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.

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“You can’t blame the wreck on the train”

I only wish I had more time during the day to ponder all the developments in the “negotiation” in Washington, D.C. over raising the national debt ceiling, an issue that’s become wedded to an effort to cut government spending.  And that’s a fine issue…if only more Congresses had spent more time thinking about cutting, or at least holding the line.  Loren Steffy, one of the few bright spots at Houston’s Leading Information Source, observes that these are really two different issues and he makes a frightening case for the consequences we might all suffer if today’s Congress doesn’t pay the bills rung up in the past.

Since we last spoke on this matter, the Republican leader in the U.S. Senate has finally had something to say.  After letting the speaker of the House and the House majority leader carry the fight against President Obama, Sen. Mitch McConnell offered a surprise solution to the impasse: give all the responsibility for raising the debt ceiling to the president, so the country won’t face an actual default but Republicans won’t have to take a record vote for higher taxes or a higher debt ceiling.  Maybe he thinks he’s being clever, but he’s getting killed by “conservatives” who think he’s given up the sacred fight.

See, it’s really hard to trust labels.  The Tea Party people, at least those who really drank the kool-aid, they say they’re conservative.  But there are plenty of people who’ve been known as strong conservatives for quite a while (in just the past week I’ve cited David Brooks, Kathleen Parker and David Gergen, for example) who think the GOP in Congress may be going too far this time.  Today I’ll add Steve Bell, who believes there will be a deal and no default, but that Republicans are spending so much energy protecting tax cuts for the richest Americans that the voters are going to smack ’em up-side their heads in November 2012 (I paraphrase).  Gallup’s latest poll finds, not surprisingly, that Americans would prefer to fix the problem with only cuts in spending, although they weren’t asked to identify which cuts they supported, but most of the country favors a mix of spending cuts and tax hikes.  Perhaps because they’re smart enough to realize that the problem is too big to fix with just one or the other.

Now Moody’s is putting American government bonds on review for a possible downgrade, and even the Chinese—the Communist Chinese!—are urging the U.S. government to be responsible and think about protecting investors all over the world.

So I was thinking about all of that, and I remembered the words to a Terri Sharp song I heard performed by Don McLean:

When the gates are all down and the signals are flashing,

The whistle is screaming in vain,

And you stay on the tracks, ignoring the facts,

Well you can’t blame the wreck on the train

T-minus three weeks and counting…

There’s just the faintest whiff of default in the air in Washington, D.C., so the frequency of budget meetings is on the rise.  Late last week President Obama and Speaker Boehner sounded confident they could make a deal  that would reduceBoehner government spending by $4 trillion over ten years, but Boehner has backed off from what The New York Times characterizes as “a transformative proposal, with the potential to improve the ugly deficit picture by shrinking the size of government, overhauling the tax code and instituting consensus changes to shore up Medicare and even Social Security. It was a once-in-a-decade opening.” 

Why?  According to the Times’ analysis Boehner faced the realities of preserving his own power as speaker versus trying to get his own party to accept compromise on taxes; he also may be passing on a rare chance to get Democrats to compromise on major entitlements.

Kathleen Parker is another conservative voice making the case that Congressional Republicans may be pushing their advantage too far, turning their noses up at serious concessions from Democrats while making no progress on solving the immediate issue of the debt limit:

Few honest brokers think that we can prevent a financial catastrophe without both cuts and revenue increases, but there are surely ways to get there from here without necessarily punishing the poor or the wealthy.

(snip)

Meanwhile, not raising the debt ceiling is fraught with peril. Even prolonging raising the ceiling is potentially hazardous before a default happens, as investors take preventive actions that could distort the money markets.

Republicans have made enormous advances toward government reforms that were viewed as unachievable a year ago. Voting no may have become the aphrodisiac of small-government conservatives, but it is not necessarily an act of bravery or wisdom.

Sometimes it’s just stubborn.

If Parker’s suggestion of possible pig-headedness by Republicans is too harsh, Obamaconsider the perspective offered today by David Gergen: with Obama’s indication today that he won’t accept any short-term agreement, all of the players have now painted themselves into their separate corners, and we all will pay the price if they don’t find their ways out:

Republican and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill, fortunately, agree that it is essential to avoid a default on the debt. They are right. But to get there, each side is going to have to give a little.  It is impossible to imagine either side doing what it would take to reach a $4 trillion deal; the GOP won’t ever agree to tax increases of as much as $800 billion to $1 trillion, nor will Democrats agree to major entitlement cuts. They especially won’t do it in the rush of last-minute negotiations over the next few days.

But in the name of fiscal sanity, they may be willing to agree to a much more modest set of compromises—something that prevents default, allows dust to settle, gives them a chance to build up support back home and keeps negotiating over a longer period of time.

Props to the GOP for getting Democrats to agree to so much of what Republicans want; please don’t get carried away and push for “too much” and not get the debt ceiling resolution that’s needed right away.

Tick…tick…tick…

Beware of those peddling politics for dummies

The chattering classes say Republicans are in trouble because of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposed changes to Medicare.  They say that because, across the land, there has not been a rousing call for its adoption by acclamation, and therefore we can ascertain that the proposers are on the outs with the American people.  In fact some people do object, and for a number of reasons, but I don’t know how much trouble the whole GOP is in over this issue, since I try not to make the sweeping generalization my first conclusion or give myself credit for being able to see the future or into the minds of others.

But I think that what’s happening right now on this subject is a good thing.  We need to talk about details if we’re going to find a way out of our federal budget mess.  No one has wanted to talk specifics because, well, talking about paying more and spending less is not fun.  But beyond that, few in power dare to address specifics for fear that the short attention span American voter and the heat-before-light American news media will fixate only on the fact that someone proposed something and rain down ridicule and ignominy upon them until the end of days (no, not until October 21, for much longer than that).  Any open discussion or real give and take on a serious issue becomes more and more unlikely as it becomes more and more clear that the discussion will be intentionally twisted into a negative campaign ad.

We have to talk specifics on this, but that doesn’t mean that we have to do everything that is proposed, or that every unadopted proposal is a failure.  Ryan’s plan may never become law, but it already served the purpose of getting us talking about details.  Now we need to keep talking, not recoil from the negative reaction to the first serious plan and never say anything ever again.

The budget crunches in this country are real and can’t be solved just with accounting tricks; it’s going to mean painful cuts in programs that people need as well as ones they want.  For example: here in Texas our state law requires a balanced budget and there’s only so much money available this time around—tens of billions of dollars less than the current budget.  Absent a multi-billion dollar windfall of biblical proportions, the only way out means someone’s ox gets gored…or likely in this case, everyone’s oxen.  As Patricia Kilday Hart made the point in a recent column, the discussion is about what gets defined as an “essential” government program.  In order not to reach into the state’s savings account this time, there are budget plans that make some changes:

It cuts state Child Protective Services “intake” offices so severely that officials predict 85,000 calls about abused children will not be answered.

It shortchanges school districts for the 80,000 new students expected to show up at the front doors of public schools next year.

It cuts Medicaid reimbursement rates to nursing homes so drastically that the industry predicts 75 percent of the nursing homes in Texas will shut their doors, leaving 60,000 elderly Texans without care and 47,000 employees without jobs.

The polls have been showing for a while that people want the budget fixed, they just don’t want the fix to hurt them.  Well, “they” are going to have to get over that or “we” will get nowhere…except closer to the edge as the wind picks up a little bit.

No straight path to civil rights for gay Americans

Life would be easier to follow and less confusing to live if there weren’t so many detours.  But things happen when they happen, regardless of when we think they should have happened: witness the latest victory in the struggle for civil rights for homosexual Americans.

Legalized discrimination against gays in American society has been taking a beating and is on its way out, and with last week’s vote by the U.S. Senate to join the House of Representatives in repealing the Clinton-era law which prohibited homosexuals from serving our country in the armed forces if their sexual orientation became public, we’re one step closer to equality.  Once the bill gets the president’s signature (later this week), it’s up to the administration and the Defense Department to make the necessary changes to enforce the law.  That means things won’t change right away, but they will change.

“I don’t care who you love,” Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, said as the debate opened.  “If you love this country enough to risk your life for it, you shouldn’t have to hide who you are.”

No gloating over winning one battle while the war remains to be won.  We can expect to hear a lot more thanks to a well-financed new group connected to Media Matters for America that promises to act as a “national rapid-response war room” taking on false and homophobic messages in the media and the political arena.

My happiness at the Senate vote was tempered by the recognition that so many members of Congress still found a reason to be against it—you can check the roll call vote in the Senate here, and the House here.  But big changes like this don’t happen overnight or all at once, and I try to keep that in mind when I see blog posts and headlines calling on the next Congress to reinstitute the law or ominously warning that this change will force God to stop blessing the American military (honest to God!) leading to the imminent and total destruction of our nation.  No doubt there are some with the same feeling about the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but I’m not going to let any of them them ruin the moment, or the movement.