First the good news, then the better news, then the bad news

The good news is this: Congress has reached a budget deal.  Yes, the U.S. Congress.  And not when facing a deadline.  America’s guests have done a thing that is rare in this day—their jobs.  Here are the details; I’m most enthused at the idea that enough members showed enough maturity and leadership to actually work out some agreement, one which means we and the world can go two years without having to fret about a government shutdown.

Now to the better news, which I would actually classify as a Christmas miracle if I were given to assuming that God takes sides in American politics (or sports): the mainstream Republican Party is showing signs of finally standing up to the conservative extremists.  Speaker of the House John Boehner was the first to publicly, honestly, express his exasperation with the tea partyish crowd that has pushed the GOP so far to the edge of American politics that they have to stand on each other’s shoulders a mile high in order to see the center.  He reportedly got even more “honest” in private:

“They are not fighting for conservative principles,” Mr. Boehner told rank-and-file House Republicans during a private meeting on Wednesday as he seethed and questioned the motives of the groups for piling on against the plan before it was even made public.

“They are not fighting for conservative policy,” he continued, according to accounts of those present. “They are fighting to expand their lists, raise more money and grow their organizations, and they are using you to do it. It’s ridiculous.”

The conservatives of course defended themselves, which is perfectly fine; I hope the center and the far right keep this back-and-forth going ad infinitum (we’re already well past ad nauseum).  For however long they fight with each other—and these things don’t last as long as you might wish them to—it keeps them from concentrating their fire outside the circle; maybe that keeps the extremists from winning more elections and coming into real power to remake America in their own frightening image.

One more politics thing: did you see who was cited by PolitiFact for the Lie of the Year?  Yep, our president.  Selected by a reader poll from among ten finalists, “If you like your health plan, you can keep it” was chosen by 59%, the winner going away and embarassingly ahead of popular favorites like “Congress is exempt from the healthcare law” (Ted Cruz), “No U.S.-trained doctors will accept Obamacare” (Ann Coulter) and “Muslims are exempt from Obamacare” (chain email).  President Obama’s catchy little reassurance actually worked its way up over the years from “half true” to “pants on fire” and now Lie of the Year.  Congratulations, Mr. President, for finding a way to help the self-defeating conservatives survive the circular firing squad.

Furlough Journal: Here we go…out the door

I really didn’t need all this fuss to let me know that my job is “non-essential,” you know.

Since Congress couldn’t come to an agreement on a new government spending plan by the deadline last night, we have a partial government shutdown and that includes NASA and the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where I work as a contractor in television production for the public affairs office.  Since we’re talking about the federal government, that means there’s bureaucratic silliness involved—we had to come to work this morning in order to be told we had four hours to complete an orderly shutdown and go home.  Ah, just enough time for me to change my voice mail greeting and turn off the TV!

When this happened in 1995 the contractor company for which I worked found something for us all to do, and we didn’t miss a day’s pay.  This time around, I am told, we are not on furlough—only the civil servants are—and we can work, but we cannot work in the government offices or use government equipment; we are also allowed to use vacation hours to avoid missing a paycheck.  I have more than a month’s worth of vacation available, so I’m reasonably confident.  Of course, if reason were to be trusted we wouldn’t have a partial government shutdown now, would we?  This conveys the feeling of some of the people at work this morning:

Khangress

The rest of us are a little less stressed.  I’m headed for lunch and then for the golf course…I could use some time off.

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.

For more on the politics of saving the economy, we bring in Bob in the Heights

From time to time, HIPRB! feels the need to turn over the front page for a spirited diatribe on issues of the day (or on something else).  Today is one of those days: my friend Bob Eddy takes issue with a thing or three out of the recent contretemps over raising the federal debt ceiling, and links us to quite an interesting examination of Barack Obama’s fear of confrontation.

That little congressional Mexican standoff was the sorriest and most shameful display of our democratic system that I’ve seen in a long time.  And come Monday morning I brought up the Times with a heavy heart, knowing as sure as the sunrise what I would see—yet another capitulating choke by the president and his party that will once again lamely be defended with that upbeat and reassuring phrase that has become this administration’s slogan: “Well, better than nothing…”  

“We tried, but…”

Like the coach telling the team owner “Well, we only lost by 10…”

“Our offense looked really good in the third quarter…”

“Our new kicker has some real potential…”

And of course I knew also that in the ensuing days we would be treated to the smiling but worn congressional faces of our brave representatives who rolled up their sleeves, set their differences aside, and hammered out a solution just before the clock ran out.  Whew, another global crisis avoided!  And once again we’ll all be reminded that democracy sometimes gets ugly, messy, and contentious, but that’s what makes this country great, and in the end rational compromise will win out for the betterment of the people and what’s best for America.  You know what?  Hey Harry, your catheter is leaking into your socks. 

The saddest part?  Watching the president of the United States spend 20 minutes addressing the nation to plead his case for a sharing of the fiscal burden, and John Boner barely taking 5 to sternly tell him that the dishes were piling up in the congressional cafeteria, and this is what his party will do and won’t do – sweet.  I’ve got to admit, I was taken back by the bluntness of his rebuttal, void of any hint at compromise or even respect.

I knew from the moment Obama got called out as a liar that there was going to be trouble with this crowd.  And I’m sorry, as much as Obama and everyone would like to think the hatred has nothing to do with color, come on, let’s be honest: no president in our lifetime has been this openly treated with hostility, disdain, and lack of decorum.  Not that I don’t have my own issues with our president.  You know, I wasn’t one of the foolishly naive who put him on a pedestal and thought upon his entering office we were all going to put on rainbow glasses and America was going to become Shangri-La West, but at the least I did expect some f****** backbone.

It just seems like his administration thus far has been more a cold slap of reality as far as what the president can do and (mostly) can’t do, than anything resembling hope and change.  He regularly treats his voting base like his third choice for the senior prom, and like me they’re all screaming “When are you going to give up this ridiculous fantasy of reaching across the aisle, of working together for the common good!?  Of expecting anything other than contempt and obstruction from this crowd!?”

Some say he’s playing the long game; I say the strategy has so far brought us next to nothing in the win column – it’s the age old “well now you’re pissing everyone off.”  Stop this ridiculous quest for the Holy Grail of the political center where your number crunchers assure you the percentages predict the most votes…to be the off-white shirt that goes with the most jackets in your closet.  When Leonard Pitts suggested in a recent column that it was time to start throwing some elbows on your way to the basket, my thoughts were “what took you so long to write this column?” 

And of course, Obama’s haggling capabilities leave something to be desired…

Obama at a pricey estate auction somewhere in Georgetown, where he spies a 19th century French coffee table that would like great in his study:

“Hmmm…$2,000, seems a little steep…I’ll give you $1,975!”

“$1,990 and not a penny less.”

“Michelle, get my wallet!”

Anyways, it’s never too early to start thinking about campaign slogans.  I thought maybe this one might look good on the presidential limo’s bumper, or certainly emblazoned across the side of the Marine One helicopter:

“2012 – Guarded Optimism & Mostly Disappointment”

This was a really good piece in the Times last weekend, pretty much sums it up for me.

I recommend the column Bob just referred to: it’s a very interesting examination of President Obama’s seeming aversion to confrontation, and not just confrontation with Republicans on the economy and the debt ceiling, and his failure (so far) to use the mandate he received when elected to get the American people behind him on substantive changes to strengthen the economy and regulate big money interests.  Even if you think he shouldn’t have done anything in those areas, it’s worth the read.

Pas de trois, denouement, house lights up

With fewer than 12 hours to spare (a lifetime, apparently, in the ways of Washington) the president has signed into law the combination debt ceiling increase/spending-and-deficit reduction compromise approved by both houses of Congress.  There, now don’t you feel much better about everything?  I mean, it only took a few months of bluster and pontificating, and a little threat to keep the nation from paying its bills on time, to get our government to pass a simple debt ceiling increase and take a small step in the direction of fiscal responsibility.

The last act of this tired drama was predictable: the loudest of the antagonists made a great flowery show of establishing their innate human goodness while talking past one another directly to those in the wings who were already persuaded of the rightness of their case…they executed the thrust and parry of choreographed stage fights which held no real threat of damage since the outcomes were predetermined…when time wound down minor characters took center stage to deliver the resolution then ceded the spotlight once again to the stars, who declaimed the lessons of the play and bid us all a good night.

Now the treasury has cash to pay the bills, and Congress is faced with continuing negotiations to find ways to cut spending and/or increase revenue (I’m hoping for the “and”) to get the government closer to living within its means.  They got there by compromising, which means no one is happy with the product:

Some in both houses are unhappy that there were no tax increases to spread the pain; some are unhappy there weren’t even more cuts to get closer to a final solution in one fell swoop; Democrats are unhappy that GOP priorities suffered few hits (but pleased that the cuts are not as severe as in earlier proposal by Rep. Paul Ryan); Republicans are unhappy about potential cuts to the Pentagon budget if future negotiations are not successful; and Tea Partiers are unhappy because there are no significant spending cuts right now and promised future cuts are contingent on the approval of future Congresses.

The proponents of restraint in government spending should see this as a great victory for their cause: it’s not everything they wanted all at once, but they got the president and Congressional Democrats to give more than would have been considered realistic just a few months ago.  That many of them do not—that they feel any compromise was an unforgiveable moral failure—is cause for concern, and the proponents of responsible behavior by grown adults in elected positions of responsibility should see this as a nightmarish premonition of things to come, if not in the budget talks later this year than the next time a debt ceiling needs to be increased.

Now, for those who have the stomach for it, we face the prospect of watching a new select committee of members from both houses and both parties work to find ways to reduce the deficit, and watching both houses debate and vote on a balanced budget amendment—all by end of the year!

How will cuts in federal government spending impact an economy still struggling to recover from recession and build new jobs?  Can we do something about overhauling tax code and/or entitlements, the real answers to a healthier federal budget?  I’m much less concerned right now with who won or lost the latest political fight than I am with a more pertinent matter: how does this deal help the country?