Nancy Pelosi has settled into the Speaker's Office. With richly deserved congratulations to the first female speaker, the clock has started on the 110th Congress. Democrats plan to increase the minimum wage, adopt 9/11 Commission recommendations and remove the ban on Medicare negotiating lower prices with drug companies. They also plan to cut interest rates on student loans, cut oil industry subsides and broaden federal aid for stem cell research, among other things. But that's only the agenda for the first 100 hours.
After that it's up to the Dems to get us out of the hole Republicans spent the past six years digging us into. Of course, the first rule of getting out of a hole is to stop digging. So one of the Dems' first acts was to restore the "pay as you go" budget rule, which means that any future tax cuts or spending increases must be paid for by other tax increases or spending cuts.
Robert Kuttner wrote in the Jan. 6 Boston Globe, "It is virtuous of the Democrats to resurrect pay-as-you-go [PAYGO], but it's a little like closing the barn door after the horse escaped. In this case, the horse got away with about $3 trillion of deficits -- for tax breaks, military escalations, and special-interest spending for Republican clients like the drug companies." Kuttner called for a progressive tax code that repeals the Bush tax cuts for the rich, coupled with more relief for working families, allowing fiscal balance and some increased social spending.
Populist economist Max Sawicky noted that the House Democrats' budget rule will force advocates of the Bush tax cuts to find some way to offset the phase-out of those tax breaks in 2010. "In general from my standpoint the public needs to be educated as to the collision course of our fiscal policy," Sawicky wrote at Maxspeak.org Jan. 8. "PAYGO is a step in encouraging politicians down this road. Advocates of social welfare need to hammer away at the need for taxes to finance Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. The other side has the burden of justifying huge cuts in these programs. It will be the great political-economic smackdown of the 2010s."
In the meantime, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, showed too much concern for the upper middle class at the expense of the working class when in early January he and Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking Republican on Finance, agreed on the need to repeal the alternative minimum tax. The AMT was designed in 1969 to prevent 20,000 millionaires from escaping taxes, but because of inflation it threatens this year to bring 23.4 million upper-middle-class families into its clutches. However, Baucus and Grassley don't have a plan to replace the $750 billion the AMT would raise over the next decade.
Sebastian Mallaby of the Washington Post noted Jan. 8 that repealing the tax without tying it to broader reform would waste a political opportunity. He also noted that the tax is progressive: 90% of the tax revenue come from families earning more than $100,000 a year, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center.
We feel sorry for any family that is caught in the AMT squeeze, but one of the reasons these families are caught is because the Bush tax cuts reduced their marginal tax rates. And unlike working-class families, the great majority of those AMT families don't have to worry about health insurance.
Some states are struggling to provide health insurance for their working poor because the federal government has abdicated its responsibility for the 46.6 million Americans who had no health insurance in 2005. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Jan. 8 presented a plan that would require every resident of the state to be insured.
Schwarzenegger's plan calls for employers with more than 10 workers that do not offer health insurance to contribute to a fund that would help pay for coverage of the uninsured. Doctors and hospitals also would be taxed to help cover reimbursements for patients enrolled in the state's Medicaid program. Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont have their own plans to provide universal coverage. Other states considering plans to reduce the number of uninsured include Montana, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, Wisconsin and Illinois.
In Congress, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has proposed the Healthy Americans Act of 2007, which would provide health coverage to all Americans through a pool of private insurance plans. We prefer a simpler Medicare for All proposal by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., which would to expand Medicare to cover all Americans.
But any health initiative will cost big money to implement Congress should not repeal the AMT, reduce any other tax revenues or extend the Bush tax breaks that expire in 2010 unless every American is guaranteed quality health care.
Those who wanted Nancy Pelosi to include bills of impeachment in her 100-hour plan were bound to be disappointed, but Congressional leaders should proceed with hearings to document what exactly the Bush/Cheney administration has been up to for the past six years. They should be prepared for stonewalling by White House officials who know what they have done and have no intention of sharing those details with Congressional Democrats, much less the general public. And Congress should be prepared to follow up with appropriate legislative remedies, including impeachment, if that proves necessary.
The late Republican statesman, Gerald R. Ford, when he was leading a misguided effort in 1970 to impeach liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, asked himself in a speech what was an impeachable offense: "The only honest answer is that an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers to be at a given moment in history; conviction results from whatever offense or offenses two-thirds of the other body [the Senate] considers to be sufficiently serious to require removal of the accused from office."
For the Republican House in 1998, lying about a consensual sex act was an impeachable offense. The Senate disagreed -- after public approval for Bill Clinton jumped 10 points to 73% following the December 1998 House impeachment vote.
We think that lying about events surrounding the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the reasons the nation was being led to war with Iraq would be grounds for impeachment. We think the exposure of covert intelligence agents for political reasons -- or the obstruction of justice in the investigation of that exposure -- would be grounds for impeachment. We think the continued flouting of laws by the use of extralegal executive "signing statements" that contradict those laws would be grounds for impeachment. Those are just a few hypothetical grounds for impeachment we can think of, off the top of our head.
But we also realize that premature Congressional talk of impeachment will polarize the nation and cause defenders of the president and vice president to go for the bunkers.
Let the people get a good look at what the administration has done. Public support for Bush and Cheney already is eroding. On the eve of Bush's speech on his "new way forward" in Iraq, a USA Today/Gallup Poll released Jan. 9 found the survey respondents oppose the idea of increased troop levels by 61% to 36%. Approval of the job Bush is doing in Iraq has sunk to 26%, a record low. His overall job approval rating was 37%, up 2 points from mid-December, but by 2-to-1, Americans say they want congressional Democrats, not Bush, to have more influence over the direction of the nation.
That's a long way from a groundswell for impeachment, but we might get there sooner rather than later.
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