Furlough Journal: Not with a bang, but a whimper

A few unexpected days off from work means…time on the golf course, of course, and yesterday I had finally gotten past practice time and was enjoying my first round of golf in a month.  Between the 11th green and the 12th tee I got a text message from someone at work with the news bulletin that the president had agreed to end the partial government shutdown for three weeks.  Enjoy these last seven holes, pal.

I’ve got to say that the first thing that came to my mind was to assume a less-than-altruistic motive on the president’s part.  Rather than his finally recognizing the unnecessary hardship he had visited upon hundreds of thousands of civil servants and government contractors and making the decision to release the hostages while negotiating for his border wall, I was ready to bet that we’d find out Mr. Trump had said something on the order of, “OK, now I’ve opened the government so I’m on TV on Tuesday with the State of the Union, right?”  That might still turn out to be the determining factor…right along with the inconvenience of restricting air traffic in New York because of a shortage of air traffic controllers, or any one of a list of calls from people within government to end the madness, to the growing embarrassment caused by members of the administration showing off their unimagined levels of lack of understanding of what it’s like to be non-rich and miss a paycheck.  Or two.

In any case, I’ve received official word from my boss that we’re to return to work Monday at the regular time.  The deal in Washington is just for three weeks to allow negotiation on border security, and provides back pay for the civil servants who have missed two paychecks (so far)…compensation to the companies holding contracts with the government which didn’t get promised payments will apparently have to come in subsequent legislation, if it comes at all.  It seems to me that the president is setting the stage to declare a national emergency three weeks from now if an agreeable compromise is not reached, rather than closing the government again at that juncture.   (Just wondering, how can we reasonably call the situation at the border now an “emergency” if we’ve waited the last five weeks, and perhaps three more weeks to come, to declare it so?)  We’ll see what happens.

JPEG imageA few things I’ve learned during this “vacation”: the phone at our house never stops ringing all day; my beard is greyer than it was;

and my new iPad can do tricks!

JPEG image 2JPEG image 5JPEG image 4JPEG image 3

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Furlough Journal: The good, the bad, and the stupid

Surely this is happening all around the country, as we’re in the fifth week of a totally avoidable shutdown of parts of our federal government.  (Including the part that employs me.)  But I know it’s happening here in Houston, because this morning Houston’s Leading Information Source tells me it is.  Of the 800,000 or so federal employees who are out on furlough and learning to do without paychecks—because, essentially, a girl on Fox News challenged the manhood of our tiny-fingered president and that led him to renege on his commitment to sign a bill funding the government—more than 200,000 of them are in Texas and 30,000 of those in the Houston area.  It’s heartening to read about the local businesses taking action to help neighbors and customers who are strapped for cash.

There are restaurants offering free meals to federal employees; pharmacies charging discounted prices on prescriptions; banks waiving late fees or allowing customers to miss a payment with no penalty; a credit union offering interest-free loans to furloughed workers to cover their missing paychecks; phone and internet companies and utilities offering payment plans.  I’m keeping a list of these good neighbors so I can patronize them in the future, and maybe take them up on their offers if I have to as we wait to see where this unprecedented national hostage-taking leads us.

In the meantime, what’s being done to end this nasty situation and get us back to our normal routine of overeating and underexercising, staring blankly at cat videos, and worrying about whether our favorite social media influencers are getting enough online attention?  Well, after more than a month of not even talking about a single damn thing that the president hadn’t already said he would agree with (BTW, why should that be a concern with a president who never keeps his word?), the leadership in the Unites States Senate plans to take a couple of votes it already believes are doomed to failure.  But at least they’re trying, right?  Because that’s what a co-equal branch of government charged by the Constitution with providing checks and balances on the other branches of government is supposed to do, not act like it has no authority or free will or good judgment of its own and shout over and over again “Thank you, sir, may I have another?”.

The White House appears to have come to a complete and safe stop about any and all other issues—except for the president’s yes-I-will-oh-no-you-won’t fight with the House speaker over a State of the Union speech next week, and the president’s laughable “threats” to the family of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen that have given Cohen a laughable excuse to cancel his scheduled testimony on Capitol Hill about…what was it again?  Oh, yeah, about his financial crimes and possibly the campaign finance law violations in which he implicated his former boss.  Good times.

But there is some targeted action in the Senate intended to keep this jackassery from happening again in the future, and for that I am very glad if not downright giddy:

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Furlough Journal: Once more into the breach

It never would have occurred to me when this partial government shutdown started more than four weeks ago that it would still be going on today, the day that it turns out is the day before I start on furlough myself because of the inaction of my government representatives obstinacy of my president.  (Lookie there, me being nice to Mr. Trump; let’s see if it lasts.)  Truth is, what really never would have occurred to me was that he would be the president.  Of the United States.  Of America.  Unless maybe it was bizarro America.

Nope, not even then.

I’ve worked as a contractor for NASA at the Johnson Space Center since the summer of 1995, just a few months before the Gingrich Shutdown that had been the longest shutdown in history until last week.  The only other serious shutdown in my experience was the one in October 2013, which sent us all home for a couple of weeks; we were allowed to do things related to our regular jobs, but we were not allowed to work in the office.  I started the Furlough Journal then and found it therapeutic for a guy forced to sit home on an unexpected vacation…yes, I was allowed to use my accrued vacation so I didn’t miss a paycheck.

When this PGS began my civil servant colleagues were sent home without pay and that’s where they’ve remained, except for a few who had permission to come in to do important work for which they would not be paid.  (Until, hopefully, they are reimbursed after the shutdown ends…which would be good for them, but doesn’t help them now with no income to spend on the little extras that make life worth living, like food, and rent, and electricity.)  At that point our contract had already received periodic funding in advance, so we were allowed to continue to do our regular work in our offices so long as it didn’t require a civil servant to participate.

Late last week the bosses gathered us all to let us know the advance funding was about to run out and our furlough was about to begin.  Since I don’t usually work weekends, and today was a funded holiday, tomorrow feels like the first day of furlough for me.  But my company is allowing us to use accrued vacation to keep getting paid, at least for a couple of weeks.  After that, we’ll see.

Let’s give the president a little credit here. After a full four weeks of government shutdown that was caused by him changing his mind and refusing to sign a funding extension passed by the Senate which he had promised to sign (and which the House has subsequently also approved) he made a counteroffer last weekend which Democrats have not embraced (shall we say).  I think “a little” is about as much credit as he should expect for offering to give back something he took away in the first place and which he isn’t now promising to return permanently, in exchange for a down payment on a wall that he promised us Mexico would be paying for anyway but which it says it won’t, and who can blame them.  I think we should also note that the president has proven over and over again that we should never take him at his word, about anything, which of course makes it harder to negotiate a deal and surely says it wouldn’t be smart to agree to the first thing he offers.

(Is the therapeutic-ness kicking in yet?  Keep keyboarding.)

I want the government shutdown to end as soon as possible, for myself and the hundreds of thousands of people who do work that makes our country run…no doubt you’ve got examples of your own of things that aren’t happening because of the shutdown, or have read stories filled with those particulars.  Our representatives in Washington can do their jobs and negotiate about a border wall while the people who process tax returns and staff the national parks and control our air traffic and advance our exploration of space get paid for doing their jobs.  I have confidence that Congress can find a deal that will allow all sides to claim a little victory, maybe even agree to build more border barrier.

But don’t you dare cave in to this crazy man.  If Congress gives Trump this border money, in this way, you and I both know that the next time he doesn’t get something he wants he’ll take hostages again.  We don’t negotiate with terrorists.  And we’re not afraid of bullies.

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The post that wasn’t because of the news that is

At first I had great plans for a post called “Fecklessness, thy name is Mitch McConnell” in which I would elegantly make the simple point that Republicans in the U.S. Senate are refusing their constitutional duty to be a check and/or balance on the president of the United States.  The Senate that last month unanimously passed a bill to fund the government while the president was on record promising to sign such a bill should not now be refusing to even consider passing the same bill because the president has said he won’t sign it.  (This is, of course, precisely what is happening.)  The job of the Senate is not to pass only those bills which the president has indicated with a wave of his hand that he will deign to accept.  If you think the bill deserves passage, as you did a few weeks ago, pass it; if the president vetoes it, override the damn veto if you can.  (Hint: you can.)  Mitch, it’s not your fault that the president’s word can’t be trusted (about anything), or that he went back on his promise because a couple of women on Fox News effectively called him a thing that can be grabbed by stars without the stars even asking permission, which they did because he hasn’t made good on his campaign promise to build a wall on our country’s southern border, even when his party controlled the House and the Senate and the White House.  It is your fault if you keep deferring to the president and the leader of your political party when you know full well he’s a lying hypocrite who not only doesn’t have the best interests of this country at heart but is using his office for personal enrichment.  And maybe working for the Russians.

It’s that working-for-the-Russians part that made me change my mind about what to write about, because—did you see this in the New York Times:

In the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president’s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests, according to former law enforcement officials and others familiar with the investigation.

The inquiry carried explosive implications. Counterintelligence investigators had to consider whether the president’s own actions constituted a possible threat to national security. Agents also sought to determine whether Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence.

That’s the same president who’s now in the fourth week of a Fox News-inspired temper tantrum over funding of his request for more than $5 billion to support construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to fight illegal immigration, which has caused a portion of the federal government to suspend operations and more than three-quarters of a million federal employees to miss their paychecks, and who has reportedly thought about seizing federal funds allocated for Hurricane Harvey recovery and future flood control efforts in the Gulf Coast region of Texas but not yet committed to specific projects and spending it on border wall construction under a theorized declaration of national emergency.  But this is even more outrageous, I think.

I’ll offer two of the many analyses of the Times story floating around out there today.  First, in The Hill Jonathan Turley suggests “this is likely the only time in history that the FBI has investigated whether a sitting president was either a knowing or unknowing agent of a foreign power” and in the next breath wonders if this investigation explains everything away innocently: “What if there were no collusion or conspiracy but simple cognitive bias on both sides, where the actions of one seemed to confirm precisely the suspicions of the other?”  Seems unlikely, but it’s an interesting read.

Even more so is this one in Esquire by Charles P. Pierce, who everyone should be reading anyway all the time just because.  He thinks that one word in the story is a clue left by the Times reporters that today’s bombshell isn’t the end of the story.

The word is tucked into a sentence that, at first glance, seems to be a perfectly anodyne statement of the current facts. Indeed, it’s tucked into a sentence that would be an unremarkable bit of knee-jerk newspaper balance if this explosive charge of a word weren’t placed right the in the middle of it. That word is “publicly,” as in: No evidence has emerged publicly that Mr. Trump was secretly in contact with or took direction from Russian government officials.

(snip)

This is not a word chosen idly, not in a piece as judiciously written as this one. Clearly, the Times printed pretty much all it was given by its sources, but the implication of that “publicly” is that investigators likely know far more than what appeared in the newspaper.

More to come?  Yeah, I bet there is.

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Hey America—Russia attacked you, why don’t you care?

If we can put aside, for a moment, the question of Trump campaign cooperation with agents of or working for the government of Russia to interfere in the U.S. presidential election in 2016, we are left with this undeniable fact: the government of Russia waged an on-going attack on the United States to influence the outcome of that election.

A report prepared for the Senate that provides the most sweeping analysis yet of Russia’s disinformation campaign around the 2016 election found the operation used every major social media platform to deliver words, images and videos tailored to voters’ interests to help elect President Trump — and worked even harder to support him while in office.

(snip)

“What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party — and specifically Donald Trump,” the report says. “Trump is mentioned most in campaigns targeting conservatives and right-wing voters, where the messaging encouraged these groups to support his campaign. The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract and ultimately discourage members from voting.”

I say “undeniable” despite the fact that our president denies the findings of our own nation’s intelligence services, and those of every other honest broker of information out there; none of that is not good enough to satisfy the Crybaby in Chief when he feels dissed.  Now, the Washington Post reports on research being delivered to the Senate Intelligence Committee that states plainly the evidence leading to the conclusion that the Russians worked against Hillary Clinton.

The report offers the latest evidence that Russian agents sought to help Trump win the White House. Democrats and Republicans on the panel previously studied the U.S. intelligence community’s 2017 finding that Moscow aimed to assist Trump, and in July, they said investigators had come to the correct conclusion. Despite their work, some Republicans on Capitol Hill continue to doubt the nature of Russia’s interference in the last presidential election.

[Sen. Mark] Warner said the reports should serve as “a wake up call,” resulting in “some much-needed and long-overdue guardrails when it comes to social media.” [Sen. Richard] Burr said the reports are “proof positive that one of the most important things we can do is increase information sharing between the social media companies who can identify disinformation campaigns and the third-party experts who can analyze them.”

The Russians aimed particular energy at activating conservatives on issues such as gun rights and immigration, while sapping the political clout of left-leaning African American voters by undermining their faith in elections and spreading misleading information about how to vote. Many other groups — Latinos, Muslims, Christians, gay men and women, liberals, Southerners, veterans — got at least some attention from Russians operating thousands of social media accounts.

Even if—if—no one in the Trump campaign was in on the deal, or encouraged it or cooperated with it in any way at all, or even said a small silent prayer to their god that the Russian actions would help their guy win, we are left with this: the Russian attacked America.  And they had help.

I don’t mean Wikileaks, although it seemed to be in on the con, too.  I’m talking about the National Enquirer.  The same National Enquirer which just admitted in court documents that it helped Trump bury Karen McDougal’s story about the affair she claimed to have had with Trump (which he denies having had) so that it wouldn’t hurt him in the election was devoted to helping Trump throughout the campaign.  The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg put the Enquirer’s contribution in perspective.

The Enquirer’s racks, under the current chief, David J. Pecker, were given over to the Trump campaign. This was a political gift even more valuable than the $150,000 that The Enquirer paid in a “catch-and-kill” deal with the former Playboy model Karen McDougal for her story of an affair with Mr. Trump.

Wondering what The Enquirer’s covers were worth to the Trump campaign, I called Regis Maher, a co-founder of Do It Outdoors, the national mobile and digital billboard company. He said a campaign with that level of national prominence would cost $2.5 million to $3 million a month.

And like the payoff to McDougal, that could be looked at as another effective campaign contribution that Trump never reported, but we probably can’t avoid that being classified as “journalism,” sad to say.

Now that federal prosecutors have cleared away some of the fog that shrouded the 2016 campaign, it’s easy to see that The Enquirer was more than just a publication that puffed up Mr. Trump while going after his rivals.

It was the real-world embodiment of the fantasy online world of trolls, Russian and domestic, who polluted the political discourse. From its perches at Publix and Safeway, it was often doing the same job as Alex Jones, of the conspiracy site Infowars, and the more strident Trump campaign surrogates on Twitter and Facebook.

The Enquirer spread false stories about Hillary Clinton — illnesses concealed, child prostitution, bribery, treason. Each cover trumpeting these tales was arguably more powerful than a tweet from an account with millions of followers.

The Republicans who’ve been taking up space in the current Congress—the one that turned a blind eye to every crazy and questionable thing Trump has done and which may let parts of our government shut down at the end of the week for lack of funds since they can’t pass a budget—have proved plainly that they’re not concerned enough about a foreign attack on our country to take any action in response.  Sad…Republicans used to claim to be the party of a strong national defense.  In two and a half weeks we’ll see another party take control of the House of Representatives, and I’m putting those folks on the clock to show Russia and the rest of the world that the America that’s been sleeping the last two years is mad as hell and is not going to take this any more.

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