Week In Politics: Another Looming Debt Fight, Possible NSA Changes

Dec 20, 2013
Originally published on December 21, 2013 5:46 pm
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Well, for thoughts on that, I'm joined by our weekly political commentators E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. David, breakthrough year coming up?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, yes. We're going to be the Miley Cyrus of nations next year, unstoppable.

BLOCK: I don't know what that means.

BROOKS: Unstoppable, but kind of embarrassing.


BROOKS: I actually don't think so. You know, we're going to have better economic year, according to the forecasters, but the structural problems of the economy are still there. We're not going to go back to 4 percent growth an unemployment rate probably at 4 or 5 simply because the winding inequality is going to be there, the wage stagnation for the middle class, the premium skills gap is going to be there.

And so I don't look for us to go back to the sort of the booming economy that we used to have and that's going to require some sort of much bigger policy agenda than we've seen from either party.


E.J. DIONNE: It will be the best of years. It will be worst of years. I mean, I think he's got a point if you look at the economy. The economy is finally starting to grow at a reasonable pace. His point on energy is right. The healthcare plan is obviously going to look better than it did this year because it almost has to, given the way it began. And you will start seeing, I think, a lot of people signing up.

Having said that, David's quite right that we've got a big problem with inequality and declining social mobility. The president said that himself and we have no obvious sense that Congress is going behave any better. When the debt ceiling came up, President Obama said, I've got to assume they're not crazy enough to do that thing again. You just wonder if they're crazy enough to do that thing again.

BLOCK: Well, and it seems to be a battle of imaginations here, David. The Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, said this week that he can't imagine that the debt ceiling increase will be a clean one. In other words, Republicans are going to want concessions. President Obama today said he can't imagine that Republicans will think of plunging the country back into brinkmanship. What do you think is coming?

BROOKS: I'm with Obama's imagination on that one. I don't think the Republicans want to issue a fight on that. It's been such a political loser. They think they have an excellent chance to take the Senate or at least a good chance. They want to keep the focus on healthcare. I really do not think they're going to put up much of a fight. Maybe a little fight, but a really small one.

BLOCK: Speaking of healthcare, we saw yet another rule change last night that scales back the new healthcare law, the Affordable Care Act. The Obama administration now saying people whose individual insurance policies have been cancelled will be able to claim a hardship exemption. In other words, they'll be able to buy basic plans just for catastrophic coverage and they won't have to pay a fine if they don't buy insurance next year.

Insurers are saying, whoa, we don't like this. We're caught by surprise. E.J., talk about the origin of this change and the pressures in particular coming from Democrats.

DIONNE: Well, the president's words, if you like your health plan you'll keep it, are the words that have launched a thousand changes in the healthcare act over the last several months. That promise has been held over the president's head. It's been held over the heads of Democrats even though we're talking about a very limited pool of people compared to the whole healthcare pool, about 5 percent in the private insurance market.

So this latest change is just an effort to make sure that people who were unhappy can get insurance. I don't think you'll see a lot of implications from this. This year, the real question will be what do these markets look like a year from now when the health insurers look at them and say, we don't like this balance and they might raise prices quite a bit, might raise premium costs quite a bit. I think that's the test, but I think that's down the road.

BLOCK: David, what do you think? What are we left with after this series of changes and ways of scaling back the Affordable Care Act? Where do things stand?

BROOKS: Yeah, these are either teething pains or the disintegration of the whole program. And to be honest, I have my...

BLOCK: Those are two very different things.

BROOKS: Right. And I have my preference, but I really don't know. I don't know where this is leading, whether the whole thing is about to fall apart. The one thing that I think is significant about this reversal, this change, which was announced late last night, is the combination of political pressure versus the messiness of the transition into the program.

If political pressure builds, and this time it came from Democrats, as this election cycle heads toward the midterms, there's going to be much, much more pressure from Democrats just to survive to get rid of the individual mandate. And what they did last night chips away at the individual mandate and if they do that from political pressures, it becomes politically impossible to sustain the mandate, then the whole program really is in danger.


DIONNE: I go with teething on the whole given David's choice there. I think that there are two things, one the acceleration of the number of people signing up is very encouraging and in a very short period of time. Now that things are working and now that the deadline is approaching, a lot of us do things on deadline, you're seeing a lot of people want this insurance so I think that's helpful.

I think that in the end, Democrats, even though they're going to talk a lot about it, are going to be very reluctant to undercut the whole structure of this plan and that I think that individual Democrats who might be in tough states like Senator Landrieu will already have been out there with proposals saying we can make some changes in this.

So I think they're going to try to hold the line and prevent the structure of the thing from collapsing.

BLOCK: Let's wrap up by talking about the National Security Agency. There were two developments this week, the court ruling from federal Judge Richard Leon who said that the mass collection of phone data was, in his words, almost Orwellian and then you had the panel that issued sweeping recommendations on reforming the NSA and then just how it conducts surveillance.

Among their recommendations that the government shouldn't be allowed to keep those phone records of all Americans to search at will. David Brooks, the wisdom and the likelihood of changes to that program, a fundamental change to that surveillance program?

BROOKS: High likelihood. There's clearly a tidal shift to restrain the NSA and I'm a pretty big national security guy, but I have to say I sort of feel it's the right tide. The NSA has not shown an ability to restrain itself, bugging foreign leaders, even media people and containing the records just seems like an unwarranted concentration of power that should even worry somebody who's pretty national security oriented.

The panel recommendation struck me as mostly sensible, especially in terms of what kind of records of ours they have. I was a little more dubious. There are another set of recommendations within that report on how aggressive we can be in going into other people's computer programs, what they call Zero Day programs. I don't see why we need to restrain ourselves if we can go into Iranian nuclear computers.

But as far as restricting our ability to control the government's ability to look at our records and to keep them seems to me sensible.

BLOCK: And E.J., do you think we're really going to be seeing the government scaling back just how it conducts surveillance?

DIONNE: I think we will, and I think the president strongly hinted at that today. He said that program - in effect, he said, the program is beginning to lose popular support because people, even as David said, people who care about national security, are uneasy about this power.

And when you look to both Judge Leon's decision and the president's advisory panel, they both raised real questions about whether the government needs all of this power and all of this surveillance to prevent terrorist attacks, and I think that's the issue that the government's going to have to answer on.

The one thing, Judge Leon quoted James Madison in his attitude toward this. I think James Madison would've been surprised that the telephone existed.


BLOCK: If you're looking to that for precedent.

DIONNE: Yes, exactly.

BLOCK: Thanks to you both.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

BROOKS: Thank you.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, and David Brooks of The New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.