[edited 2 pm 12/13 to provide additional links to news coverage of some of the changes]
Congress has been playing politics as usual over the few policies that are on the table that have a real chance of assisting, to some degree, the plight of ordinary Americans and perhaps even the slow recovery that is still trying to gain steam--extension of the reduction in payroll taxes (from 6.2% to 4.2%) and extension of unemployment compensation.
The Republicans have refused to pay for these common sense tax reductions for ordinary Americans with a similarly common sense tax increase on the wealthiest Americans who have continued to capture all the productivity gains in the economyt. Republicans in the House think that these kinds of provisions should be offset by more goodies for the "uberclass"--at least as evidenced by the H.R. 3630, the bill introduced by Dave Camp (R-MI) and to be voted on today at about 4:30 pm.
- It would restructure unemployment compensation in ways that add hurdles and make it less likely that unemployed Americans will qualify--providing more state flexibility and experimentation (including paying employers to cover part of cost of wages exceeding the recipient's prior benefit level), permitting demeaning drug testing of all unemployment compensation recipients (section 2127), and requiring a high school diploma or participation in state "reemployment services" for which recipients may be charged up to $5 weekly out of their unemployment compensation. It would severely curtail the total number of weeks for which federal unemployment assistance is available--moving to a 59-week limit from a 99-week limit. Methinks I see Scrooge here.....
- It will interfere with the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate, letting corporations continue to harm the environment at the expense of ordinary Americans. See Subtitle B. Section 1102(b) lists rules that are "stayed" by the legislation and provides that no new rules can have an effective date earlier than 5 years out and requires consideration of various factors in determining that date. Further, it requires adoption of the laxer 2000 definitions for certain key terms and the imposition of the "least burdensome" among potential regulatory alternatives. This is a key cave-in to corporate polluters.
- It will expedite the KeystoneXL pipeline by requiring a permit to be issued within 60 days unless within that time the President determines that the pipeline will not serve the national interest (in which case within 15 days the President must provide various committees and members of Congress a report justifying that conclusion from various perspectives). It indicates that the environmental impact statement from August will be treated as satisfactory for environmental and historical preservation purposes and shall not have to be supplemented if there are modifications to the plan and no further federal environmental review shall be allowed. This is a clearly ideologically driven provision, failing to give due regard to the potential longterm environmental impact on drinking water aquifers or historical preservation impact.
- It would provide yet another tax reduction for US corporations that have paid less and less taxes over the last decade, with a renewal of the ill-advised 100% expensing provision in section 168(k)(5) (along with the alternative of accelerating AMT credits)
- it makes further changes to medicare such as applying a cap to hospital outpatient therapy services and reversing part of the Health Reform Act passed earlier, by permitting new doctor-owned hospitals and permitting existing ones to expand, even though it has been shown that such hospitals spend more on testing and procedures (and profit more from them). See, e.g., Pear, G.O.P. Bill Would Benefit Doctor Owned Hospitals, New York Times at A24, Dec. 13, 2011.
- it would continue funding for the "healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood" initiative, see 42 U.S.C. section 603(a)(2) (the cynic in me suspects that these funds primarily go to programs supported by religious institutions and that they proselytize more than they teach reasonable relationship skills)
- it includes an extensive section remaking flood insurance provisions, including, in section 3005, lifting the cap for premium increases for flood insurance from 10% to 20% (an apparent boon to insurers), and another section prohibiting the administration from "disregarding" any levee or floodwall, even if it is not accredited. The goal, made clear in section 3009, is privatization of the national flood insurance program.
- It includes extensive broadband spectrum auction provisions in Title IV, Subtitle A, reallocating spectrum from federal to nonfederal use. These provisions, among many detailed ones, e.g., permit private administrators of state public safety networks to use the public spectrum for private purposes as well as the public safety purpose and prevent states from denying requests for modifications of existing wireless towers that do not substantially change the physical dimensions thereof.
- It increases the guarantee fees charged by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
- It requires a social security number for the refundable child credit
- It provides in section 5895 a 100% tax on "excess unemployment benefits" that go to millionaires (unemployment compensation is reduced proportionately as the adjusted gross income increases from $750,000 to $1 million)--The Times today has an article on the bill and notes that the number of millionaires receiving unemployment compensation is very small, but that their participation is predicated on the fact that the unemployment compensation program is a type of insurance into which payments are made to cover payouts. Means testing such insurance programs is in sync with the right-wing goal of means-testing as a prelude to privatizing and/or eliminating all federally administered social welfare insurance programs, such as medicare and Social Security (and, see above, national flood insurance).
- It increases pension contributions from longterm federal workers by .5% a year for 2012-2014 and for those "secure annuity employees" with less than five years of service, by more than 10% a year and using 5 year average pay rather than 3 year average pay, sets annuity amounts, and ends the annuity supplement for post-2012 retirees.
- it extends the general freeze on federal pay for another year
- It increases the premiums for Medicare Part B and Part D for those making $80,000 or more (for those making $200,000 or more, the applicable percentage is 90%)--this again appears to move these national social welfare insurance programs towards more means-testing that will facilitate privatization or eventual elimination.
- It sets up a number of procedural hurdles in the Senate, which is already hogtied by the ease with which a minority of its members can filibuster and thus stop legislation that is supported by a solid majority of its members. For examples,
- it requires a 2/3 vote in the Senate to amend the dates for section 601(c) of the 2010 Tax Relief Act--that's the temporary employee payroll tax cut;
- it provides that a point of order by any Senator against an emergency designation in a bill eliminates that designation and makes it impossible to bring the designation through a floor amendment unless there is a supermajority 3/5 vote in favor of doing so (limiting debate to 1 hour)--thus one right-wing Senator intent on obstructionism can make it very unlikely that an important provision can pass by preventing even reasonable debate about the importance of the provision!
The GOP, of course, touts its bill as creating jobs. While the Keystone pipeline may create some short-term jobs (the New YorkTimes reports estimates from Transcanada itself and the State Department of only about 6500 temporary construction jobs and maybe 50 permanent new jobs--see Keystone Claptrap, Editorial, New York Times at A34, Dec. 13, 2011), the potential negative impact on aquifers could be life-threatening. Most of the other provisions are Scrooge-like additions of hurdles and caps on social welfare provisions or attempts to roll back the social welfare insurance provisions into means-tested ones that will be even more susceptible to the derogatory and inflamatory class-action warfare that the right has increasingly unleashed on anything that doesn't give a break to the wealthy and corporate clients of the all-powerful Washington lobbies.
On lobbies, just read the New York Times article about the wealth that online educators are getting from state and federal taxpayer dollars for delivering no or sub-standard education, and the amount of taxpayer money being spent on lobbying to ensure the continuous flow of that wealth. See Saul, Profits and Problems at Online Charter Schools, New York Times, Dec. 12, 2011. It's obvious that the corporatist agenda sees no problem with siphoning off taxpayer dollars for private benefit with little public good created, but complains mightily about any siphoning off of exorbitant corporate profits--that tend to go to wasteful excess managerial compensation or portfolio enhancement--for taxes intended for public benefit.
The inclusion of the Keystone and other right-wing-rhetoric-driven items in a bill to provide the payroll tax cut and a limited unemployment extension (with hurdles) demonstrates the absurd level of ideological partisanship engaged in by the House Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Reid characterized the bill as loaded with "ideological candy" that the Senate would reject. Sloan & Rubin, House to Vote on Payroll Bill as senate Eyes Tax Sweeteners, Bloomberg.com (Dec. 13, 2011). Of course, most of the sweeteners that Reid proposes adding are components of the right-wing corporate-friendly agenda--like the R&D credit that rewards what companies do anyway; the active financing exception for big banks, insurers and other financial institutions that lets them defer taxation on their financing income earned overseas; and accelerated depreciation for restaurants and motorsports tracks that provide special tax subsidies to particular industries!