I was browsing through President Obama’s plan for economic growth and deficit reduction this morning, and a few things came to mind. First, credit to the White House for putting this document out. I’m not an economist, so I can’t really judge it on the merits (there are not-unexpected rave reviews from mainline dems, some grousing from liberals and conservative dems, and critical opinions for conservatives, but that doesn’t really help understand it), but I’m delighted that the document itself exists. I think the refusal of President Obama to commit, in writing, to a white house health care bill in 2009 was both a policy problem and a political misstep. Same thing with a debt-ceiling plan back a few months ago. And I think having to put yourself on the record in writing forces political actors to choose what they really want to say, instead of using vague allusions to lots of policies. Many smart people were surprised about what was, and was not, in the proposal. It leaves out a lot of the big-ticket items previously discussed. But that’s kind of my point. Now it’s real.
And look, I’m no fan of presidential domestic power — I’m about as close to as Whig as you can get in the modern age. But that ship has sailed, and it has repeatedly infuriated both his friends and adversaries that the President won’t seem to present things beyond general principles. So good for him on this one.
One thing in particular in the plan caught my attention — a proposal to kill some tax breaks for the coal industry:
Eliminate preferences for the coal industry. The Administration proposes repealing the following tax preferences available for coal activities beginning in 2013: 1) expensing of exploration and development costs; 2) percentage depletion for hard mineral fossil fuels; 3) capital gains treatment for royalties; and 4) the ability to claim the domestic manufacturing deduction against income derived from the production of coal and other hard mineral fossil fuels. This would reduce the deficit by $2 billion over 10 years.
Did anyone else immediately think of Bobby Byrd when they read this? Because my immediate reaction was wow, I bet this would never have even been put into the plan 3 years ago. (Note again, that I have no opinion on the provision itself, I’m just assuming it’s bad for the coal industry). Byrd was not only a vociferous defender of all things West Virginia, including the coal industry, but also positioned in the Senate — as the chair of the Appropriations Committee — in a way that made his priorities on such things more or less absolute vetoes. Prior to his voluntary stepping aside as Approps chair in 2009 (which may very well have come with the price tag of no cap-and-trade bill in the Senate), liberals would regularly muse that movement on global warming was fundamentally tied to his retirement. And they were only half-joking. Now that’s a powerful Senator. And I can see the debate at the White House over something like this too. Well, it’s only $2 billion dollars…no way that Byrd even looks at this…we can find the money somewhere else.
But being reminded of Byrd also made me think more broadly about his affect on congressional politics. When I wrote about him shortly after his death 15 months ago, I lamented that he left the Senate via death rather than retirement, because I thought his farewell address would have been an important moment in American history. I still believe that, but I also think that the Senate could have very much benefited from a health Bobby Byrd over the ensuing 15 months. I have no doubt that he would have given several important speeches in the wake of the 2010 election, the debt-crisis, and in regard to the super-committee and current politics. And he would have spared no quarter; Byrd was not a man shy to criticize a president of his own party if he thought said president was impeding on the Congress or otherwise not doing his job. Anyone who ever saw Byrd give a speech — the one I remember best was an opening statement on an Approps markup in 2007 or 2008, when he spent five minutes blasting then-president Bush on the proper role of the executive and the congress in the budget process, a pack room held rapt on his every word — knows that words and rhetoric can matter, even if only very rarely. Read more »