A Washington Whodunit: Who Killed Chained CPI?

The Left wants the scalp: It’s a “question of credit where credit is due,” says one liberal congressman.

National Journal
Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
March 3, 2014, 5:29 p.m.

It’s not every day that lib­er­als jockey to take cred­it for killing something pro­posed by a Demo­crat­ic pres­id­ent, but today, pro­gress­ives are try­ing to turn fa­mil­i­ar ac­cus­a­tions about tea-party le­gis­lat­ive hom­icide against them­selves. We, the Left in­sists, not the con­ser­vat­ives, are the real ex­e­cu­tion­er of a wonky yet con­tro­ver­sial change to So­cial Se­cur­ity that the White House is keep­ing out of its budget pro­pos­al.

“The ex­plan­a­tion that the tea party was the reas­on, that’s the wrong nar­rat­ive,” said a frus­trated Rep. Raul Gri­jalva, the co­chair­man of House Pro­gress­ive Caucus, of the de­mise of chained CPI, a pro­posed change to the way in­fla­tion is cal­cu­lated that would re­duce be­ne­fits to seni­ors over time.

Pres­id­ent Obama first pro­posed use of the chained con­sumer price in­dex in 2011 as part of a “grand bar­gain,” and then in­cluded the plan in the budget he re­leased last year, en­ra­ging lib­er­al Demo­crats on and off Cap­it­ol Hill.

When the White House let it be known a week ago that this year’s budget would not in­clude chained CPI, lib­er­als de­clared vic­tory. But the cel­eb­ra­tion was im­me­di­ately tempered when Wash­ing­ton pun­dits cred­ited (or blamed) Re­pub­lic­ans for their re­fus­al to take Obama’s of­fer.

“Sorry, but lib­er­als had noth­ing to do with the pres­id­ent’s de­cision. It’s Re­pub­lic­ans who killed the So­cial Se­cur­ity pro­pos­al,” wrote The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Zachary Gold­farb in a blog post that cap­tured this view.

White House press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney ce­men­ted this emer­ging nar­rat­ive last week when he said the pres­id­ent would still ac­cept chained CPI if Re­pub­lic­ans would hold up their end of the grand bar­gain. “What re­mains ab­so­lutely the case is that the pres­id­ent is ready and will­ing to ne­go­ti­ate a bal­anced de­fi­cit-re­duc­tion deal,” he said, “if Re­pub­lic­ans are will­ing to meet him halfway.”

That simply won’t fly for Gri­jalva. “For us, it’s huge,” he said in an in­ter­view late last week. “There’s a his­tory in­volved, and I wish the cov­er­age would re­flect that his­tory. And if it had done that, there would not be this ques­tion of cred­it where cred­it is due.”

That his­tory in­volves a let­ter from 117 House mem­bers — more than half the Demo­crat­ic Caucus — op­pos­ing chained CPI; op­pos­i­tion from nu­mer­ous Sen­ate Demo­crats, in­clud­ing Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id; and ag­gress­ive or­gan­iz­ing against the White House from out­side pro­gress­ive groups go­ing back sev­er­al years.

“As usu­al, the White House even­tu­ally answered the ques­tion cor­rectly, but got the premise wrong,” said Demo­cracy for Amer­ica’s Neil Sroka, who helped de­liv­er tens of thou­sands of sig­na­tures against chained CPI to Obama’s 2012 cam­paign of­fice. “We’re not stu­pid. We had a pretty good idea that there was a good shot the tea party would not go along with this.”¦ But I think that it’s just silly to make the ar­gu­ment that the White House made last week.”

The ar­gu­ment goes like this: If chained CPI is still on the table, and budget pro­pos­als, since they’re nev­er ac­tu­ally en­acted, are es­sen­tially ab­stract state­ments of mor­al prin­ciple, why both­er re­mov­ing it? “This year their mor­al­ity changed?” Sroka said. “The truth is that the polit­ics have changed.”

Richard Eskow, a seni­or fel­low at the Cam­paign for Amer­ica’s Fu­ture, took to The Huff­ing­ton Post to in­sist that, as his head­line read, “Yes, the Left Killed the Chained CPI.” If the de­cision not to in­clude it this year “isn’t policy-based, it must be polit­ic­al. And if it was a polit­ic­al de­cision, who but the Left could have been provid­ing the polit­ic­al pres­sure?” he writes.

This brings in the fig­ure that pulled the pro­ver­bi­al trig­ger: The White House it­self. A former seni­or Obama ad­viser, who asked that his name not be used so he could speak can­didly, agrees that the White House was re­spond­ing to the Left’s mes­sage, but only be­cause the cal­cu­lus changed once a grand bar­gain was no longer in the cards.

“I think the real­ity is that it wasn’t in­cluded be­cause there was ab­so­lutely no in­dic­a­tion that there was a will­ing­ness to em­brace a bal­anced pack­age that in­cluded in­vest­ments and in­cluded some pro­gress­ive ele­ments,” the former aide said. “So from a polit­ic­al stand­point, what’s the point of in­flam­ing your base when there’s no pos­sib­il­ity of gain in terms of le­gis­la­tion?”

Still, he places the “li­on’s share” of the blame on Re­pub­lic­ans for re­treat­ing from their big talk on en­ti­tle­ment re­form once they real­ized it would have a polit­ic­al cost among their own base, which in­cludes many eld­erly voters, jok­ing that this who­dunit could be called the “Texas Chained-CPI Mas­sacre.”

And Obama was right to pro­pose the change, the former ad­viser said, “be­cause there’s something between elec­tions called gov­ern­ing. And every once in a while, it be­hooves people in of­fice to par­ti­cip­ate in that.”

So who killed chained CPI? The Left? Re­pub­lic­ans? Obama? It seems it was an un­wit­ting con­spir­acy of all three. But while it’s now pretty clear that a grand bar­gain was doomed from the start, the Left did seem to suc­ceed in put­ting enough pres­sure on the White House that it felt com­pelled to form­ally dis­patch the So­cial Se­cur­ity fix when the time came.

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