Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at brian@talkingpointsmemo.com

Articles by Brian

Consider this your meta-meta-post for the day: Obama took a jab at beltway media culture last night in a speech he gave at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser, and by all accounts, he knows what he's up against. But unfortunately he can't seem to get away from it.

I know that in Washington sometimes it's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day cable chatter, and be distracted by the petty and the trivial, and everybody is keeping score -- are they up, are they down? You know, one day I'm a genius; one day I'm a bum. Every day there's a new winner, a new loser.

Sounds right. And knowing the deaf and recursive world of D.C. media so well, he shouldn't be too surprised that Politico's Alexander Burns was there to turn an aside in a speech about the economy into a blog post about Obama taking aim at political Washington. And he shouldn't be too surprised either that Mike Allen cited the post in his daily playbook of news-driving events--that now his critique of the daily winners and losers chatter will be used by the people he was critiquing to determine if he won or lost the day.

Obama's made this point before, and to the same effect (or lack there of). Just as in months past, everyone's writing about it and nobody's taken Obama's critique to heart and if he speaks up and makes the same argument again, we'll all go down the rabbit hole once more.

Steny Hoyer (D-MD), the number two Democrat in the House has put out a fairly suggestive flyer hammering Republicans in both bodies for their sudden and hypocritical aversion to passing controversial legislation via budget reconciliation. It reads in part:

The budget reconciliation process has been used most years since it was first used in 1980, including in recent years when Republicans controlled Congress and considered the following legislation:
  • 2005 - Legislation That Reduced Spending on Medicaid and Raised Premiums on Upper-Income Medicare Beneficiaries
  • 2003 - President Bush's 2003 Tax Cuts
  • 2001 - President Bush's Signature $1.35 Trillion Tax Cut
  • 2000 - $292 Billion "Marriage Penalty" Tax Cut (VETOED)
  • 1997 - Balanced Budget Act
  • 1996 - Legislation to Enact Welfare Reform
  • 1995 - "Contract With America" Agenda

And then it names names. Specifically, it calls out such influential Republicans as John Boehner, Judd Gregg, and Charles Grassley, who as recently as three years ago were singing the praises of the reconciliation process as a way to circumvent Democratic filibuster efforts. But now, in an unsurprising twist, they strongly oppose it. Just last week, in a somewhat melodramatic episode, Gregg compared the maneuver to "running over the minority, putting them in cement and throwing them in the Chicago River."

This all occurs against the backdrop of a brewing controversy over the possibility that Democrats will try to pass several aspects of Obama's agenda via reconciliation. And whether they genuinely intend to go that route, or are trying to pressure Republicans into crossing the aisle on issues like climate change and health reform, Hoyer's move is more fuel for the fire.

The whole flyer can be seen here.

As I mentioned earlier, today's breaking budget news is that the congressional budget committees released their budget blueprints. There are some notable differences between the House and Senate resolutions, and both differ from the president's proposal--the House plan, for instance, will drop the deficit to $600 billion over five years, compared to the $500 billion in the Senate plan, whereas the Congressional Budget Office predicted higher deficits under Obama's outline. Still the administration and congressional leaders are playing these differences down.

There's some good reason for that, but the bigger issue still looms in the background: reconciliation. Reconciliation enables certain types of fiscal legislation--including, significantly, some of Barack Obama's major agenda items--to be bundled together and voted on immune from the threat of filibuster.

Republicans see this as a major threat and for the last several days have been lividly decrying the entire process, threatening to respond to any attempts to put health and energy reforms into a reconciliation bill by going 'nuclear'. Nuclear in this instance has nothing to do with atomic physics or with filibustering judges but instead with a senatorial tendency to indulge in hyperbole when describing their powers.

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Is the administration disavowing the term "Global War on Terror"? A report by Al Kamen yesterday suggested maybe. The question arises because of an email Dave Riedel of the Office of Security Review sent to Pentagon staffers informing them that "OMB says: 'This Administration prefers to avoid using the term "Long War" or "Global War on Terror" [GWOT]. Please use 'Overseas Contingency Operation.'"

As luck would have it, though, OMB director Peter Orszag held a conference call with reporters this morning to answer questions about the budget, and fielded a question about this very issue.

"I sometimes am amused by the things I read in the press," Orszag said. "I'm not aware of any communication I've had on that issue. It was a communication by a mid-level career civil service."

So GWOT it is. That doesn't mean the Riedel email didn't go out, though, and some (me, for instance) wonder if some at the Pentagon might stick with the supposedly new moniker (Overseas Contingency Operation) leading to amusing confusion on the Hill.

This has been a problem for the government for some time, and to such an extent that even George Bush was willing to admit error. "We actually misnamed the war on terror," Bush said in August 2004. "It ought to be the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world." Touche.

The big budget news (always an eyeball grabber) is that Senate Budget Committee chairman Kent Conrad (D-ND) and his House counterpart John Spratt (D-SC) are taking machetes to Obama's proposal, released last month. The Washington Post reports that the two are poised to release budget blueprints that "cut hundreds of billions of dollars from Obama's spending request over the next five years."

But is there really any there, there? Short answer: not really. The blueprints, called resolutions, aren't binding on the work of congressional committees, which are still plowing ahead with their legislative agendas. And at the same time, many of Conrad's changes are geared more toward hiding spending than toward specific cuts. For instance, "Conrad...pressed some Bush-era budget maneuvers eliminated by Obama back into service: Instead of a 10-year budget that shows deficits steadily accumulating, for example, Conrad is proposing a five-year spending plan."

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Elijah Cummings has driven a lot of news about the AIG bonus scandal, but he's got tentacles deep in other controversial aspects of the $180 billion bailout. He's currently circulating (and I have obtained) a letter to colleagues, seeking their support for a TARP inspector general investigation into every aspect of the payments AIG made, with government money, to counterparties whose risky investments it had insured.

Goldman Sachs claimed in September that they had no material exposure to AIG; however, after AIG released the counterparty information on March 15, we found out that Goldman Sachs received almost $13 billion in counterparty payments. The Special Inspector General for the Troubled Assets Relief Program was created to ensure that transparency and accountability stay firmly rooted in the government's efforts to revive and sustain the American economy. This letter proposes that the Special Inspector General examine the nature of the counterparty payments - including the recipients, the process by which they were made whole, and the justification, if any, for that level of payment.

He's asking members of Congress to cosign a letter to the inspector general asking him to conduct a thorough inquiry. We've been all over the counterparties controversy and we'll follow this campaign as far as it goes.

Full text of the letter below the fold.

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Frustrated by the recent bonus bonanza Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) asks for a chart of bonus statistics for all TARP recipients. Geithner demurs. Check it out.

Moments ago, Secretary Geithner artfully dodged a question that's on everybody's mind: What happens if his plan fails. Echoing the architects and supporters of the success-bonanza that is the Iraq war, Geithner said that the only thing we need to ensure the plan works is sufficient will.

Earlier in the hearing, Tim Geithner suggested that Goldman Sachs could be one of five institutions helping to manage the public-private partnership program to buy up a bunch of toxic legacy assets from ailing banks.

Goldman has played a central role in this drama. As an institution, it's been extremely close to the Treasury department. And, as Josh noted, it's also about to pay off all of its TARP money (with the help, perhaps, of the other government money it received as an AIG counterparty) which will free it up to return to a status quo of paying enormous bonuses.

It's also, of course, one of the institutions that helped bring the financial system to its knees--it holds many of the toxic assets in question and may be well placed to bid them up and inflate their prices at auction. (How you manage the fund to rescue financial institutions with toxic assets while you yourself hold those same assets has yet to be sussed out by committee members.)

Anyhow, in the event that you're feeling left out and want a piece of the Goldman pie for yourself, you can apply with the government to be a private asset manager here.

After news of the AIG bonuses broke, Geithner held to the line that they didn't know about the payments until March 10, just a little while before you and I did. And, lo and behold that's what Bernanke is saying now:

Bernanke: I knew that there were general compensation packages throughout the company. I did not know, I was not informed about the specific payments to AIGFP.

Garrett: If you had that information would that have been germane to your discussions?

Bernanke: It would have given us more time to talk, negotiate, and look for options, but frankly we still would have faced the same legal obstacles we are currently facing.

But AIG CEO Edward Liddy greenlighted a round of bonuses of some sort on September 18, at a time when both men were already deeply involved in AIG, and last week he said that Bernanke had known about the payments for three months.

Late Update: Video embedded above.