had ever taken the field. As his former coach Don Shula told The Baltimore Sun, “Previous to John, tight ends were big strong guys like [Mike] Ditka and [Ron] Kramer who would block and catch short passes over the middle. Mackey gave us a tight end who weighed 230, ran a 4.6 and could catch the bomb. It was a weapon other teams didn’t have.” He was the second player at his position ever elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and college football’s award for best tight end bears his name.

But in this 2011 season forever defined by the longest work stoppage in NFL history, the timing of Mackey’s death is in some ways his last selfless act toward the players he so dearly loved. John Mackey’s legacy lies less on the field, than in both his historic tenure as the head of the NFL Players Association from 1969–73 and in the way he suffered from front temporal dementia over the last years of his life.

Mackey was the first president of the NFL Players Association following the NFL-AFL merger. Called “the smartest man in the room” by former Buffalo Bills quarterback and future vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp, he rapidly gained a reputation as someone who would stand up to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and fight for improved wages, benefits and safety. He rallied disparate players from two different leagues to “one team” and the NFLPA became the first sports union recognized by the National Labor Relations Board. In 1970, Mackey organized the league’s first players’ strike, a victory that earned an additional $11 million in pensions and benefits.

Teammate and former union president Ordell Braase said, “We were a fractured group until John began putting permanence in [the union’s] day-to-day operations, He had a vision for that job, which was more than just putting in time and keeping the natives calm. You don’t get anything unless you really rattle the cage.”

Mackey also went to court and won an antitrust lawsuit that ended what was known as the “Rozelle Rule.” The “Rozelle Rule” dictated that any team that lost a free agent was entitled to receive “equal compensation” from the player’s new organization. Mackey flattened the Rozelle rule in court like it was an undersized defensive back, which set the legal precedent to win true free agency in the sport. In other words, if every one of today’s players sent 10 percent of their paycheck to the John Mackey family, it still wouldn’t equal the cash flow he opened up.  

Mackey paid a price for his activism, traded from the Baltimore Colts to the San Diego Chargers the following season and then forced into retirement. His sacrifice, however, is revered at the NFLPA. This morning, current Players Association President DeMaurice Smith wrote, “John Mackey is still a leader. As President of the NFLPA he led the fight for fairness with brilliance and ferocious drive. John Mackey has inspired me and will continue to inspire our players and define our institution. He will be missed but never forgotten.”

But the man who first drew a line in the sand around issues of safety and benefits, then became the sport’s most visible victim. Football is a brutal game, where players last 3.4 years and according to one study, die twenty years before the typical American male. Few people had to live with the scars of this sport for longer and with more visibility than John Mackey. Just as Muhammad Ali has walked the earth these last twenty years, a shadow of his former self and a living reminder of the price paid for combat-entertainment, John Mackey suffered in the public eye. Friends noticed changes in him decades ago, as he started to shudder involuntarily and become disoriented. The “smartest guy in the room” had trouble remembering things from earlier in the week. In 2000, he was diagnosed with frontal temporal dementia, a brutal condition that makes Alzheimer’s look like a tender mercy. Lethargy, apathy, the inability to feed andclothe yourself, the loss of “social graces” and extreme paranoia are symptoms.  In a widely reported story, during the 2006 season, Mackey became enraged and disoriented watching Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison on television because Harrison was wearing Mackey’s number 88. That year, Mackey was forced to live in a full-time assisted living facility because of his condition. Initially, the NFL would not pay for it because the official wisdom—and it feels obscene to even type these words—was that there was no link between football and brain injury.

His wife Sylvia was a profile in courage during this ordeal, working full-time as a flight attendant and saying to the press, “I take everything in stride. I stay upbeat. When I hear other women in the same position, it’s so easy for it to beat them down. I don’t get sad, though. I can’t.” As former Baltimore Sun sportswriter Rick Maese wrote in 2005, “It’s not easy to figure out just how Sylvia does it—she’s working full time and parenting her aging husband. It all seems so frustrating, but you don’t get that from talking to Sylvia. It seems like she just doesn’t have time to get sad.” Since that time, the league and the NFLPA together started the “88 plan”—named after Mackey’s uniform number.  The “88 plan” provides $88,000 a year for nursing home care and up to $50,000 annually for adult day care for players suffering from brain damage.

John Mackey’s death is a tragedy that should remind us of both the price paid by players past for decent wages and benefits and the price every player pays once the cheering stops. As the NFL owners continue to insist on longer seasons and benefit cuts, we should all remember that it’s the players who bear the scar tissue of America’s twenty-first-century pastime. No one should have to be martyred to play this game. Every player now bears an obligation to carry the memory of John Mackey forward so no family ever has to bear the weight that his family was forced to bear with such remarkable grace.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

Democrats to Obama: Don’t Cut Social Security and Medicare

“I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it,” President Bush said after the 2004 election. He used that capital to push for the privatization of Social Security. By the time the fight was over, after both Democrats and Republicans rebelled against his radical scheme, Bush had almost no political capital left. What should have been the high point of the Bush Presidency instead signaled the beginning of the end.

President Obama could soon be facing a similar moment if he decides to put significant cuts to Social Security and Medicare on the table as part of a deal with Republicans to raise the debt ceiling, as the Washington Post and New York Times are reporting. The president and Congressional leaders will meet again at 11 am today to discuss the issue.

Leaders of both parties have agreed that the debt ceiling must be raised to avoid a potential economic catastrophe. Yet the GOP has had the upper hand in this discussion from day one, insisting that any agreement—which everyone assumes is inevitable—includes massive spending cuts. Republicans know they made a huge mistake by voting for Paul Ryan’s radical budget plan, which led them to lose a special election in New York’s 26th Congressional district and could lead to many more GOP losses in November 2012. They’ve been begging the White House to give them a lifeline on Medicare. It seems they may get one and then some, with a Democratic president offering to cut two of the signature achievements of his party—not to mention two of the most popular government-run programs in the country—in the midst of a prolonged recession.

By agreeing to such a deal, Democrats would be neutralizing their best argument in the coming campaign, writes the New York Times:

The degree that any deal wins bipartisan support on slowing the growth of Medicare, for example, it would deprive Democrats of what has been one of their most potent arguments heading into 2012: their assertion that Republicans would gut the traditional Medicare system and leave older Americans vulnerable to rapidly rising health care costs.

According to the Times, here’s how the White House will attempt to sell the deal:

They argue that Democrats will be in stronger shape politically heading into November 2012 if they help enact a credible deficit reduction deal, allowing them to mount the argument that they protected Medicare from a much more drastic overhaul by Republicans.

That sounds eerily similar to the argument the White House made about its response to the economic crisis—it could’ve been so much worse! And look how that turned out in 2010.

The unemployment rate—not the size of the deficit—will determine the election results of 2012. You’d think that point would be self-evident by now. But for months Washington has been caught in what Greg Sargent calls a “Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop,” obsessed with cutting spending but oblivious to creating jobs. These very spending cuts will not only be politically unpopular, they may also lead to more job losses—a negative double whammy for the White House.

That’s why many Democrats are eyeing this deal wearily. Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse told the Times:

“Depending on what they decide to recommend, they may not have Democrats. It is a risky thing for the White House to basically take the bet that we can be presented with something at the last minute and we will go for it.”

Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have both said that Social Security cuts should be off the table, as have members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Said Representative John Garamendi at the Capitol last month:

“You want a fight? If anybody in this building wants to take on Social Security—privatize it, change the benefits by altering the consumer price index or by any other method—know this: You’ve got a fight on your hands.”

Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus reiterated that message in a letter to the White House today. Sargent has an excerpt:

First, any cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid should be taken off the table. The individuals depending on these three programs deserve well-conceived improvements, not deep, ideologically driven cuts with harmful consequences. These cuts would hurt households and damage the country’s economic recovery as well.

Second, revenue increases must be a meaningful part of any agreement. Tax breaks benefiting the very richest Americans should be eliminated as part of this deal. Republican insistence on protecting these tax breaks will force middle-class families to shoulder the burden of even deeper budget cuts, and this is unacceptable.

Time’s Michael Crowley nicely summarized today why Democrats are angered by President Obama’s handling of the debt ceiling: he failed to use his leverage by extending the Bush tax cuts in December, he ineptly framed the debate and he caved to Republicans on the specifics (it wouldn’t be the first time).

This deal could easily fall apart due to Congressional resistance and blowback from the Democratic base. The White House’s latest “big idea” may very well be greeted as a giant thud.

—Ari Berman is the author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics. Follow him on Twitter at @AriBerman.

With Entitlements on the Table, Obama Plans to Go Big on a Budget Deal

Last night, several news outlets broke stories saying the same thing: President Obama is willing to make a deal on Social Security. Contrary to liberal hopes, this isn’t a deal to raise Social Security benefits or lower the eligibility age—a reasonable idea when unemployment is high and growth is sluggish. Instead, Obama has reportedly offered to expand the scope of spending cuts, including major changes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, in return for $1 trillion in new revenue and an increase in the debt limit.

At the moment, it’s far too early to say anything about the viability of this deal. Neither John Boehner nor Eric Cantor or Mitch McConnell are on the record as accepting the terms of this proposal, and it’s hard to imagine that Congressional Democrats would want to sacrifice parts of Social Security and Medicare for deficit reduction, particularly those running for re-election next year.

In light of the size of the White House proposal and its limited palpability to members of both parties, it’s hard to see it as anything but political theater; an attempt to demonstrate President Obama’s willingness to go “big” on deficit reduction. Even still, it’s extremely disheartening; it demonstrates that, as always, Obama is willing to cater to the center-right in a huge way (entitlement cuts) for the sake of a small political advantage.

Moreover, this proposal is further evidence that the debt ceiling negotiations were an intentional decision on Obama’s part. The president genuinely believes in deficit reduction, and chose to use the debt ceiling as an opportunity to cut spending with significant bipartisan cover. Obama hasn’t been fooled into these negotiations, nor is he playing rope-a-dope or a complex game of eleven-dimensional chess. This is what he wants.

What does this mean for liberals? Well, they can complain and attack Obama—they’ve already begun—but criticism from the left has yet to budge the president, and it’s doubtful that this time will be any different. Demonstrations sound great, but they don’t actually carry a high chance for success; if your only option for changing the political calculations of a president is protest, then you’re probably too late to the game. Likewise, a primary campaign against Obama sounds like it might work, but outside of activist circles, there is little appetite for a challenge. The Democratic establishment is satisfied with President Obama, and will work to ensure his reelection.

Indeed, given the importance of presidential elections, Obama will be able to count on organization and support from every member of the Democratic coalition. Moreover, if a deal comes through, it will probably help him with independents, who support modest reductions in entitlement spending.

Simply put, liberals don’t have much leverage over the Obama administration, which, unfortunately, makes our concerns—and our anger—a second-order consideration at best.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

Republican Presidential Field Off to Slow Fundraising Start

One measure of enthusiasm among a party’s base heading into an election year is early fundraising returns. In the second quarter of 2007 leading Democrats hauled in major campaign cash, an early sign of the enthusiasm gap that they would enjoy throughout the 2008 election cycle. And when Barack Obama outraised Hillary Clinton, $32.5 million to $27 million for that quarter, it demonstrated that Obama would be able to mount a serious challenge to the frontrunner.

This time Republicans, as the party out of power and fueled by an angry electorate, are supposed to be the beneficiaries of the enthusiasm gap. The stronger turnout among their base in the 2010 midterms was a major reason for their victory. And so the remarkably weak fundraising numbers among Republican presidential candidates for the second quarter of 2011 may be a bad sign for the party as a whole.

Among the candidates who have released their numbers so far—Rick Santorum, Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN) and President Obama have not—Mitt Romney is the clear leader. The former Massachusetts governor raised $18.25 million dollars, all of it for the primaries. (Sometimes a frontrunner will get donations from donors who have already given the maximum for the primaries and will hold that in reserve for the general election.) His next closest contender? Representative Ron Paul of Texas, with $4.5 million. Since Paul is too eccentric to win the nomination, that means none of the plausible alternatives to Romney have mustered the financial might to challenge him. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty has raised $4.2 million, but that number does not break out how much might be general election funds that he cannot currently use and whether there are debts or delayed payments he must meet. Reportedly, some of Pawlenty’s top aides have been working without pay.

Former Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman took in $4.1 million, but that includes money he donated to his campaign from his own personal fortune, after saying that he would not self-fund. (Huntsman joined the race only towards the end of the second quarter.) Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s campaign continues to falter, with only $2 million raised this quarter and, according to some news accounts, only $225,000 cash on hand $1 million in campaign debt.

Even Romney’s returns could be considered underwhelming. In addition to lagging far behind the money that Obama and Clinton brought in four years ago, they lag his own stated goals. This spring—as rival campaigns are eager to point out—Romney was hoping to raise $50 million by early summer, a mark he has missed by a wide mile. But they are not shy about doubling down on that goal. “We are extremely proud of the strong support Mitt has received across the country. We intend to raise $50 million and more for the primary campaign and we’re off to a very good start,” said Andrea Saul, spokesperson for the Romney campaign.

One possible explanation for the unimpressive returns is the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which opened the floodgates to unlimited fundraising by outside groups. Republican donors who want to help the cause generally without picking a specific candidate too soon now have plenty of other places to park their money. Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS is already spending $20 million dollars on ads attacking President Obama. Of course, attacking President Obama is something all Republicans can agree on. Eventually they need a candidate to be for, not just a president to be against. So far, it seems, they remain underwhelmed by all their choices.

What Happened at Obama's First Twitter Town Hall?

The White House convened the first “Twitter Town Hall” in American history on Wednesday, as President Obama answered a battery of short questions posted on Twitter, the buzzy social network, which were culled from thousands of submissions by Americans around the country.

The event combined a novel experiment in social media with some traditional political tactics. So while the White House did not have a sense of specific questions in advance, it sought to control the message by limiting the topic to the economy, and by hand-picking a moderator, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, who was unlikely to be intensely journalistic or adversarial. (Obama had the same luxury in his recent event at Facebook, where he was rarely pressed or interrupted by founder Mark Zuckerberg.)

Throughout the event, Dorsey read questions off Twitter, but did not prod or press Obama. This allowed the president to stay on message—he rarely departed from his well-worn talking points on the flagging economy, debt ceiling negotiations, and renewable resources.

Still, Twitter enabled an impressive scale for public participation in the town hall.

Over 40,000 questions were posted on Twitter, and some of the most popular—by virtue of retweets—made it into the event, including queries about the Bush tax cuts and strengthening NASA’s space program. Other grassroots favorites, like whether pot should be legalized to increase revenue, failed to get a nod from Dorsey.  A third of all questions were from people on the East Coast, where the event ocurred in the afternoon, while 16 percent of questions came from the Pacific timezone, and only 5 percent from people tweeting in Mountain time.

By PR standards, Wednesday was an easy win for the White House. An analog version of a similar conversation, with Obama pressing his economic agenda, would not draw this kind of coverage. And driving more people to Obama’s Twitter accounts, which already have an impressive 11 million followers, is useful as Obama’s re-election campaign gears up.  But overall, this was still a pretty low bar for online civic participation.

The administration’s forays into civics online, as I’ve argued before, have not met the public demand for deeper interaction with elected officials. Nor have they provided the kind of transparency and independent, citizen advocates who can use these forums to raise concerns of the public that are not presented, for whatever reason, by the current media and political establishment. That is probably the most significant promise of this kind of citizen media—as past questions about torture and drug policy have demonstrated—and it’s not the kind of change that the White House is going to force on itself.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

The Risks—and Potential Rewards—of Pre-K 'Testing'

With new evidence of standardized test score-inflation and straightforward adult cheating on K-12 tests in Atlanta, Washington, DC, and across the country, you’d think it would be exactly the wrong time for the Obama administration to commit $500 million to developing additional state tests for a totally new population of children: pre-schoolers.

After all, we know that when we tie school funding and teacher and principal pay to student standardized test scores, tests begin to tell us less and less about what children actually know and how teachers and schools can improve instruction. In social science, the phenomenon is known as Campbell’s Law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”

That said, I’m cautiously enthusiastic about this latest, early childhood-focused round of Race to the Top, and here’s why: the model the administration has in mind for pre-school assessment is low-stakes for individual teachers and students and measures not only academic performance but also children’s social, emotional, physical and artistic readiness for kindergarten.

Maryland has perhaps the most advanced pre-K assessment tool in the country, and one the Department of Education is pointing to as an example. The state’s “Model for School Readiness” requires incoming kindergarteners to be assessed in seven “domains of learning”: language and literacy, mathematical thinking, scientific thinking, social studies, the arts, physical development and social and personal development. Teachers perform the assessment by looking at a child’s drawings and writing, watching the child attempt to identify letters and numbers, and observing the child playing and interacting with both peers and adults.

The purpose of the system is to improve instruction for kids, not to reward or punish individual educators. “Kindergarten teachers use the findings to inform classroom instruction, provide appropriate support for individual students, and promote better communication with parents about children’s abilities,” Maryland reports. “Local school systems use the findings to guide professional development opportunities for teachers, inform strategic planning, target resources, and successfully help children make the transition from early childhood to school.”

That said, to protect the integrity of such assessments, the Department of Education will need to provide very specific guidelines. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is also asking states to create a tiered rating system for pre-school programs; if states design systems in which student assessment scores figure heavily into those ratings, pre-K administrators and teachers could be incented to focus on raising student assessment scores above all else. This could corrupt educational practices within pre-schools, where learning should be hands-on, low-pressure and connected to play.

The kindergarten-entry assessments are “probably the most radical part of the [Race to the Top early learning] program,” says Sara Mead, a pre-K expert and senior associate partner at Bellweather Education Partners, a nonprofit Washington, DC, consulting firm. “It would drive a big shift towards much more measurement of early learning program outcomes, which parts of the early-childhood education community have traditionally opposed.… But these are not intended to be assessments to determine whether or not an individual child is ‘ready’ for kindergarten, and they never have high stakes for kids, in terms of denying them entry into kindergarten.”

Laura Bornfreund, a policy analyst at the New America Foundation’s Early Learning Initiative, has written that pre-K assessment remains controversial:

Concerns over inappropriate assessments of young children are rampant, so it bears repeating that appropriate kindergarten readiness assessments are not “tests” in the way adults might think of them. They do not require children to sit down with a bubble sheet and number-two pencil. Often they are based on teachers’ observations of children’s drawings or playtime interactions. For many literacy assessments teachers conduct them by sitting down with students, one by one, to ask them questions about sounds and letters or to point to pictures. The idea is to create a low-pressure experience. But there are still many questions in the research community about how to ensure that assessments are administered in ways that are sensitive to a child’s age and stage of development

What’s promising is that the acknowledged best practices in pre-K assessment are both holistic and child-centered. While Obama’s K-12 education policy calls for student test scores to weigh heavily in teacher and principal evaluation and pay, the Department of Education’s new pre-K policy heeds the advice of leading psychometricians: use test scores to help teachers better target instruction toward individual children, not to reward or punish either individual children or adults in the system.

K-12 education policy would, in fact, benefit from bringing its own approach to testing in-line with the leading early-childhood assessment systems.

The Paradoxical, Dangerous Balanced Budget Amendment

This week, as the federal debt ceiling battle churns closer to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s August 2 deadline, there’s increasing talk about an amendment to the Constitution that would require balanced budgets. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, a key negotiator in the debt ceiling talks, spoke this weekend about the need to “save our entitlements and our country from bankruptcy by requiring the nation to balance its budget.” Senator Rand Paul now insists a balanced budget amendment must be part of any debt ceiling deal, and said Sunday that he will filibuster any agreement that doesn’t include it. Leading presidential candidate Mitt Romney also said recently that the United States should default on its debt unless Congress passes a balanced budget amendment.

Several media outlets dutifully noted the new turn in negotiations but few actually describe the fundamental, radical shifts in American government required by the proposed balanced budget amendment. It’s crucially important to understand what the new GOP demand actually requires.

The most important thing to know is that if enacted, the balanced budget amendment would actually make a balanced budget impossible. Both the House and Senate versions of the legislation not only mandate a balanced budget starting in 2018 but also mandate how it must be done. Federal spending cannot exceed 18 percent of the national Gross Domestic Product, and there would be a super-majority requirement for any new revenue: in other words, two-thirds of Congress would have to vote to approve any tax increase.

It is not hard to imagine that under a sixty-seven-vote threshold, Congress will simply never raise taxes again. Republicans have made it clear they will not support tax increases in virtually any situation, and most GOP Senators have signed Grover Norquist’s no-new-taxes pledge. So if the government permanently handicaps revenue, how can it possibly achieve a balanced budget, especially as healthcare costs are certain to increase as baby boomers become senior citizens?

It simply might not be possible, which then raises basic questions of enforceability. Say the amendment was enacted, but one year Congress passes a budget where spending exceeds revenues. Would the federal courts rule the budget unconstitutional? And if they did, what then? As Bruce Bartlett wonders, would Americans have to send back their Medicare checks or federal salaries? (Bartlett, a former official in George W. Bush’s Treasury Department, has called the BBA idea “idiocy” and “especially dimwitted.”)

Then there’s the 18 percent spending cap. First of all, given that taxes are basically frozen by the supermajority provision, it’s quite possible that the government won’t even be able to raise revenue equal to 18 percent of GDP, meaning that Congress would have to spend even less than that in order to have a balanced budget. But putting that aside, even spending at 18 percent of GDP would be practically impossible and would require unimaginable reductions in government services.

As Ezra Klein notes, federal spending exceeded 18 percent of GDP every single year of Reagan’s presidency, every single year of George W. Bush’s presidency, and all but two years under Bill Clinton. Not only would the BBA have made Ronald Reagan’s entire economic stewardship unconstitutional, it also would make Paul Ryan’s budget illegal—his plan still forecasts federal spending of 20.75 percent of GDP in 2030.

The only budget proposal that would come close to federal spending at 18 percent of GDP is the ultraconservative plan put forth by the Republican Study Committee. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities examined that budget, and found that it gets to 18 percent spending with a 70 percent reduction in non-defense discretionary spending by 2021. This is the area of the budget funding everything from “veterans’ medical care, most homeland security activities, border protection, and the FBI…[also] education, environmental protection, protecting the nation’s food and water supply, and medical research, as well as services for disadvantaged or abused children, frail elderly people, and people with severe disabilities.”

Beyond that, the budget raises the Social Security retirement age to 70, makes deeper cuts to Medicare than Ryan’s plan, and cuts $86 billion over ten years from Pell Grants. If the idea is to shrink government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub,” in the words of Grover Norquist, then the BBA is the watery coup-de-grace.

Impossible and unworkable as it sounds, every single Republican Senator co-sponsored the BBA legislation now in the Senate and, as noted, leading GOP negotiators and presidential candidates are demanding it. Calling for a balanced budget makes good politics—a poll released yesterday shows more than seven in ten registered voters support a constitutional amendment to balance the budget.

But the same poll also shows that the support plummets to around 30 percent when the voters are told it would require deep cuts to Social Security and Medicare. This is why the media need to be clear about what the GOP is proposing—the balanced budget amendment is one of the most dangerous soundbites in recent political history. 

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.

Budget Battles Force One-Sided Compromises

The national calls for “shared sacrifice” during these times of austerity presuppose that giant corporations like Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil share the same amount of privilege and power as, say, your grandmother.

If the upper one percent has to pay slightly more taxes, say the GOP and some Democrats, including the president, then octogenarians have to say bon voyage to their traditional Social Security and Medicare payments.

It remains to be seen if the GOP is willing to meet President Obama halfway on his plans to tax the wealthy at slightly higher rates. Even if the president did get the GOP to acquiesce in this one area, the lavishly rich would still be taxed at historically low rates (no one is seriously considering going back to Eisenhower’s 91 percent, or Nixon’s 70 percent).

Basically, this is all a fight to go from 35 percent to the Clinton-era 39 percent top marginal rates. A four percent increase simply doesn’t carry the same punch as significantly gutting the social safety net for the poor majority. A single mother of four is going to feel the toll of dwindling food stamps way, way more than a hedge fund manager is going to feel the miniature tax creep—if it happens at all.

Yet, this narrative of “shared sacrifice”—as if all parties are equally sacrificing their means—has fully permeated the national discourse.

Nowhere is this kind of one-sided compromise more apparent than the funding chaos that just ensued in New Jersey. Using his line-item veto authority, Governor Christie hacked away at the Democrat-controlled legislature’s spending plan, slashing $900 million from the budget.

Christie nixed healthcare funding for low-income workers, tax credits for the working poor, and money for AIDS relief and mental health services, yet he managed to add funds ($150 million) for some of the wealthiest towns in the state.

The governor’s attack against the poor follows his recent signing of a law that limits the ability of New Jersey’s public employees to collectively bargain for healthcare benefits, and cuts the paychecks of those workers in order to increase their contributions towards healthcare plans and pensions.

The state Democrats laid down during this vicious attack on the working poor in the spirit of bipartisanship, naturally. Sharing the sacrifice, and what not. Of course, then the Democrats were simply shocked—shocked!—that a Republican governor, who they had just sold out their own party in order to support, would then turn around and stab them in the back. Senate President Stephen Sweeney furiously spat that Christie was a “bully” and a “punk,” and that he wanted to “punch him in his head.”

But there was no need for Sweeney to feign surprise. This is the era of the one-sided compromise, where millionaires are taxed at rock bottom rates while the working poor have their pensions stolen from them.

The starkness of Christie’s one-sided compromise is made all the more apparent when one considers that his education cuts could be reversed simply by implementing a millionaire’s tax. Of course, that would entail calling for actual shared sacrifice, and that simply isn’t acceptable.

Instead, the governor decided to briefly go to war with the state Supreme Court over education funding before the court ultimately found that he hadn’t allowed the schools to provide for their students, and ordered the state to restore $500 million in funding.

In a speech on Tuesday, President Obama coupled his demand for tax increases on the wealthy with a pledge to take on spending in “entitlement programs.” These two items are often paired together as if they carry equal weight.

Cutting the fat from an upper tier that is currently enjoying historically lavish wealth and gutting state pension plans are not equivalent acts. It makes sense when John Boehner crafts this comparison, but it’s disconcerting when President Obama plays into the false narrative.

The Beltway Begins to Wake Up to GOP Extremism

It’s annoying that David Brooks begins his column with effusive praise for the prospective Congressional debt deal, which massively cuts spending while providing token revenues. Thankfully, that’s only prelude to a devastating attack on today’s Republican Party:

But to members of this movement, tax levels are everything. Members of this tendency have taken a small piece of economic policy and turned it into a sacred fixation. They are willing to cut education and research to preserve tax expenditures. Manufacturing employment is cratering even as output rises, but members of this movement somehow believe such problems can be addressed so long as they continue to worship their idol. […]

If the debt ceiling talks fail, independents voters will see that Democrats were willing to compromise but Republicans were not. If responsible Republicans don’t take control, independents will conclude that Republican fanaticism caused this default. They will conclude that Republicans are not fit to govern. And they will be right.

There are two extremely frustrating things about today’s media environment as it relates to the Republican Party. The first, as the Washington Monthly’s Steve Benen described over the weekend, is the extent to which the media have simply forgotten the previous decade of GOP rule. For at least four years, Republicans governed with few obstacles to their agenda, securing tax cuts, wars, unfunded new entitlements and continued deregulation. The results were trillions of dollars in wasted spending, trillions more in lost revenue, deep dysfunction on nearly every level of government and an economic crisis of nearly world-historical proportions. Despite this, media elites continue to treat the Republican Party—and the architects of its disastrous party—as credible voices on public policy, as if 2001 to 2008 never happened.

The other is the extent to which media outlets treat current Republican behavior as politics-as-usual, despite the extraordinary nature of their actions. Simply put, this is the first time in American history that a political party has threatened to default on the nation’s debt and sabotage the global economy on the basis of narrow ideological goals. With that said, it’s refreshing to see Brooks—who is close to the apotheosis of a Beltway pundit—finger the GOP for its extremism and economic brinksmanship, rather than treating the whole affair like a particularly interesting game of polo.

Like this blog post? Read it on The Nation’s free iPhone App, NationNow.
Syndicate content