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Sunday Late Night: Anti-Gang Enforcement Needed on Capitol Hill

Gangs are bad for communities. Gangs are bad for democracy, too.

Capitol Hill Gangs make the Very Serious People tingle, and the Versailles Media purr. But they have never been good for getting the American People’s business done on Capitol Hill. They ensure, for one thing, that lobbyists know who’s central to getting their way on a particular issue. And they provide that balm of the Faux-Middle, Bipartisanship, as an excuse for not accomplishing what needs doing. In fact, Capitol Hill Gangs are almost always about getting something done that is different from what they say.

The first Capitol Hill Gang, which should have been snuffed in infancy, was the Gang of Fourteen. An end-run around the speech-and-debate clause allowing unlimited discussion of judicial nominees, the membership of that first Capitol Hill Gang was a rogues’ gallery with one purpose:

Fourteen senators — seven Democrats and seven Republicans — signed on to the deal.

That bloc is large enough to derail both Democratic filibusters of judicial nominees and any GOP attempt to employ the so-called “nuclear option” to change Senate rules through procedural maneuvers to prevent the tactic from being used.

This Gang’s “success” trumpeted across Versailles media — which allowed the confirmation of the very radical Bush nominees Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor — led directly to the 58-42 confirmation of the very radical Samuel Alito, who by that vote count wouldn’t have got confirmed under regular filibuster order. Anyone who doubts the Very Seriousness of the Gang of Fourteen need only review its membership: GOPS Chafee, Collins, DeWine, Graham, McCain, Snowe, J Warner, and Democrats Byrd, Inouye, Landrieu, Lieberman, Bad Nelson, Pryor, and Salazar.

Villagers in good standing, all.

Next up for initiation was Max Baucus’s Evil Gang of Six, designed to take the steamroller impetus out of health care reform during 2009 and disguise the later-revealed White House deals Team Obama was making with industry to water down the eventual bill. As Robert Reich described this Gang’s goal: “less coverage and no public insurance option.” Reich wondered why this Gang mattered at all:

We have a Democratic president in the White House. Democrats control sixty votes in the Senate, enough to overcome a filibuster. It is possible to pass health care legislation through the Senate with 51 votes (that’s what George W. Bush did with his tax cut plan). Democrats control the House. The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, is a tough lady. She has said there will be no health care reform bill without a public option.

So why does the fate of health care rest in Grassley’s hands?

Here’s why: Max Baucus said he wanted a bipartisan bill, and only a Gang could get it for him (recall that the Affordable Care Act passed with no GOP votes). Here’s Team Baucus in August 2009:

“The bipartisan group spent approximately an hour and half discussing their ongoing efforts to craft health care reform legislation that lowers costs and provides quality, affordable coverage. Specifically, the conversation focused on affordability and reducing costs, and the members instructed their staffs to develop and refine ideas to achieve these goals.”

Joining the call with Mr. Baucus were two other Democrats, Senators Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Kent Conrad of North Dakota; and the three Republicans, Senators Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Mike Enzi of Wyoming.

Having stalled for the time the Koch Brothers needed to gin up August’s Tea Party Town Hall meetings, with requisite Versailles Media attention, the GOP managed to derail progress on the bill — and Obama managed to get his industry deals into the bill. It also allowed Liz Fowler to craft the friendliest-possible industry-approved deal.

That Evil Baucus Gang of Six managed to derail any hope of a progressive health care bill.

Now we have a new Gang of Six, and again we need Anti-Gang Enforcement on Capitol Hill. Look what this new Gang purports to be about:

Democrat Erskine Bowles, who co-chaired the White House’s deficit-reduction panel last year, predicted Wednesday evening that 35 to 40 additional U.S. senators would back a deficit reduction plan being drafted by a group of lawmakers known as the “Gang of Six.”

“I think the Gang of Six is our best hope,” he said during a conference call hosted by a group called “No Labels,” which says it represents Democrats, Republicans and Independents who want lawmakers to work together to promote change in Washington.

You know when Erskine Bowles calls any Gang “our” best hope, it’s time to head for the catfood aisle. Just look what this new Gang of Six is really all about, according to Gang Leader Mark Warner:

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said on Sunday the “Gang of Six” senators is “very close” to a deal on deficit reduction, suggesting the plan would impact Social Security that most Democrats have said is off limits.

“We’re going to make everybody mad with our approach,” Warner said on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” “because we’re touching every part of the problem.”

Including, apparently, things that aren’t part of the problem at all:

Warner, who is part of the three Democrats who are negotiating with three Republicans to reach a bipartisan deal, said the group is “looking at making Social Security more sustainable.”

Asked by host Bob Schieffer to clarify that the group will take on Social Security, Warner said, “Part of this is just math: 16 workers for every one retiree 50 years ago, three workers for every retiree now.”

This is a George W Bush oldie-but-goodie, and any Democrat should be ashamed to sing it:

Myth: Social Security is a victim of the aging baby boom, reflected in the ratio of workers to retirees, which used to be 16 to 1, is now 3 to 1, and in 2030, will be 2 to 1.

Reality: Today’s projected deficit has nothing to do with the size of the baby boom or worker to retiree ratios. The 16 to 1 ratio is a meaningless factoid, plucked from 1950, a year when Social Security was expanded to cover millions of new workers. The ratio never influenced policy in the slightest. It is the kind of ratio experienced by all pension plans, public and private at the start when few workers have yet qualified for benefits; the 2 to 1 ratio is meaningful and does translate into higher costs, but those costs were addressed decades ago. Congress has enacted ten significant Social Security bills since 1950. Every enactment has taken into account the baby boom, and each has left the program in long-run actuarial balance. The most recent enactment was in 1983, when the program was in balance through 2057 – the year the youngest boomers, those born in 1964, will turn 93. How social security went from a projected surplus through 2057, when most of the baby boom will be dead, to today’s projected deficit involves a number of factors, mainly related to changes in assumptions about wage growth, productivity and disability rates. The change from surplus to deficit is totally unrelated to the number of baby boomers, as one would surmise. After all, no new baby boomers have been born since 1983.

Gangs are bad for America. On Capitol Hill, they narrow the discussion to the arguments special interests like the best. They allow tropes like that one above to go unchallenged: you can bet that if Bernie Sanders was on the program with Bob Schieffer and Mark Warner, he would not sing harmony with Mark Warner’s rendition of that old W Bush song.

Gangs stifle democratic discussion. Gangs enable anti-democratic processes. Gangs make people afraid in their homes and communities. We need to end Gangs on Capitol Hill. They never do what they say they are about. They always have another purpose, and clearly this new Gang of Six has another purpose. They don’t need to touch Social Security to deal with America’s deficit.

Mark Warner’s Gang of Six is simply another attempt to gut Social Security, for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks: it’s where the money is.

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Teddy Partridge

Teddy Partridge