Furlough Journal: The end of an error

Uh, that’s it?

After more than two weeks of a partial government shutdown and right up to the brink of a government default on its bills, all forced by extremist Republicans trying to coerce Democrats and the president to give up their wins on health care reform, the Republicans waved the white flag.  Unable to come up with a plan that was agreeable even within the group of Republicans in the House, the House threw up its collective hands and punted, agreeing to approve a compromise originated in the Senate that funds the government and raises the debt ceiling—that is, it kicks this can down the road a few months.  And as far as the Affordable Care Act goes, this bill does not defund a damn thing but it does “strengthen income verification requirements for those who sign up for insurance under Obamacare.”  Well, isn’t that special.

The extremist Republicans got exactly none of what they claimed to have been after, the entire Republican Party has taken a black eye in public approval, 800,000 civil servants and an uncounted number of contractors who do not do “essential jobs” missed work and maybe paying some bills.  And what did I learn, back here in my little corner of the partial government shutdown?

  • I enjoy not going to the office, and going instead to the golf course
  • I don’t respond to a few consecutive days of exercise like I used to
  • Working from home on a short term basis is hard because there are too many potential distractions
  • I hate getting calls from telemarketers

Now I wait for instructions.  My contract management tells me and my colleagues we must wait until our contract gets official notification before we can step foot back at our government offices, and that hasn’t come yet, but the civil servants we work directly for are already calling 9:00 o’clock meetings for tomorrow morning.  That’s right: some things never change.

Furlough Journal: Lunatics, yes…fringe, not so much

Happy Columbus Day, which is the last day I can sit home doing nothing and still get paid during our partial government shutdown, now about to begin its third exciting week!  I used some of the time today on Twitter keeping up with developments in Washington as the Senate leaders took their turn at not only resolving the shutdown but avoiding a potential government default later this week when the debt ceiling is expected to be reached.  Good times.

The proximate cause of the shutdown that started October 1 was the inability of Congress to pass a law, known as a continuing resolution (CR), to keep all of the federal government departments and agencies fully funded and functioning; they pass a CR to extend funding at the prior year’s budget levels because they are totally incapable of passing a new budget—been that way for years now.  As noted at the time (Furlough Journal: Blaming the guilty, 10/2/2013) , this shutdown can be credited to the extremist Republican members of the House who were holding a gun to America’s head demanding concessions from the president on the Affordable Care Act.  Plenty of conservatives who oppose Obamacare were and are critical of the tea partiers for using this tactic at this time, for being oblivious to political reality.

Ah, but just what reality are we, or they, talking about?  You’ve probably seen more and more analysis that argues, if I may be so bold as to paraphrase, that the extremists aren’t interested in whatever “reality” the mainstream members and Congressional leadership are trying to protect and advance; they are out to do what they said they would do when they were elected—shrink the government and fight the good fight against liberals in general and Barack Obama in particular.  To the extent that they are trying to do what they promised they would do if elected and are fighting for a cause they believe in without compromising their principles, they should be applauded.  To the extent that their actions have consequences for their fellow citizens, they should take responsibility and must accept criticism.

Among the chattering classes there’s lately been a lot of effort put into trying to explain the beliefs and the motives and the actions of these extremists, to find an historical precedent for this kind of obstructionism, to give the average American a frame of reference.  To my surprise, a lot of writers are going back to the pre-Civil War South to find one!

Late last month (At this point in the discussion there is really only one question left, 9/30/2013) I wrote about a James Fallows piece in The Atlantic in which he argued that this fight is entirely within the Republican Party and that there’s nothing anyone else can say that will persuade, likening it to “the inability of Northern/free-state opinion to affect the debate within the slave-state South from the 1840s onward.”  More recently I’ve found a few making the argument that today’s tea party extremists are philosophically aligned with John C. Calhoun and the nullifiers before the Civil War.  Frank Rich in New York Magazine this weekend is just the latest:

The present-day anti-government radicals in Congress, and the Americans who voted them into office, are in the minority, but they are a permanent minority that periodically disrupts or commandeers a branch or two of the federal government, not to mention the nation’s statehouses. Their brethren have been around for much of our history in one party or another, and with a constant anti-­democratic aim: to thwart the legitimacy of a duly elected leader they abhor, from Lincoln to FDR to Clinton to Obama, and to resist any laws with which they disagree.


At the heart of the current rebels’ ideology is the anti-Washington credo of nullification, codified by the South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun in the 1830s and rarely lacking for avid followers ever since. Our inability to accept the anti-government right’s persistence is in part an astonishing case of denial.


For Republicans to claim that this cabal of 80 legislators represents a mutant strain—“a small segment who dictate to the rest of the party,” in the words of a prominent GOP fund-raiser, Bobbie Kilberg—is disingenuous or delusional. (Kilberg herself has raised money for Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor.) This “small segment” accounts for a third of the 232 members of the House Republican caucus. Lunatics they may be, but the size of their cohort can’t be minimized as a fringe in the context of the wider GOP. And they wield disproportionate clout because the party’s so-called moderates let them—whether out of fear of primary challenges from the right, opportunism, or shared convictions that are not actually moderate at all.


…1994 marked the culmination of the migration of the old Confederacy from the Democratic Party to the GOP. That shift had started in 1964, when Barry Goldwater pried away states from the old solid Democratic South with his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and it accelerated with the advent of Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” of pandering to racists at the end of that decade. But for an interim quarter-century after that, the old Dixiecrats were dispersed in both major parties, rather than coalescing in one. The 1994 election was the first since Reconstruction in which the majority of the old South’s congressional representation went into the Republican column.

Rich goes on to make some thoughtful points; it’s worth your time.  So is Charles C.W. Cooke’s de facto rebuttal in the National Review.  Cooke is an opponent of Obamacare who has sharply criticized the extremists for marching into this battle with no plan for how to win, but he’s not ready to cede the nullification argument, pointing out that the Constitution itself separates power in our federal government and no one should be surprised when they are disagreements among people trying to wield power:

To understand the American system is to grasp that our current impasse is by no means exceptional, and, in consequence, that there is little point in wasting time looking around for bogeymen or ghosts when the culprit is there in plain sight. If you want to blame someone for our problems, it should be James Madison, not John Calhoun.


Some progressives like simplistically to claim that America’s two parties “switched places” in 1964 — a trade leading to the predominance of racist white southerners in the GOP eager to burn down the government to get what they wanted. If so, then one has to wonder why the vast majority of funding gaps occurred at the insistence of the good guys in what, by the time the first such gap came along in 1976, was allegedly the New Democratic party.


…if staunch congressional opposition, government shutdowns, and high-profile debt-limit fights are now to be cast as examples of nullification, then Congress has evidently tried to nullify not only the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but also those of Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush.


My suspicion is that, as much as anything else, “nullification” is a word that is used consciously and deliberately as a cudgel — especially at the moment, when we have a president who is black. Accusing someone in America of seeking to “nullify” a given power is rhetorically akin to sticking the label “defenders of states’ rights” onto advocates of robust federalism. The accusers do not simply intend to imply that their opponents’ actions are illegal or illegitimate; they mean to taint them with the racism brush…

This is an interesting discussion to be having right now, and it keeps our minds off the latest news about the National Security Agency copying your email contacts list while we twiddle our thumbs and wait for our elected members of Congress to do their damn jobs.

Furlough Journal: We don’t negotiate with terrorists

There has been a small amount of entertainment value so far from the “partial government shutdown,” and I don’t just mean the fun I’ve had during the time away from the office.  On top of watching my bosses devise legitimate projects we can all work on outside of our government-provided offices and away from our government-provided equipment so no one will miss a check or a part of one, and taking care of my own projects both at home and on the driving range, I’ve had time to consider the silliness that our members of Congress have been reduced to while simultaneously trying to end the “crisis” they created and make sure they won’t be blamed for it once it’s over.

Today, after a failed series of attempts to pass laws to fund small slivers of government operations which proponents argued “everyone was for,” the House passed a bill to guarantee that furloughed workers will get full back pay for the furlough period, whenever it finally ends.  The Senate and the president have also expressed sympathy for the poor, innocent government workers who could be facing serious financial trouble if they start missing paychecks as a result of a standoff that they had no part in starting (or ending, apparently).  But this approach raises an interesting point.

…even as Congress and the White House rallied around the bill, one outside group said it “demonstrates the stupidity of the shutdown.”

Making the shutdown less painful for 800,000 federal employees will encourage Congress and the White House to extend it even longer, driving up the cost, said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Ellis said “essential” federal workers who stayed on the job “will feel like suckers because they’ve been working while the others essentially are getting paid vacations.”

Whatever the negative effects of this partial government shutdown are, all of the victims are innocent ones.  Those responsible for the shutdown weren’t aiming at World War II veterans and their memorial in Washington any more than they meant to harm children or poor people or the space program or home loans or anything else.  Regrettably, they don’t care about any of that, because they are hysterically blind to everything but their true goal: the only target of the intransigence on the part of the extremist Republicans in the House is President Obama.  They want to prevent him from implementing his plans, and they don’t care that he’s already won on the health care reform issue three times: in Congress when it was approved, by the people when he was re-elected, and at the Supreme Court when the law was ruled to be constitutional.

One important difference about this Washington pissing contest as compared to those of the past few years (remember “the fiscal cliff”?) is that Democrats are not taking the bait: so far they haven’t given in to any urge to negotiate with the terrorists, and they should be commended for that.  As Dave Weigel reports in Slate, the Democrats have learned a few things lately about how to hold the line.

“Dealing with terrorists has taught us some things,” said Washington Rep. Jim McDermott after voting no on one of Thursday’s GOP bills. “You can’t deal with ’em. This mess was created by the Republicans for one purpose, and they lost. People in my district are calling in for Obamacare—affordable health care—in large numbers. These guys have lost, and they can’t figure out how to admit it.” Why would House Democrats give away what the Supreme Court and the 2012 electorate didn’t? “You can’t say, OK, you get half of Obamacare—this isn’t a Solomonic decision,” McDermott said. “So we sit here until they figure out they fuckin’ lost.”

UPDATE OCT. 6: But Pat, some may say, surely this whole partial government shutdown thingy isn’t as simple as just the conservatives still fighting with the president, there must be more to it than that.  No, there isn’t: they’ve been planning a government shutdown aimed at Obamacare for months and months, and this morning The New York Times laid it all out, including quotes from the proud perpetrators:

To many Americans, the shutdown came out of nowhere. But interviews with a wide array of conservatives show that the confrontation that precipitated the crisis was the outgrowth of a long-running effort to undo the law, the Affordable Care Act, since its passage in 2010 — waged by a galaxy of conservative groups with more money, organized tactics and interconnections than is commonly known.


The current budget brinkmanship is just the latest development in a well-financed, broad-based assault on the health law, Mr. Obama’s signature legislative initiative. Groups like Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks are all immersed in the fight, as is Club for Growth, a business-backed nonprofit organization. Some, like Generation Opportunity and Young Americans for Liberty, both aimed at young adults, are upstarts. Heritage Action is new, too, founded in 2010 to advance the policy prescriptions of its sister group, the Heritage Foundation.


On Capitol Hill, the advocates found willing partners in Tea Party conservatives, who have repeatedly threatened to shut down the government if they do not get their way on spending issues. This time they said they were so alarmed by the health law that they were willing to risk a shutdown over it.


In the three years since Mr. Obama signed the health measure, Tea Party-inspired groups have mobilized, aided by a financing network that continues to grow, both in its complexity and the sheer amount of money that flows through it.       

A review of tax records, campaign finance reports and corporate filings shows that hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised and spent since 2012 by organizations, many of them loosely connected, leading opposition to the measure.

The story is full of details about the groups and people behind the effort, and the enormous sums of money they’re spending to stick it to the president.  Check it out for yourself.

Furlough Journal: Finding the past in the present

The “partial government shutdown” means I’m at home this week with time to kill; yesterday I had planned to play golf but it rained…a lot.  (Today it rained again; hey, aren’t we in a drought?)  So, I finished off the last two issues of Golf magazine, which I had allowed to lapse, and then organized the more than two and a half years of back issues of Texas Monthly that I’ve been ignoring since…well, since March of 2011, our state’s 175th birthday.  Texas Independence Day, March 2, 1836; while the siege at the Alamo neared its end, 59 Texans gathered at Washington-on-the-Brazos and declared Texas a nation independent of Mexico.

The cover story in “The Terquasquicentennial Issue” is a tour of 175 historic events and places in Texas history.  From 113 million year old dinosaur fossils west of Glen Rose (#1) to the invention of the integrated circuit (#23) and the frozen margarita machine (#22), both in Dallas (dammit), to the sites of infamous murders (#4, #7, #15, #34, #46, #62)  and great literature (#29, #81) and the first Dr Pepper (#145) and important sports milestones (#10, #18,  #53), the list is a great read for Texans and, I think , at least amusing for non-Texans.  But #31 made me stop and think: the first Confederate monument in Texas, erected in 1896 and still there today on the grounds of the Grayson County Courthouse in Sherman, in north Texas.

I’ve lived in Texas for more than 45 years, and I’ve seen plenty of monuments to Confederate war dead, including some pretty impressive ones on the grounds of the state capital; I never gave much thought to any of them.  Even when I considered the probable impropriety of praise for the losers in a civil war, I reconciled it to myself with the thought that it was a memorial placed by good-hearted people to honor lost brothers.

But the wording on this memorial got me thinking (emphasis mine):

“Sacred to the memory of our Confederate dead, true patriots, they fought for home and country, for the holy principles of self government—the only true liberty. Their sublime self sacrifices and unsurpassed valor will teach future generations the lesson of high born patriotism, of devotion to duty, of exalted courage, of Southern chivalry.”  “Fighting for the preservation of family, homeland and rights is never a lost cause. So great the valor, so supreme the sacrifice, so red the rose . . .”

Maybe it’s just me, but all I can hear in my head as I read that is the echoes of today’s far right.  The invocation of traditions of faith and righteousness are the buzzwords of today’s extreme conservative political machine; the people who claim to love and cherish the U.S. Constitution and the laws of this country, and who are fighting the good fight to take their country back (from whomever), are using the same language as people who supported and honored the traitors who took up arms against the United States of America, who claimed the backing of the Almighty in a fight to defend the practice of human slavery.  Today, conservatives impugn their political enemies for an alleged lack of patriotism using the same language that was used to exalt traitors to this country.

Do many of the extremist Republicans who are responsible for today’s standoff in the current fight over “family, homeland and rights” look to those rebels as examples of “high born patriotism” and “devotion to duty”?  Do any?  It makes me wonder.

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.