Oh, would you look at what those crazy Americans have done now‏

Finding a new angle for a story is one good way to shed light on an event so a reader can see aspects that have been obscured by the shadows of unfamiliarity, ignorance or prejudice.  Today in Slate they wrote up the Senate’s filibuster-ending vote in the style of U.S. journalists when they are writing about other countries around the world; imagine just how stupid we may look to others:

WASHINGTON, United States—In what analysts are calling a landmark step on the country’s path toward representative democracy, the U.S. government agreed today to allow most appointments to high offices to be approved by a majority vote. However, opposition lawmakers are crying foul, arguing that the change will allow the country’s embattled leader to seize more power.

And, if you enjoy the opportunity to see a politician talk out of both sides of his mouth, here’s your chance: in 2005, Senator Barack Obama explains why the Republican majority in the Senate of the time should not tamper with the filibuster rule, precisely the thing the Democratic majority did today.

Obama 2005

I know we can make the arguments for and against this change to Senate rules; personally, I think protecting the rights of the minority from the tyrannical majority is a good thing, but I also think that the minority should have to actually take the floor and keep speaking in order to block action on appointments or legislation, not just threaten to do so.  But I hope we could look at ourselves honestly—all of us as a group, not just our political opponents—and see the ridiculous state that we’ve reached in our politics.

The fault is not in our stars

Congress is back in Washington—a warning that reminds me of the comment many years ago by then-mayor Jeff Friedman of Austin, Texas, who, when asked for his thoughts about the fact that the state legislature was coming back to town soon, said “Lock up the kids and dogs.”

The legislative branch and the president are back in town, in theory, to deal with the prospect of more than $600 billion worth of budget cuts and tax increases scheduled to go into effect next week. They’re not making much progress, as you might imagine.

Remember, the “fiscal cliff” is a threat the legislative and executive branches imposed on themselves a year and a half ago. To resolve an impasse over extending the debt ceiling so the government could continue to borrow money and pay its bills, our “leaders” set this time bomb of higher taxes and cuts to federal programs to force themselves to come to agreements on taxes and spending and debt ceilings before the “unthinkable” happened. Well, now we’re on the doorstep of the unthinkable, and look what they’re doing. (By the way, the Treasury department says we’re going to hit the debt ceiling next week!)

Perhaps more annoying than our elected leaders’ inability to govern—for that is what it really comes down to, their inability to do what they were sent there to do—is the realization that the focus on the fiscal cliff isn’t what’s really important anyway. Not to say that higher taxes and program cuts don’t matter, but that the real cause of the government’s economic problems—spending more than we take in—still isn’t being addressed.

The fiscal cliff was a crisis of Congress’ own making, brought on by its inability to address many of the same problems last year. The bigger problem, which lawmakers aren’t addressing, is the lack of sustainable fiscal policy.

We are in this mess in part because for decades leaders from both parties have been reading from the same economic playbook. They haggle over the small change while trying to convince Americans that it will make a profound difference in the country’s finances.

Houston Chronicle business columnist Loren Steffy recently offered another on-target analysis that reminds us the real problem isn’t the fiscal cliff, it’s the historic lack of honesty on the part of the political parties.

The budget battle playing out in Washington is nothing more than a giant national temper tantrum. Since 2001, we have been on a spending jag that has ballooned well beyond the costs of inflation and population growth. We’ve funded wars and prescription drug plans, bailed out banks and automakers and stimulated the economy. These programs have spanned both parties’ control of the White House and Congress.

At the same time, we’ve cut taxes. We now have the lowest average tax rate in about 30 years, yet many still complain taxes are too high and protest any threats to cut or curtail entitlement programs.

For more than a decade, we have demanded more while expecting to pay less. No one wants to admit the party’s over.

But they do want to admit—they’re desperate to admit—that the other party is causing the problem. As for the immediate issue, after the House speaker and the president couldn’t come up with a deal last week John Boehner has insisted that the Senate must come up with a plan and then the House will consider it, while the Democratic leadership in the Senate “stands strong” insisting that the House approve a measure it’s already turned down…or else.  (Or else what?) And just while I’ve been writing this, CNN reported that President Obama is about to make a new offer, until it reported that he won’t.

As disheartening as it is to see our national leadership apparently incapable of acting in the nation’s best interests, the situation becomes damn near depressing when you recognize who is really to blame: it’s us. You; me; them; those guys over there, too—we are responsible for the evolution of a system in which ideological extremists representing the view of a minority of citizens are able to reach positions of national power, and we are responsible for not holding our leaders to account for not putting national interests first, and we are responsible for taking more and more from our government but not being willing to pay for what we take.

The solution to our government’s economic problems won’t come out of Congress this week or next; it won’t come from refusing to reduce spending on government programs (which, frankly, no one is doing), nor from refusing to raise taxes and threatening to hold one’s breath until one turns blue (which, candidly, more than one are doing). It will come, when it comes, with the realization by Americans that America can’t keep putting its everyday expenses on a credit card and only make the minimum payments indefinitely and still expect to remain fiscally healthy.  It doesn’t work like that, and we have the national debt and the federal budget deficit to prove it.

Just shut up and let me do the talking

It’s about damn time that the public reports about the private negotiations on the federal budget had some good news: Speaker Boehner and President Obama have gotten everyone else to leave the room!

Since the election last month there’s been plenty of balloon juice about how to avoid running the federal budget over a “fiscal cliff,” which is just an agreement made last year between Congress and the administration on a set of tax increases and budget cuts that would go into effect at the first of next year unless they took some other action on taxes and spending by that deadline. Remember when they said that Washington had “kicked the can down the road?” Well, this is where that can stopped; it was kicked to here so the issue wouldn’t inconveniently get noticed while America was paying attention during the fall election campaigns.

You’d like to think that there would have been some effort underway all along during the past year and a half to find a compromise on ways to strengthen the economy and reduce the government’s budget deficit, but to all appearances there wasn’t. The people we elected to go to Washington to use their judgment and wisdom in the best interests of our communities and our states and our country couldn’t climb down off their talking points long enough to get anything constructive accomplished. They could, however, make a lot of noise about the virtuousness of their own moral and political philosophies, and by extension if not by direct accusation the seditious intentions of their “friends across the aisle.” Perfect way to prepare the ground for fruitful negotiation over disagreements, right?

You don’t have to be a political scientist to know that any honest effort to come to a compromise on a course of action regarding a disputed issue isn’t aided by (1) having too many negotiators at the table, and (2) conducting the negotiations in public. The more people that are involved, the harder it is to get everyone to agree on anything. And the more the people who are involved do their talking in public and make great political show of what they will and will not accept, the harder they make it on themselves to come to a compromise without seeming to lose face in public or run the risk of being bashed as surrender monkeys or traitors to some cause or other. So it seems to me to be a thoroughly sensible decision that Boehner has asked the Senate leaders and the House Democratic leader to step back, and that “White House aides and the speaker’s staff, by mutual agreement, have largely shut down public communication about the talks” in the hope that some real progress can be made.

Now for the entertainment portion of today’s post: since I’m not one to overlook an opportunity to point out stupidity where it exists, I should highlight this. The Times story notes that as the president reaffirmed his position that the tax rate on incomes above $250,000 must go up…

On Capitol Hill, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, moved Thursday to vote on Mr. Obama’s proposal, in his broader deficit package, to permanently diminish Congress’s control over the federal government’s statutory borrowing limit, assuming that Democrats would break ranks and embarrass the president. Instead, Democratic leaders did a count, found they had 51 solid votes, and took Mr. McConnell up on what Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, called “a positive development.”

Mr. McConnell then filibustered his own bill, objecting to a simple-majority vote and saying a change of such magnitude requires the assent of 60 senators.

“I do believe we made history on the Senate floor today,” Mr. [Richard] Durbin said.

History indeed: had to filibuster his own bill to keep it from being passed! I’m thinking that Ashley Judd might be just the thing the U.S. Senate and the people of Kentucky need.

Demand more

I’ve been trying like hell to ignore the presidential campaigns, and with a good deal of success: mostly, because I cannot conceive of what a life without respite from politics would be like, no matter how important the office or how laudable the candidate; and, because the modern campaign is so completely full of crap that my intelligence cannot put up with the constant insults.  C’mon, really—there’s no good reason for nearly-continuous presidential campaigns, unless it’s to occupy the attention of the leaches who feed on the blood that runs those campaigns and prevent them from bothering decent people in the off years.

To the second point, I refer you to a column I ran across today at CNN.com that makes the point that we, the vast unseen unwashed American voting public, deserve better campaigns than the ones we get.  David Rothkopf uses the current flap over Harry Reid’s unsubstantiated accusations about Mitt Romney’s tax payments to make his point:

But of course, this is one dust-up that will never end. Because in modern politics it seems the goal is to constantly find ways to smear the opposition, facts and decency be damned. That’s the reason the birther lie endures. That’s the reason that John Kerry, whose military service was distinguished, could be besmirched by the “swift boaters” and a host of political opponents who hadn’t anything like his record of service. And because both sides do it to one another, it is considered to be fair play.

Rothkopf points out a few examples of the bipartisan hypocrisy attendant to campaigns today, and to be candid they are nothing that most people haven’t shaken their heads about before.  But he does something better, more constructive, in offering specific reminders about the things that are not getting proper attention amidst the quadrennial Great American Pie Fight.

America is facing unprecedented challenges. Our economy doesn’t work the way it once did. It is growing more slowly. It is rebounding from crisis more slowly. It is not creating jobs as it has. It is not creating wealth for the population at large the way it used to. Inequality is growing. Our competitiveness is faltering even as competition is growing.

(Wait for it, conservative extremists…he’s making a point here about the things that we “exceptional” Americans can do.)

A new energy mix can free us of dependency on dangerous nations, create jobs and a cleaner environment at home. Our economy is well poised to lead a “Third Industrial Revolution,” driven by high value-added manufacturing in which intellectual capital, the kind we create especially well, is the critical input. We protect that capital better than many of our competitors, too.

We’re in a position to remake our infrastructure, as must be done thanks to very low interest rates, if only we could come to understand the difference between spending and investing. We need to rethink our convoluted tax structure, our broken fiscal system, our corrupt campaign finance system and the way we defend ourselves and project our force worldwide. It is beyond arguing that we need to do something about gun control in this country.

Rothkopf’s lament is that we should be debating these question, not the minutiae that passes for “issues” these days, and I agree.  These are the kinds of things that Americans used to have serious discussions about, used to reason together about and find solutions for, solutions that benefitted society as a whole.  It can be that way again if we really want it to be…if we’ve got the courage and the attention span to make it happen.  Now is as good a time as any to start work on that.

Take your seats, please, the curtain’s going up for the Big Finish

Since we last checked in with our heroes: Speaker Boehner, faced with his own proposal going down to defeat in the chamber he (ostensibly) leads, capitulated—he added a balanced budget provision to his plan for lowering government spending, reducing debt and raising the federal debt ceiling, to placate enough members to get the bill passed.  It worked; and as expected, and warned, the Senate rejected the plan; now Majority Leader Reid is trying to persuade Senate Republicans to let his plan come to a vote. [UPDATE 3:03 pm: The House rejected Reid’s plan before the Senate had a chance to vote on it.]

The Wall Street Journal editorial page wants Republicans to accept a plan now, and claim a victory, even if it’s one that doesn’t solve all the nation’s economic problems once and for ever.  (Why didn’t I think of that?)  An economy struggling to recover from recession doesn’t need the government to suddenly stop making some of its payments—and you can take comfort in knowing, there is a plan for who gets paid first in the event the debt ceiling is not raised by the deadline next Tuesday…the bureaucratic imperative prevails.

I still choose to believe that Congress may bring us to the edge of default but reason will prevail and the debt ceiling will be raised to prevent a default…that puts me in the company of an American conservative icon:


Thanks to David Horsey, seattlepi.com and Hearst Newspapers…click the cartoon to read Horsey’s commentary:

If it were not for their powerful recklessness, I would simply get a good laugh out of the alarmists on the right who see socialism in any tilt toward moderation in our politics.


To ensure that his country does not follow Greece into a bottomless hole of debt, Tory Prime Minister David Cameron has implemented a budget balancing formula of three-to-one – that is, three parts spending cuts to one part revenue increases. These austerity measures have, not surprisingly, provoked rioting among leftists and students. Nobody in Europe would be silly enough to call this socialism.

Yet, when President Barack Obama proposes the same formula to rein in the debt in the United States, a mental riot goes off in the heads of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, the House Republican Caucus, the Tea Party and all the others who are somehow convinced Obama wants to turn America into Sweden.

Consumed by their fear of phantom socialists, these folks see politics in stark, black-and-white terms. If you are not with ’em, you’re agin’ ’em  and even the most staunch conservative risks charges of treason if he shows a willingness to bargain with the other side.


Like ultra-conservatives of past decades, today’s reactionaries have scared themselves silly by demonizing their opponents: every liberal hates America, every Democrat is a socialist, every moderate is a dupe, every compromise is a pact with the devil. What is new is that this mindset now dominates the majority caucus in the United States House of Representatives. And because of that, there very well could be no deal to raise the debt ceiling, unless the president and the Senate choose to grant the militants everything they want.


…to confuse the centrist economic policies of Barack Obama with socialism is as absurd as calling a conservative like Tom Coburn a RINO – Republican In Name Only. As clean cut, moral and upstanding as my fellow citizens on the right may be, I have to say they have become unhinged from economic and political reality and, in their delusion, they are about to take us all over a cliff.

In a Newsweek interview, Tom Coburn, a guy I disagree with about most things, summed it up frightening well:

“We’ve never been in this territory before. I mean, if we handle this wrong, we’re near the end of our republic as we know it.”