Furlough Journal: Blaming the guilty

Welcome to the first full day of my unexpected fall vacation.

As a contractor for a federal agency I’m technically not on furlough right now during this partial government shutdown, like my civil service colleagues are, but we can’t use our government offices or any government equipment to do our work, and I’m just not feeling it about doing the work from home.  (Maybe tomorrow, while I wait for the guy to come to service the heater…I, too, have a spouse who has some ideas about the best use of my time!)

First of all, I got to sleep late, and that should never be underestimated as a means of improving your state of mind.  Then I got to read the papers (in print and online) rather than skimming through them.  Not surprisingly, at least in the mainstream press, there seems to be plenty of criticism for the extremist Republicans in Congress who are responsible for more than 800,000 government employees getting some unplanned, unpaid leave.  They constitute well less than one-half of the party that controls one half of one third of the government, and yet their temper tantrum over the Affordable Care Act—a fight they have lost in Congress, at the ballot box, and at the Supreme Court—has brought a good portion of the government to a halt.  On the other hand, it’s bought me extra time for golf, so…

Of particular interest this morning was The Washington Post, where the notoriously-conservative editorial board has finally gotten off the fence and stopped with the “there’s plenty of blame to go around” bull and identified the guilty party: “the Republican leaders of the House of Representatives are failing. They should fulfill their basic duties to the American people or make way for legislators who will.”

Republicans have shut much of the government in what they had to know was a doomed effort to derail the Affordable Care Act. That law, in case you’ve forgotten in the torrent of propaganda, is hardly revolutionary. It is an effort to extend health insurance to some of the 40 million or so people in this country who have none. It acts through the existing private-insurance market. Republicans tried to block its passage and failed; they hoped to have it declared unconstitutional and failed; and they did their best to toss Mr. Obama out of the White House after one term in order to strangle it in its cradle, and they failed again.

They’re entitled to keep trying, of course — though it would be nice if someday they remembered their promise to come up with an alternative proposal. But their methods now are beyond the pale.

After months of refusing to confer with the Senate on a budget proposal, they have demanded a conference committee to keep the government funded for six weeks. They are rejecting a budget extension that includes limits on federal spending — the so-called sequesterthat they insisted on [my emphasis; PR] and that Democrats oppose. In a particularly shabby piece of faux populism, their final proposal Monday night included a measure to deprive congressional aides, many of whom earn considerably less than the esteemed members, of the subsidy to purchase health insurance that employers routinely provide.

E.J. Dionne:

The issue here is not that Congress failed to reach a “compromise.” The Democrats already have compromised, lopping some $70 billion [this number has been updated from an earlier version] off their budget proposal, to the dismay of many liberals. That was meaningless to a tea party crowd that seems to care not a whit about the deficit, despite its fulsome talk. It will be satisfied only if Congress denies heath-care coverage to some 25 million Americans, which is what “repealing Obamacare” really means.

It needs to be said over and over as long as this stupid and artificial crisis brewed by the tea party continues: Financing the government in a normal way and avoiding a shutdown should not be seen as a “concession.” Making sure the government pays its debt is not a “concession.” It’s what we expect from a normal, well-functioning, constitutional system. It’s what we expect from responsible stewards of our great experiment. The extremists who have taken over the House do not believe in a normal, constitutional system. They believe only in power.

Even conservative Michael Gerson, who argues that the tea party elements refuse to accept reality:

We are no longer seeing a revolt against the Republican leadership, or even against the Republican “establishment”; this revolt is against anyone who accepts the constraints of political reality. Conservatives are excommunicated not for holding the wrong convictions but for rational calculations in service of those convictions.


This is reinforced by the development of an alternative establishment — including talk-radio personalities, a few vocal congressional leaders and organizations such as FreedomWorks and Heritage Action — that creates a self-reinforcing impression of its power to reshape politics (while lacking much real connection to the views of the broader electorate).


The problem for Republicans (as Democrats found in the 1970s and ’80s) is that factions are seldom deterred by defeat. Every loss is taken as proof of insufficient purity. Conservatives now face the ideological temptation: inviting an unpleasant political reality by refusing to inhabit political reality.

If he’s right, imagine what we’ll see just a few weeks from now when Congress comes up against another highly politicized decision: increase the nation’s debt limit or allow the possibility of government default on payments.  I don’t think I’ll be able to just take a vacation from that one.

It’s not as hard as I thought it would be to praise Congress for doing its job

The Senate took action first, agreeing on spending authorizations to keep the government operating until the end of the fiscal year; the House did the same the next day. Thing is, they both did what needed to be done more than a week before the drop-dead-line that would have seen the government start to shut down for lack of operating funds. How uncharacteristic of them.

In the past few years the American Congress has never missed an opportunity to run right up to the brink of any fiscal catastrophe; like the Road Runner being chased by Wile E. Coyote, it safely came to a screeching standstill in a cloud of dust just on the edge of the abyss (beep beep). To what do we owe this unusual display of fiscal responsibility? I don’t know, but I’d like to order another round.

It had become too easy and too predictable for the thousands and thousands of voices online and on air and in print to chastise House and Senate, Republican and Democrat, for failing/refusing to take care of business. I’d begun to think it was ultimately ineffective as well, but maybe–just maybe–there was still some shard of humanness left deep inside our elected representatives that was tired of being ridiculed and abused, that knew that the voices raised in criticism had a point. It’s not that I’m pleased with the details of the budget the government will operate under for the next six months, but that I’m pleased “the government” got off of its ass and made a decision with something less than the usual quotient of bluster and drama…the “sound and fury” that, as is often the case in our politics, signifies nothing.

So, good on ’em for what they done (there, I said it; are you happy?). And fine, let them go ahead and propose future budgets, have debates and secret meetings and public hearings and horse-trading and try to persuade us all of the virtue of their ideas; that’s the way we’re supposed to try to come to a consensus on public issues. Just because I don’t have the heart or the stomach for this circus right now doesn’t mean the rest of you should miss out on the fun.

As sequesters go, I thought this one was pretty smooth

Notwithstanding the dire warnings from everybody in Washington who said they didn’t want it to happen, but who let it happen anyway, the automatic budget cuts of the sequestration went into effect over the weekend.  No big deal?  Sure doesn’t seem like it, does it, at least not yet; but Slate has a good FAQs on this for those who want to keep an eye out for the signs of the apocalypse:

Can you start with the basics, like what the heck is the “sequester” and where did it come from?

In short, a sequester is a formal term for mandatory cuts to the federal budget. This particular sequester was originally created back in 2011 when lawmakers struck an eleventh-hour debt-ceiling compromise. In theory, the mere possibility of those cuts was supposed to ensure that Congress’s so-called supercommittee would have no other choice but to strike a deal to trim the federal budget by $1.5 trillion over the next decade. Notice we said in theory. In reality, the panel failed to live up to its super name, and so began the slow march toward today.


…a trillion dollars? That sounds like a lot.

It is, but it doesn’t happen all at once. The cuts are actually spread out over the next decade. This year’s sequester includes: $42.7 billion in defense cuts (or about an 8 percent reduction); $28.7 billion in domestic discretionary cuts (5 percent); $9.9 billion in Medicare cuts (2 percent); and about $4 billion in other mandatory cuts.


The cuts were created in 2011, they went into effect Friday, and the nation will begin to feel the impact in the days that follow. Exactly how soon, we don’t know. But we’ll feel them a little more in the coming weeks, and even more the following month. And even more the month after that. And so on, all the way to either 2021 or whenever Washington decides to replace it with something else.


The White House believes that the impact of the cuts over the next several weeks will bring Republicans back to the bargaining table on taxes. The GOP, meanwhile, says that’s not going to happen.

Man, this stuff manages to be both excruciatingly boring and kind of terrifying all at once.

True story. It also may become a little more of both in the coming weeks.

Wait, come again?

The next fight—there’s always a next fight in Washington—will occur over how to keep the federal government running for another year. The current stopgap bill that does that runs through March 27. If and when that expires, we’re looking at one-day-a-week furloughs multiplied by five, for pretty much the entire government. In other words: government shutdown.

Yes indeed: the same people, who more than a year and a half ago planted a booby trap to force themselves to do the right thing but still couldn’t get out of its way, are now less than four weeks away from another self-imposed drop dead date.  If they miss this deadline, the government’s spending authority runs out and the lights go out on almost everything.

What could possibly go wrong?

The only “real” reality show is just too depressing to watch

Americans today “are turned off and tuned out of the sequestration mess in Washington. To a person, they are sick of the antics of those to whom they have entrusted enormous power.”  So begins David Gergen in his column today, and I can’t find anything in his argument with which to disagree.

The clowns we elected to represent us in Washington—and in many many cases, re-elected…shame on us—have failed to take care of one of the most fundamental things we send them to Washington to do: set a budget for the operation of our government.  Actually, as Gergen correctly notes, they have failed to do that one thing for four years running—so far.  Back in the summer of 2011 they set a trap to force themselves to act, promising across the board budget cuts at the end of 2012 at such a severe level that it was inconceivable they wouldn’t act to stop them from going into effect; when they still couldn’t beat that deadline they passed a law giving themselves two more months to wrap it up.  Well, here we are, two months later, but this time there doesn’t even seem to be the possibility that they can get together to give themselves more time.  The ineptitude is astounding!

It’s not unusual to have the legislative and executive branches of government  disagree about taxes or spending or any other policy issue; historically, someone on one side or the other finds a way to force a resolution.  But as Gergen points out, “we have a rare moment when both Congress and the president are retreating from their responsibilities. It’s hard to recall a time when we were so leaderless.”  The Republicans and the Democrats, the president and Congress, everyone is busy running from microphone to microphone insisting that there’s nothing they can do about it.  And the whole argument has become so tiresome that even in the face of budget cuts that threaten basic services, things we can all pretty much agree that government should be taking care of, a lot of Americans are just yawning and looking the other way.  How many times can the boy cry “wolf” before the villagers ignore the call?

Let’s hope we haven’t thrown in the towel yet, because this sequestration circle jerk isn’t the end of the line: whether these cuts go into effect this Friday or not, there’s a potential government shutdown only four weeks down the road if there’s no agreement on new spending authorization.  If we don’t dig up some leadership somewhere, what’s been going around for the last few years is going to come around again and again and again.  No winners here, America, not if we aren’t willing to find a compromise that keeps the whole thing from crashing down on our heads.

What the hell just happened here?

For someone who didn’t just go over the fiscal cliff, I’m pretty disappointed with our House and Senate and president. Not surprised, but disappointed…if I can summarize out loud, to help organize my thoughts:

Our elected leaders were faced with some $600 billion worth of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts that might or might not have any real impact in reducing the government’s debt and deficit, but which arguably might push our struggling-to-recover national economy back into a recession; they set a deadline for themselves to act a year and a half ago; then they did nothing, waiting until after the national election to bother to talk about it among themselves so the nasty details of our national fiscal crisis wouldn’t intrude on an otherwise uplifting discussion of the issues of the day; and the best they could come up with—even after the deadline had passed anyway—was a bill that raises marginal income tax rates for some well-to-do folks but not for most of us and kicks the budget cuts can down the road again?! So it’ll have to be taken up at the same time as another increase to the debt ceiling—what could possibly go wrong?!?!

It’s a plan that a majority of Republicans in the House voted against, even though—since the Bush-era tax cuts had just expired at the end of 2012—they were, technically, voting against lowering the tax rate for the bottom 98% or so of Americans.  Because there weren’t enough spending cuts.  Or in this case, any.

Which Barack Obama were Republicans negotiating with—was it the same one that the Conservative Industrial Complex consistently criticizes for being too soft, too dumb to get a good deal for America?

I try to look on the bright side: at least they finally agreed on something, even if it was only that going over the fiscal cliff would be a bad thing. Hooray…take an honorable discharge out of petty cash. (Thanks, Hawkeye.)

(Heavy sigh.)