It’s not all about Trump

…even if he thinks it is.  It’s not.  And I ran across an interesting column in today’s Washington Post which offers just six quotations as evidence that the weird-ass dysfunctionality of our politics, if not our society in general, is seen in more than just the batshit-crazy emanations from the Toddler in Chief.

He’s there on the list, of course, at #1, but not quite in the way I would have expected.  Writer James Hohmann turns to this week’s budget submission document from our “I’m all about business and will shrink the deficit and take care of the budget” president for the quote that shows there are still some adults standing watch in Washington who are trying to send a signal to the brainwashed (folks wearing red ball caps, to protect their very clean brains) about what this administration is doing to our economy:

“Even with high levels of economic growth, excessive deficits continue to threaten the Nation’s progress, and any unforeseen shocks to the economy could make deficits unsustainable,” it says. “If financial obligations continue to grow at the current pace, the Nation’s creditors may demand higher interest rates to compensate, potentially leading to lower private investment and a smaller capital stock, harming both American businesses and workers.”

It’s not that this budget submission is going to become law as is; Congress hardly ever passes the budget that any president proposes.  This one came from the man whose most significant achievement of his first year in office (just in under the wire) was to pass a giant tax cut that is already swelling the debt and the deficit.  I’ll admit that my federal income taxes were down for 2018 as compared to 2017 so I’m benefitting, at least in the short term.  I don’t know that any of us benefits in the long haul in an economy in which, as the White House itself warns, deficits are going to stay above a trillion dollars a year “for the foreseeable future” and that the national debt “will soon surpass a percent of GDP not seen since 1947.”  Hohmann notes, “The White House projects that the government will need to spend $482 billion on interest payments for the debt next year alone.  That’s more than the entire budget for Medicare.”  Good allocation of resources, Donnie.

Second quote, from the noted not-Trump hater Dick Cheney, who was talking tough with VP Pence about the administration’s foreign policy at a conservative function in Georgia last weekend:

“We’re getting into a situation when our friends and allies around the world that we depend upon are going to lack confidence in us. … I worry that the bottom line of that kind of an approach is we have an administration that looks a lot more like Barack Obama than Ronald Reagan.”

I first thought the next thing to say here was to marvel that this Republican administration is frightening the previous Republican administration when it comes to dealing with our allies, but I decided that was wrong: it’s not fair to Republicans—the mass of good, not-crazy ones—to label Trump a Republican, and it’s no surprise that former diplomats and officials and the defense hierarchy disagree with Trump’s attitude of telling our allies to just shut up and be grateful we deign to be on their side.

Pence, unprepared for tough questions, mostly shrugged off Cheney’s concerns and praised Trump as a transformational leader. Reading the transcript shows what a total loyalist Pence has become to Trump. He staked out several positions that are at odds with the posture he took as a congressman and governor.

Moreover, the conversation between the two men who have held the No. 2 job underscored the deep fissures that remain inside the GOP over Trump’s foreign policy. It’s the same tension that led to Jim Mattis’s resignation in December as defense secretary after Trump abruptly announced the complete withdrawal of troops from Syria. The president eventually relented under pressure from hawks on the Hill. Some troops will stay.

Consider the other quotes: Nancy Pelosi thinks impeaching Trump is “not worth it” because it’s so divisive, Paul Ryan predicts Trump will lose in 202o if the race turns out to be “about Donald Trump and his personality,” Tucker Carlson doesn’t deny and doesn’t “bow to the mob—ever.  No matter what.” when he’s exposed for hateful comments made more than ten years ago (which should not to be confused with the hateful comments he makes on his Fox News Channel show these days with regularity).   They all offer us a chance to think, if we choose to.

Oh, wait, there was one more quote.  It was reported by people who were in attendance at a GOP fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago, and was flatly not denied by the president’s press secretary:

“The Democrats hate Jewish people.”

Said Donald Trump.  No further discourse required.

Wait, you don’t suppose it really is all about Trump after all?  Do you?

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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.

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.

(snip)

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).

(snip)

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.

(snip)

…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.

(snip)

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.

(snip)

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?