How Obama Cut the Deficit in Half — and Made Us Pay the Price

U.S. Budget Deficit Over Time

Remember when everybody was talking about the budget deficit?

It wasn’t that long ago. In fact, it was one of the biggest factors in the 2012 presidential election. After all, it was over $1 trillion at the time.

Today, it’s $500 billion. And falling.

This, of course, is one of Barack Obama’s legacies. He raised taxes on the rich and cut spending across the board. Even with strong growth in mandatory programs like Social Security and Medicare this year, the federal government is going to spend about the same amount of money it spent in 2012 — and less than it spent in 2011. Adjusted for inflation, the government has shrunk.

But it has come at a cost.

Case in point: We have run out of money to fight wildfires.

A couple decades ago, wildfires in the western United States typically consumed 2 to 4 million acres in a year. Nowadays, they consume 6 to 8 million acres. As a result, the cost of wildfire suppression has more than tripled in that amount of time. And yet, Congress continues to allocate funding based on what it cost a decade ago, instead of what it costs today.

So it’s not surprising that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack ran out of money to fight wildfires this year, forcing him to divert money away from programs that preventwildfires — magnifying the problem in years to come.

Traveling to the other side of the country, a Pennsylvania official testified in court earlier this week that he and his fellow regulators didn’t investigate chemical leaks that were allegedly poisoning citizens’ drinking water near natural gas wells.

But this shouldn’t surprise us either. After all, the Associated Press recently discovered that 40 percent of new oil and gas wells haven’t been inspected in this country. The report described the regulators as “so overwhelmed by a boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that [they have] been unable to keep up with inspections of some of the highest priority wells.”

It’s not like those investigations really matter, right? The Pennsylvania trial revealed that landowners were drinking water with “explosive levels of methane.” Meanwhile, a new paper published this week by researchers at Stanford and Duke showed that even tiny amounts of fracking wastewater can contaminate drinking water with toxic compounds.

So I guess it’s no big deal that regulators are so underfunded that they’re neglecting almost half the country’s drilling wells.

You’d think we would’ve learned this lesson last year when the IRS scandal revealed that auditors were singling out political groups — conservative and liberal, by the way — for investigation without any apparent probable cause.

For years, the IRS has been underfunded. The National Taxpayer Advocate said so. A Boston Globe investigation said so. The Government Accountability Office said so. And they all predicted that underfunding would result in less enforcement and more cutting corners. In fact, they said taxpayers would lose money because every dollar in budget cuts led to seven dollars in lost tax revenue that they would’ve collected if they’d had the manpower to do so.

Then the scandal hit, revealing that IRS officials were so “overworked” that they felt they had no choice but to take shortcuts through the “flood of applications” on their desks.

These are only a few examples of the price we have paid for a smaller deficit.

Barack Obama deserves credit for delivering on his promise to shrink the deficit — a promise that Mitt Romney and his tax cuts would surely have violated — but Americans have to ask themselves whether they really want a smaller government. Do we really want millions of acres destroyed by fire, and drinking water contaminated with toxic chemicals, and government officials harassing the innocent? I know I don’t.

And I also know there’s a better way. It begins with the understanding that, for all its faults and inefficiencies, our government does many good, essential things in our society. And yes, those things come at a price. But that is a price worth paying.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Huffington Post.

Obamacare Is Not a Reason to Give Up on Government Programs

Health Insurance Enrollment Under Obamacare

The biggest myth of the Obamacare debate goes like this: The failures of Obamacare prove that the government can’t be trusted to run our health care system.

This single myth is so powerful that it has become the rallying cry of every Republican who’s considering a run for the presidency in 2016. It has single-handedly brought the Tea Party back to the forefront of American politics. It has been uttered on every cable news channel everyday since HealthCare.gov launched on October 1.

And it is wrong on every possible level.

First of all, the premise is wrong. Obamacare cannot be a litmus test for government-run health care because Obamacare is not government-run health care.

Obamacare creates an online exchange where people can buy private insurance. The government merely sets basic standards that every plan has to meet and gives consumers a place where they can locate those plans. The rest is up to the free market.

This simple concept has been so twisted and misunderstood that many Americans actually believe that the government will have access to their medical records. This is completely false. Under Obamacare, the IRS only needs to verify that you have health insurance. It does not — and cannot — see any of your private health information.

The second problem with this myth is that it’s too soon to judge Obamacare. All new software goes through a trial period. It’s frustrating, but it’s inevitable — and temporary.

Back in 2005, the same thing happened when the Bush administration launched the website for Medicare Part D. First, they had to delay the launch. Then, when they finally rolled it out, it didn’t work at all. Then they got it working, but it was too slow and full of inaccuracies.

Every major news outlet carried stories about the failures of Medicare Part D. According to polling data, the program was actually less popular than Obamacare is today.

Within a few months, the glitches were fixed. Medicare Part D now has a 90 percent approval rating. No one remembers the initial bugs in the system.

The third problem is that many of the so-called “failures” of Obamacare aren’t actually Obamacare’s fault. Remember that Obamacare wasn’t supposed to create one big national insurance exchange. Each state was supposed to create its own insurance exchange, but the Republican governors in half of the states refused to follow the law.

As I wrote back in May, “These Republican governors, who say the states are better at governing than the feds, ceded enormous power to the federal government, violating a core principle of their party’s ideology. And then they crowed that Obamacare was a failure because it required a massive federal bureaucracy — the very bureaucracy that they chose to create!”

What’s worse, these governors didn’t announce their decisions until 2013, so it’s completely false to assert that the federal government had three years to build a national online exchange. They really only had a matter of months.

The fourth problem with this myth is that Obamacare is not a failure. This week, the government announced that more than 500,000 Americans signed up for health insurance through Obamacare in its first month of operation.

Think about that. Obamacare, with all its kinks and snafus, has already improved the lives of over half a million people.

You’ve probably heard that 106,185 people have signed up for health insurance through the new online exchange, but even more impressive is the 396,261 people who got their insurance through Medicaid or CHIP.

In all the hubbub about HealthCare.gov, we seem to have forgotten the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, and the media hasn’t bothered to remind us because…well, it’s going so smoothly.

And that brings us to the fifth and most fatal flaw in this myth: The biggest success story from Obamacare has been Medicaid, the one part of the law that actually is government-run insurance. To say that the government can’t be trusted is to say that the millions of Americans who benefit from Medicare and Medicaid and CHIP don’t count and don’t matter.

That’s an ugly thing to say, but if you listen closely, you can hear it all around you. Every time the government tries to help the less fortunate, there is always a contingent of Americans who oppose it. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t help them. And it certainly doesn’t mean we can’t.

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An abbreviated version of this op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Huffington Post.

Reader Requests: Why Aren’t We Prosecuting Fraud?

A reader asks: Each year American taxpayers lose billions of dollars to fraud, yet nobody in Washington wants it stopped. Why?

Yes, fraud is a continual challenge with government programs. However, it’s not true that nobody in Washington wants it stopped. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (a.k.a. “Obamacare”) improved the government’s ability to detect and crack down on Medicare fraud. As a result, earlier this year, the Obama administration announced the largest anti-fraud takedown in history, totaling $452 million. The Obama administration has also tried to increase the IRS’s budget to crack down on tax fraud, but Republicans in Congress blocked it. The IRS estimates that they can collect an additional $200 in tax revenue for each dollar added to their budget. They know how to combat fraud. They just don’t have the resources to do so.

In response, another reader asks: Do you know why Republicans blocked it?

They want to cut the budgets of all the major regulatory agencies. They’re fanatically opposed to regulation, and they don’t want to collect more tax revenue, even if it means letting cheaters get away with their crimes. They want to “shrink [the government] down to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub,” as one of their leading lobbyists famously said.

Many of them campaigned on eliminating the IRS altogether. “Getting rid of the IRS is something we’d all love,” said Mitt Romney in a 2007 primary debate. They’ve been waging this war since the 1990s, when the Republican Senate leaders compared the IRS to the Nazi secret police.

It’s also worth noting that the rich have the most to gain from lax tax enforcement. They can afford accountants who hide their income in dubious tax shelters, a luxury not available to the poor or middle class. In the Republican mindset, the rich are producers and the rest are moochers, so anything the rich do to avoid paying taxes is their right as the anointed kings of capitalism.

Why #SCOTUS Upheld #ObamaCare

In celebration of the Supreme Court’s historic decision to uphold the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act, we reproduce an excerpt from Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinion on behalf of the majority:

Under the mandate, if an individual does not maintain health insurance, the only consequence is that he must make an additional payment to the IRS when he pays his taxes. That, according to the Government, means the mandate can be regarded as establishing a condition—not owning health insurance—that triggers a tax—the required payment to the IRS. Under that theory, the mandate is not a legal command to buy insurance. Rather, it makes going without insurance just another thing the Government taxes, like buying gasoline or earning income. And if the mandate is in effect just a tax hike on certain taxpayers who do not have health insurance, it may be within Congress’s constitutional power to tax.

The exaction the Affordable Care Act imposes on those without health insurance looks like a tax in many respects. The “[s]hared responsibility payment,” as the statute entitles it, is paid into the Treasury by “taxpayer[s]” when they file their tax returns. It does not apply to individuals who do not pay federal income taxes because their household income is less than the filing threshold in the Internal Revenue Code. For taxpayers who do owe the payment, its amount is determined by such familiar factors as taxable income, number of dependents, and joint filing status. The requirement to pay is found in the Internal Revenue Code and enforced by the IRS, which—as we previously explained—must assess and collect it “in the same manner as taxes.” This process yields the essential feature of any tax: it produces at least some revenue for the Government.

We have similarly held that exactions not labeled taxes nonetheless were authorized by Congress’s power to tax. In the License Tax Cases, for example, we held that federal licenses to sell liquor and lottery tickets—for which the licensee had to pay a fee—could be sustained as exercises of the taxing power. And in New York v. United States we upheld as a tax a “surcharge” on out-of-state nuclear waste shipments, a portion of which was paid to the Federal Treasury. We thus ask whether the shared responsibility payment falls within Congress’s taxing power, “[d]isregarding the designation of the exaction, and viewing its substance and application.” (United States v. Constantine). [Other examples include:] Quill Corp. v. North Dakota (“[M]agic words or labels” should not “disable an otherwise constitutional levy”); Nelson v. Sears, Roebuck & Co. (“In passing on the constitutionality of a tax law, we are concerned only with its practical operation, not its definition or the precise form of descriptive words which may be applied to it”); United States v. Sotelo (“That the funds due are referred to as a ‘penalty’…does not alter their essential character as taxes”).

Although the payment will raise considerable revenue, it is plainly designed to expand health insurance coverage. But taxes that seek to influence conduct are nothing new. Some of our earliest federal taxes sought to deter the purchase of imported manufactured goods in order to foster the growth of domestic industry. Today, federal and state taxes can compose more than half the retail price of cigarettes, not just to raise more money, but to encourage people to quit smoking. And we have upheld such obviously regulatory measures as taxes on selling marijuana and sawed-off shotguns. Indeed, “[e]very tax is in some measure regulatory. To some extent it interposes an economic impediment to the activity taxed as compared with others not taxed.” That [the law] seeks to shape decisions about whether to buy health insurance does not mean that it cannot be a valid exercise of the taxing power.

While the individual mandate clearly aims to induce the purchase of health insurance, it need not be read to declare that failing to do so is unlawful. Neither the Act nor any other law attaches negative legal consequences to not buying health insurance, beyond requiring a payment to the IRS.

The Affordable Care Act’s requirement that certain individuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance may reasonably be characterized as a tax. Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness.

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This excerpt has been lightly edited to make it more readable to a lay audience.

What to Read on Ron Paul

Ron Paul: The Alternative Candidate Is a Force to Be Reckoned With — Joel Achenbach

He’s 76 — the only one in the race who was born during the Great Depression.

He’s by far the most radically anti-government candidate in the running. He’d boil the federal government down to a few, skeletal functions. He’d end the welfare state, cut every dime of foreign aid, halt overseas military action and bring home all the troops. He’d return to the gold standard and abolish the Federal Reserve.

Paul opposes not only recent government shenanigans but also stuff that happened 50 or 70 or 90 years ago, such as the creation of Medicare (1965), Social Security (1935) and the federal income tax (1913). He’s against national banks, the first of which was the handiwork of Alexander Hamilton in 1791.

Paul believes that powerful and secretive forces (the Fed being the best example) have manipulated human events and bankrolled wars. He fears that the nation is turning into an Orwellian police state.

He’s a stalwart opponent of the USA Patriot Act and regularly condemns post-Sept. 11 security measures, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

From modest ­beginnings he became a highly successful obstetrician/gynecologist, delivered about 4,000 babies, became the patriarch of a sprawling family and was elected to Congress 12 times.

He bemoans the decline of the dollar and blames the printing of money “out of thin air.”

He’s not a dealmaker and is not interested in forging bipartisan compromises.

When someone…asked him what he’d do to overcome the partisan divide in Congress, he said the gridlock was a blessing. […] In his view, the moderates are the most dangerous people in Washington.

G.O.P. Monetary Madness — Paul Krugman

[Ron] Paul…fiercely [opposes] the kind of monetary expansion [Milton] Friedman claimed could have prevented the Great Depression — and which was actually carried out by Ben Bernanke this time around.

After Lehman Brothers fell,…the monetary base more than tripled in size.

[Ron Paul was] sure about what would happen as a result: There would be devastating inflation.

So here we are, three years later. How’s it going? Inflation has fluctuated, but, at the end of the day, consumer prices have risen just 4.5 percent, meaning an average annual inflation rate of only 1.5 percent. Who could have predicted that printing so much money would cause so little inflation? Well, I could. And did. And so did others who understood the Keynesian economics Mr. Paul reviles.

And what will happen if [Ron Paul’s] doctrine actually ends up being put into action? Great Depression, here we come.

The Presidential Candidates on Taxes — Citizens for Tax Justice

A proposal that anti-tax radicals call a “Fair Tax” is basically a national sales tax that replaces all other federal taxes. …in order to maintain current revenue levels, this sales tax would have to be around 50 percent. It is also very regressive. Low-income households would pay more for everything they buy, while the wealthy would hit the jackpot with tax-free capital gains, dividends and interest. We are fairly confident that this proposal will go nowhere when people realize that a house that costs, say, $200,000 would cost $300,000 under this plan.

[Ron Paul has] expressed support for the “Fair Tax” proposal.

[Ron Paul is] in favor of abolishing the Internal Revenue Service. It’s not entirely clear who would administer the national sales tax [he supports] if there was no IRS.

Republican Debate Reality Check Shows Misfire — Bloomberg News

…Ron Paul saying he would close the Department of Interior in addition to [the Departments of Commerce, Education, and Energy.]

Why Libertarianism Fails in Health Care — Ezra Klein

…CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked whether an uninsured 30-year-old who had chosen to go without insurance should be left to die if he falls unexpectedly ill. Ron Paul dodged the question. “What he should do is whatever he wants to do and take responsibility for himself,” Paul said. “That’s what freedom is about.” Blitzer pressed the issue. “But, Congressman, are you saying the society should just let him die?” “Yeah!” whooped the crowd. But Paul stammered out a “no.”

House Conservatives Contradict Themselves on Tax Increases — Suzy Khimm

[In November, Ron Paul and 71 other Republicans] sent a letter to the debt-reduction supercommittee that urged them to rule out any tax increases whatsoever as part of the deal…

But just two weeks [earlier, he was] among the 100-plus House members who signed a “go-big” letter that asked the supercommittee to keep everything on the table, including revenues.

Why Ron Paul Challenges Liberals — Matt Stoller

…while old newsletters bearing his name showcase obvious white supremacy, he is also the only prominent politician, let alone Presidential candidate, saying that the drug war has racist origins. You cannot honestly look at this figure without acknowledging both elements…

My perspective of Paul comes from working with his staff in 2009-2010 on issues of war and the Federal Reserve. Paul was one of my then-boss Alan Grayson’s key allies in Congress on these issues, though on most issues of course he and Paul were diametrically opposed. How Paul operated his office was different than most Republicans, and Democrats.

Paul’s office was dedicated, first and foremost, to his political principles, and his work with his grassroots base reflects that. Politics and procedure simply didn’t matter to him. My main contact in Paul’s office even had his voicemail set up with special instructions for those calling about HR 1207, which was the number of the House bill to audit the Federal Reserve. But it wasn’t just the Fed audit — any competent liberal Democratic staffer in Congress can tell you that Paul will work with anyone who seeks his ends of rolling back American Empire and its reach into foreign countries, auditing the Federal Reserve, and stopping the drug war.

…when considering questions about Ron Paul, you have to ask yourself whether you prefer a libertarian who will tell you upfront about his opposition to civil rights statutes, or authoritarian Democratic leaders who will expand healthcare to children and then aggressively enforce a racist war on drugs and shield multi-trillion dollar transactions from public scrutiny. I can see merits in both approaches, and of course, neither is ideal. Perhaps it’s worthy to argue that lives saved by presumed expanded health care coverage in 2013 are worth the lives lost in the drug war. It is potentially a tough calculation (depending on whether you think coverage will in fact expand in 2013). When I worked with Paul’s staff, they pursued our joint end goals with vigor and principle, and because of their work, we got to force central banking practices into a more public and democratic light.

Marginalizing Ron Paul — Robert Scheer

[Ron] Paul marshaled bipartisan support to pass a bill requiring the first-ever public audit of the Federal Reserve. That audit is how [Americans] first learned of the Fed’s trillions of dollars in secret loans and aid given to the banks as a reward for screwing over the public.

…his is a rare voice in challenging irrationally high military spending. At a time when the president has signed off on a cold war-level defense budget and his potential opponents in the Republican field want to waste even more on high-tech weapons to fight a sophisticated enemy that doesn’t exist, Paul has emerged as the only serious peace candidate. As the Wall Street Journal reported, Paul last week warned an Iowa audience, “Watch out for the military-industrial complex — they always have an enemy. Nobody is going to invade us. We don’t need any more [weapons systems].”

Paul said: “Little by little, in the name of fighting terrorism, our Bill of Rights is being repealed…. The Patriot Act, as bad as its violation of the 4th Amendment, was just one step down the slippery slope. The recently passed [National Defense Authorization Act, would allow the president to order indeterminate military imprisonment without trial of those accused of supporting terrorism,] continues that slip toward tyranny and in fact accelerates it significantly…. The Bill of Rights has no exemption for ‘really bad people’ or terrorists or even non-citizens. It is a key check on government power against any person. This is not a weakness in our legal system; it is the very strength of our legal system.”