Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Someday it'll probably be like the AMEX commercial: Conscience Caucus member since January '05.

In any case, before we get to that point, some of the early-adopters are certainly trying to make clear that they've been in the Caucus longer than all these Johnny-Come-Latelies. Today, in The Day of New London, Connecticut, early Caucus member Rep. Rob Simmons (R) reaffirms his Caucus membership and Loud and Proud status.

Rob Simmons, in the Caucus before it was cool.

And right as Rob Simmons is digging in his heels and making sure everyone knows he was a Caucus man from way back, there's Sen. Arlen Specter, first member of the senate Caucus, goin' all wobbly.

Here's Specter from an interview published today by the Washington Times ...

Q. Do you agree with the president's plan for changing Social Security?

A. I'm waiting for a specifiation and the details. I have an open mind on it. I'm not going to give the president a blank check, nor am I going to line up with the people who say they're unalterably opposed. I'm against cutting Social Security benefits. I'm against borrowing extensively. But I want to see what the presient has in mind.

Q. Do you support private accounts?

A. I'm prepared to listen.

Q. You sound skeptical.

A. Well, I'm prepared to listen to see how they would be done. How will they be financed? How much money will it take out of the system? We pretty much a pay-as-you-go program, paying out as the contributions are made. How will it work? People are talking about gigantic borrowing. I'm not for that.

Prepared to listen? That chairmanship must be feelin' pretty good, I guess. Or is it Pat Toomey clawing back from the political netherworld?

Because that's sure not what Arlen told his constituents just four weeks ago.

As we reported on January 6th of this year, in his constituent mail sent out on the Social Security issue, Specter told Pennsylvanians ...

On the issue of privatization, I had some time ago considered an idea to place a relatively small portion of benefits in an investment account, providing that the “security” aspect of Social Security was retained and the investment was under professional management. However, with the severe fluctuations of the stock market, I have since rejected that idea.

Considered, rejected, prepared to listen. I just can't keep up.

Back in the day (you remember the day, right?) every time a president came forward with a budget, reporters would pore over the thing. And any line item or provision or assumption that wasn't based on the most rock-solid accounting or didn't take into account the most pessimistic prognosication was instantly given that most infamous of DC budgeting sobriquets: the dreaded "smoke and mirrors."

Nowadays I guess you could say things have changed. How else can it be when an OMB Director can simply state that borrowing a trillion dollars doesn't count as new debt?

"Transition financing does not represent new debt," OMB chief Josh Bolten said yesterday.

And while we're at it, it would be stingy not to recognize that the White House has now given new meaning to phrase 'unified budgeting'. In the Bush White House lexicon that would refer to a budget that included not only the president's 'budget' but also his major new spending proposals.

Let me share with you one of the problems I've been having handling admissions policy for the Conscience Caucus.

Human nature being what it is, the Caucus is like any other club. As the Caucus gets more popular, the admissions policies have grown tighter, more restrictive.

So, for instance, back in the early days of the Caucus, freshman Rep. Dave Reichert (R) of Washington got in merely for telling the Tri-City Herald that "he was intrigued by the idea of personal accounts, but was reluctant to add to the federal deficit." Nowadays, a little aside like that would hardly get you past the first interview. And Reichert's status in the Caucus is actually currently under review since, as near as we can tell, he's been mum on Social Security phase-out ever since.

But this tighter criteria does leave part of the story untold. As we've been reviewing the coverage over the last few days, it is striking just how few Republican senators are willing to go on the record in support of the president's plan. I'm not saying they're opposing it or that they won't sign on soon enough. But the resistance to simply saying, "Yes, I support the president's plan" is pretty telling.

Here's one example.

Of the states on the Bamboozlepalooza tour, there were three Republican senators: Burns of Montana, Hagel of Nebraska and Martinez of Florida.

As far as I can tell not one of them was willing to say they support he president's plan.

When the president was in Montana, Burns said he would "continue to look at it" but still had more questions, particularly about how to pay for it. After Burns got done introducing Bush at the event and a Times reporter asked if he supported the plan, he said he was still "crunching numbers." To yet another reporter, Burns said he was "intrigued" by the president's plan, but not ready to sign on. "Social Security is still a very, very important part of the retirement of a lot of seniors in Montana," he went on to say. "So we'll listen and we'll look and we'll probe ... and see what is in it for the next generation."

Hagel told the Christian Science Monitor that while he supported private accounts in principle, he wasn't ready to sign on with the president's plan. The key graf ...

"There's no question this is a tough sell," said Senator Hagel, who is preparing to unveil his own plan for Social Security in the next few weeks. "Social Security has probably been the most successful, important program we've had in government. Everyone is touched; there should be questions." He expressed doubt over whether a bill could be passed this year. "Next year is OK," he said.

Then there's freshman Senator Mel Martinez of Florida. This is what the Palm Beach Post had to say about Martinez at the Bamboozlepalooza tour's stop in Tampa: "One hint of the difficulty Bush is facing came from U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who was applauded by Bush for his support of the president's proposal. But after the event, Martinez said he supports private accounts but needs more detail before he can make a final decision."

Of the three, I'd say Burns (improbably enough) is the only one who's even possibly Caucus material, having read all the different coverage of each of the three over the last week. But just how many Republican senators are there who are willing to say now that they support the president's plan? It's hard to say, not least because many have managed to slip through without saying anything at all. Without having done any sort of organized count, but having looked at comments from a number of them over the past few days, I would not be surprised at all if less than half the Republican caucus is willing now to declare their support for the president's plan.

Perhaps these numbers have already been run (I suspect they have somewhere), in which case I'd appreciate if someone could point me in the right direction. Otherwise, can some economist or reliable number-cruncher crunch forth and figure out what percentage of the population would be required to use more than 80% of their private account 'nest-egg' to purchase an annuity.

Come to think of it, that approach only makes sense if the president were proposing 100% phase-out rather than 30%. And that probably won't be sprung on the public for several more years. So given the fact that the benefit-cut-clawback that goes along with your private account would probably bring monthly payments for many below the poverty line, can someone put together some reasonably concrete numbers on what percentage of private account holders will never really get their hands on the thing because they'll be forced to spend the whole thing, or the lion's share of it, on an annuity?

Later we can get into what a bad deal most annuities are supposed to be.

Detroit Free Press: "A survey of Michigan's congressional delegation shows that at least four of nine Republicans in the U.S. House are withholding endorsement of Bush's proposed personal accounts that would allow taxpayers to invest up to 4 percent of their payroll taxes that now go toward social security."

And apparently one of those four, Rep. Thaddeus McCotter is in the Caucus and Loud and Proud. Says the Free Press: "Opposes Bush's plan of diverting payroll taxes into personal accounts. That plan takes money from the payroll tax, which normally goes to the Social Security trust fund and diverts it to personal accounts for investment. The Social Security pot would shrink, McCotter says."

Late Update: The other three Republicans in the Michigan House delegations are Rep. Candice Miller, Rep. Mike Rogers and Rep. Joe Schwarz. Schwarz is already in the Caucus. But from the descriptions given here in the Free Press run-down it's not yet clear that Miller and Rogers are fully Caucus-worthy. Like we said, the standards for admission are getting tighter! Otherwise we'd end up with most of the House Republicans in there. If you've seen statements by Miller and Rogers which make them true Caucus material, let us know.

Now we know from the White House that there is no Social Security crisis and that private accounts won't guarantee the program's solvency only cost trillions of dollars and require massive benefit cuts.

On the other hand, there is still that Ownership Society Holy Grail, resplendent in all its glory, the ability to pass your private account on to your heirs.

Only, apparently not.

It's been mentioned here and there. But it turns out that you can't do that after all. In fact, probably only if you're an upper-income earner will you ever be able to get your hands on any substantial part of it, let alone pass it on to the kids, the alma mater or your favorite pet.

Under the Bush plan, when you retire you are mandated by law to use your private account funds to purchase an annuity substantial enough to keep you above the poverty line for the rest of your life. (I guess that whole letting people decide what to do with their own money bit only goes so far.) You'd have to figure that for most retirees that would run through pretty much the whole stash or at least the lion's share of it. And when you die, that's it. By definition, you can't pass on this kind of annuity.

So under the Ownership Society the wealthy can pass on their savings, but for middle income folks and the working poor, no such luck. Which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like the rentership society, or whatever benighted age it is we're supposed to be living in now.

So you may not get to pass on your wealth. But at least you have a guarantee that you won't outlive it. Which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like the Social Security, only now with the added benefit of no guarantees and financial services firms to skim off their own cut by managing your account and selling you your annuity.

In December we brought you early word of a controversial new article by Korea expert Selig Harrison in Foreign Affairs.

Harrison argued that the evidence for a North Korean uranium enrichment program (in violation of the 1994 'Agreed Framework') was far more tenuous than the administration had led us to believe.

In the wake of the collosal intelligence failure over Iraq (a mix of political gamesmanship and genuine intelligence failure) such a root-and-branch questioning of consensus opinion gets a far more open-minded reading.

In their next issue to be released tomorrow, Foreign Affairs has a roundtable on the article -- two critiques and a response from Harrison. What makes the exchange so notable is that one of the critiques is co-authored by Mitch Reiss, who was until quite recently the director of policy planning at State, and the former head of KEDO and Robert Galluci, who played a key role in Korea policy and negotiations under the Clinton administration.

The title of their counterpoint -- Dead To Rights -- tells the tale. Their counter-argument is thorough and rejects virtually every point Harrison makes, taking him particularly to task over his explanation of various technical questions which bear directly on how and what we can and cannot know about the North Korean nuclear program.

You'll want to read this.

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R) of Florida feeling the heat back in the 5th District?

This new article in the St. Petersburg Times covers Brown-Waite's town meetings today at which she began by telling constituents about her one-on-one with the president in the limo ride to the Bamboozlepalooza event in Tampa.

"He wasn't happy with me," Brown-Waite told the crowd. This was, she said, after telling the commander in-chief she wanted to "proceed cautiously."

Apparently, at the meetings in Citrus county, she even talked up AARP's plan to ditch phase-out and solve the program's future difficulties by raising the payroll tax cap.

Can the Arch-Privatizer, Pat Toomey, be far behind?