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Like many of you

Like many of you, for months I've heard President Bush and Vice President Cheney talk up 'Asbestos Reform' as one of the main planks of their legislative agenda. I didn't know just what they meant by that or what the issue even was (that is, beyond the fact that exposure to asbestos obviously causes all sorts of deadly and chronic ailments). But given who was pushing it, I figured it couldn't be anything good.

Over the last week, I've taken an initial look at the question. I haven't had as much time as I've wanted to dig into it. But the pretty clear initial impression I've gotten is that, while the overall concept may be a good one (setting up a trust fund to compensate victims of absestos exposure), the actual piece of legislation (S.852) moving down the pike amounts to a huge giveaway to a couple dozen big companies who will see their annual payouts to sufferers from asbestos exposure fall to just a fraction of what they are now.

Let me be crystal clear about one thing: trial lawyers would totally take it on the chin with this bill. (In fact, I think that's one reason the White House and the Republicans are pushing it -- as a way to defund Democrats.) But just because trial lawyers have self-interested reasons to oppose it doesn't mean it's not also a bad bill. And a pretty persuasive case has been made to me that the bigger effect of this legislation is to radically reduce the financial liability of a few big companies -- who in the past were the worst bad-actors with asbestos -- and make it a lot harder for people sick or dying of various asbestos-related ailments to be compensated or get cash settlements to pay for medical treatment.

I know there's been a lot of equivocation in this post. And that's because I don't like to talk about a topic or piece of legislation until I feel like I really have a handle on it. So in this case, I'll just say that my first impression is that this is a bad bill. And I'd suggest people look more into it. Here's a report from Public Citizen that's a good place to start.

I'd be very curious to hear your views, for or against.

Ill be out for

I'll be out for most of the morning at the Personal Democracy Forum conference here in New York. I'll be presenting at 11:30 AM panel 'Using the Net to Move Your Issues'.

Later today we'll be bringing you more news about the soon-to-be-launched TPMCafe.com.

And, for your reading pleasure, here's a piece I was working on earlier this year, a review of David McCullough's new book 1776. It's out this morning in the new issue of The New Yorker.

Third trys the charm

Third try's the charm? With 'nuclear option' up in a mushroom cloud, and 'constitutional option' down the memory hole, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky this morning introduced "Byrd Option" as the new GOP-approved word for abolishing the filibuster.

Reporters should be getting their notices shortly.

Late Update: See the video of McConnell in action trying out "Byrd Option".

Over at the TPM

Over at the TPM Bankruptcy Bill blog, Prof. Elizabeth Warren is putting out a call for questions that should be put to credit card industry executives (among others) when they appear before the Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday. Take a look at what she has to say.

Down for the CountHeres

Down for the Count?

Here's a story that deserves a bit more attention but hasn't, to the best of my knowledge, gotten much play outside Indiana.

Republicans have gone to great lengths to protect Rep. Chris "The Count" Chocola (R) of Indiana from any fall out over his support for partially phasing out Social Security.

Actually, they've put almost as much effort into running cover for Chocola over his history of flip-flopping on the issue since in 2000 he said he was for complete phase-out, followed by a 2002 stance against phase-out, and a current stance in favor of partial phase-out.

But I digress.

Social Security has become a hot issue in Chocola's district -- occasioning even a visit from President Bush a couple months ago. And back on Monday, Rev. Lisa Doege of South Bend's First Unitarian Church was planning to hold a program on the topic of Social Security at the church, which included Notre Dame Professor Teresa Ghilarducci, a pension policy expert who President Clinton appointed to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation's advisory board and Indiana Governor O'Bannon appointed to serve on the Board of Trustees of the State of Indiana Public Employees Pension Board.

But Monday afternoon Doege got a call from State Representative Luke Messer, the executive director of the Indiana Republican party, who warned her that her church's program on Social Security might cost the church its tax-exempt status.

According to this AP article, Messer based his claim on his understanding "that Ghilarducci was active in Democratic politics and contributed to the campaign of Joe Donnelly, who ran against Republican Rep. Chris Chocola in last year's election." The information had come from Chris Faulkner, Chairman of the St. Joseph County GOP.

Messer, as expected, says no threat was intended. The call was purely informational. And apparently he wanted a pro-privatization speaker included in the program.

But I think the nature of the interchange -- a state party chairman warning a minister that her church might lose its tax-exempt status if she didn't include his phase-out-enthusiast in a program her Church was holding on Social Security -- speaks for itself.

Also, to the best of my knowledge, Rep. Chocola has made no public comment about whether he believes Messer's actions were appropriate.

There seems to be

There seems to be a rising chorus of claims that, even if the expected shortfalls in Social Security funding are still almost forty years in the future, every year that goes by the cost and difficulty of fixing the problem increases. But this makes no sense, especially since President Bush's proposed means of 'fixing' Social Security's shortfall turn entirely and exclusively on cuts in guaranteed benefits.

Here's what I mean: If the issue was prefunding Social Security as a social insurance program, then the sooner we start doing that the better. But President Bush has specifically ruled out new funds (i.e., increased tax revenue) as part of the solution. So no dice there.

In fact, it's even worse than that since President Bush has also ruled out the existing funding mechanism by which any sort of pre-funding could take place.

Again, allow me to explain.

Let's say we immediately cut everyone's Social Security benefits by 20% -- just across the board; everybody, high and low, gets hit the same. I can barely manage simple division anymore; so I'll leave it to the econ folks to figure out the particulars. But if we cut payouts by 20% that would leave Social Security with a substantially larger annual surplus. That would mean more money socked away into the Trust Fund every year. And the Trust Fund would last much longer.

Not only would the Trust Fund last longer because there's more money in it, but it would pay down more slowly because everyone's benefits would be smaller.

But the president doesn't believe that the Trust Fund exists as a funding mechanism. Set aside all the word-games and disagreements about IOUs and real assets. The president doesn't believe the Trust Fund materially improves the solvency of Social Security because he doesn't believe those Treasury notes constitute a real asset. To him, it's just a book-keeping ledger calling for higher taxes down the road.

Indeed, it would be foolish for current beneficiaries of the program, or people currently paying payroll taxes, to fatten up the Trust Fund in this way so long as the current president isn't even willing to stipulate that the money will be paid back.

Given the options the president will allow, the only option left available is to take a portion of the Trust Fund and invest it in stocks in one aggregated fund, rather than in private accounts. This would be similar to how state pension funds work. But even that doesn't pan out because the president has again and again said he opposes investing Trust Fund revenues in this way because it would lead to the government owning too much of the private economy.

That leads us back to what seems to me to be the unavoidable conclusion that, given the options that President Bush will allow, it won't be any harder or more costly to 'fix' Social Security five or ten or any number of years into the future than it is today. And that's because we can cut benefits whenever we want.

Sen. Roberts R of

Sen. Roberts (R) of Kansas, a bamboozler on Niger uranium, now says he has doubts about using the nuclear option to end judicial filibusters.