Furlough Journal: We don’t negotiate with terrorists

There has been a small amount of entertainment value so far from the “partial government shutdown,” and I don’t just mean the fun I’ve had during the time away from the office.  On top of watching my bosses devise legitimate projects we can all work on outside of our government-provided offices and away from our government-provided equipment so no one will miss a check or a part of one, and taking care of my own projects both at home and on the driving range, I’ve had time to consider the silliness that our members of Congress have been reduced to while simultaneously trying to end the “crisis” they created and make sure they won’t be blamed for it once it’s over.

Today, after a failed series of attempts to pass laws to fund small slivers of government operations which proponents argued “everyone was for,” the House passed a bill to guarantee that furloughed workers will get full back pay for the furlough period, whenever it finally ends.  The Senate and the president have also expressed sympathy for the poor, innocent government workers who could be facing serious financial trouble if they start missing paychecks as a result of a standoff that they had no part in starting (or ending, apparently).  But this approach raises an interesting point.

…even as Congress and the White House rallied around the bill, one outside group said it “demonstrates the stupidity of the shutdown.”

Making the shutdown less painful for 800,000 federal employees will encourage Congress and the White House to extend it even longer, driving up the cost, said Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

Ellis said “essential” federal workers who stayed on the job “will feel like suckers because they’ve been working while the others essentially are getting paid vacations.”

Whatever the negative effects of this partial government shutdown are, all of the victims are innocent ones.  Those responsible for the shutdown weren’t aiming at World War II veterans and their memorial in Washington any more than they meant to harm children or poor people or the space program or home loans or anything else.  Regrettably, they don’t care about any of that, because they are hysterically blind to everything but their true goal: the only target of the intransigence on the part of the extremist Republicans in the House is President Obama.  They want to prevent him from implementing his plans, and they don’t care that he’s already won on the health care reform issue three times: in Congress when it was approved, by the people when he was re-elected, and at the Supreme Court when the law was ruled to be constitutional.

One important difference about this Washington pissing contest as compared to those of the past few years (remember “the fiscal cliff”?) is that Democrats are not taking the bait: so far they haven’t given in to any urge to negotiate with the terrorists, and they should be commended for that.  As Dave Weigel reports in Slate, the Democrats have learned a few things lately about how to hold the line.

“Dealing with terrorists has taught us some things,” said Washington Rep. Jim McDermott after voting no on one of Thursday’s GOP bills. “You can’t deal with ’em. This mess was created by the Republicans for one purpose, and they lost. People in my district are calling in for Obamacare—affordable health care—in large numbers. These guys have lost, and they can’t figure out how to admit it.” Why would House Democrats give away what the Supreme Court and the 2012 electorate didn’t? “You can’t say, OK, you get half of Obamacare—this isn’t a Solomonic decision,” McDermott said. “So we sit here until they figure out they fuckin’ lost.”

UPDATE OCT. 6: But Pat, some may say, surely this whole partial government shutdown thingy isn’t as simple as just the conservatives still fighting with the president, there must be more to it than that.  No, there isn’t: they’ve been planning a government shutdown aimed at Obamacare for months and months, and this morning The New York Times laid it all out, including quotes from the proud perpetrators:

To many Americans, the shutdown came out of nowhere. But interviews with a wide array of conservatives show that the confrontation that precipitated the crisis was the outgrowth of a long-running effort to undo the law, the Affordable Care Act, since its passage in 2010 — waged by a galaxy of conservative groups with more money, organized tactics and interconnections than is commonly known.

(snip)

The current budget brinkmanship is just the latest development in a well-financed, broad-based assault on the health law, Mr. Obama’s signature legislative initiative. Groups like Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks are all immersed in the fight, as is Club for Growth, a business-backed nonprofit organization. Some, like Generation Opportunity and Young Americans for Liberty, both aimed at young adults, are upstarts. Heritage Action is new, too, founded in 2010 to advance the policy prescriptions of its sister group, the Heritage Foundation.

(snip)

On Capitol Hill, the advocates found willing partners in Tea Party conservatives, who have repeatedly threatened to shut down the government if they do not get their way on spending issues. This time they said they were so alarmed by the health law that they were willing to risk a shutdown over it.

(snip)

In the three years since Mr. Obama signed the health measure, Tea Party-inspired groups have mobilized, aided by a financing network that continues to grow, both in its complexity and the sheer amount of money that flows through it.

A review of tax records, campaign finance reports and corporate filings shows that hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised and spent since 2012 by organizations, many of them loosely connected, leading opposition to the measure.

The story is full of details about the groups and people behind the effort, and the enormous sums of money they’re spending to stick it to the president.  Check it out for yourself.

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At this point in the discussion there is really only one question left

This has been swirling around in the vast empty expanses of the inside of my head for a few weeks now; it comes up again whenever I hear another story about members of Congress not doing one of their basic jobs, providing for the smooth operation of our federal government.

The House and Senate are supposed to pass a budget to fund operations of the federal government, but they haven’t done so in years.  They’ve passed a series of continuing resolutions, which essentially renew the previous spending plan for government departments.  Today is the last day of the federal government’s fiscal year, the day the previous budget plans expire.  You’d think Congress would take care of that, right?  In fairness, most members of Congress want to pass new spending legislation, but they’re being stymied by extremist Republican/Tea Party members who are still fighting the fight over the Affordable Care Act.  Obamacare.

The president’s signature piece of legislation overhauling the way we provide and pay for health care insurance in this country was approved by Congress after a terrific fight; the law has since been found by the Supreme Court of the United States to be constitutional.  Like a lot of laws, this one doesn’t enjoy the full support of everyone in the country, but it did win support of a majority in Congress and on the Supreme Court, and that’s what it needs to become the law of the land.  It’s a big victory for President Obama, maybe his biggest.

So, why…why, why why, in the wide wide world of sports, do the extremist Republicans think they can convince the president to just give it up?  Because that’s’ what they’re doing right now.

It is Congress’ responsibility to pass the spending legislation, no one else can do it for them; but the extremist Republicans in the House (to this point) will only pass a spending plan that specifically cuts out funding for the new health care insurance law.  Surprise, surprise: the Democrats in the Senate refuse to accept that, and they pass legislation that funds Obamacare and send it back to the House.  Stalemate.

So the extremist Republicans offer a compromise, promising to pass a bill to fund the government if the president and the Senate will agree to delay implementation of the ACA.  And I ask, again: why the hell would they agree to that?

I get it, extremist conservatives don’t like the new law.  Why they’re so vehemently opposed to it is not the point right now; the point, I believe, is that it’s insane for them to think that threatening to hold their breathes until they turn collectively blue is a viable strategy to either force or persuade their political opponents to hand over the marbles they won fair and square.

In a negotiation, in an attempt to come to a compromise solution, one side offers the other something it wants in return for a concession, and they trade offers back and forth until they (hopefully) come to an agreement.  Here, the extremist Republicans aren’t offering the other side something it wants in an effort to come to an agreement…in fact, the thing the other side wants in this case—a new spending plan—is something the Congress is bound by law to provide, no negotiation required.  Instead, the extremist Republicans are threatening to take action (or more accurately for this case, inaction) that will hurt EVERYBODY if they don’t get their way.

I ran across a very interesting short blog post by James Fallows at The Atlantic this morning, in which he distills important points that I think we should all keep in mind as we consider the on-going dysfunction in our government and our politics in the last generation or so: the only fight that really matters today is the one within the Republican Party, and that we are cruelly disserved by any alleged “journalism“ that doesn’t see that and report it plainly.

…the fight that matters is within the Republican party, and that fight is over whether compromise itself is legitimate.** Outsiders to this struggle — the president and his administration, Democratic legislators as a group, voters or “opinion leaders” outside the generally safe districts that elected the new House majority — have essentially no leverage over the outcome. I can’t recall any situation like this in my own experience, and the only even-approximate historic parallel (with obvious differences) is the inability of Northern/free-state opinion to affect the debate within the slave-state South from the 1840s onward. Nor is there a conceivable “compromise” the Democrats could offer that would placate the other side.

(snip)

This isn’t “gridlock.” It is a ferocious struggle within one party, between its traditionalists and its radical factions, with results that unfortunately can harm all the rest of us — and, should there be a debt default, could harm the rest of the world too.

Check out his post for links to some of the journalists Fallows believes are reporting the real heart of the problem…I plan to do that tomorrow if the furlough begins and I find myself with extra time on my hands.

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.

What the hell just happened here?

For someone who didn’t just go over the fiscal cliff, I’m pretty disappointed with our House and Senate and president. Not surprised, but disappointed…if I can summarize out loud, to help organize my thoughts:

Our elected leaders were faced with some $600 billion worth of automatic tax hikes and spending cuts that might or might not have any real impact in reducing the government’s debt and deficit, but which arguably might push our struggling-to-recover national economy back into a recession; they set a deadline for themselves to act a year and a half ago; then they did nothing, waiting until after the national election to bother to talk about it among themselves so the nasty details of our national fiscal crisis wouldn’t intrude on an otherwise uplifting discussion of the issues of the day; and the best they could come up with—even after the deadline had passed anyway—was a bill that raises marginal income tax rates for some well-to-do folks but not for most of us and kicks the budget cuts can down the road again?! So it’ll have to be taken up at the same time as another increase to the debt ceiling—what could possibly go wrong?!?!

It’s a plan that a majority of Republicans in the House voted against, even though—since the Bush-era tax cuts had just expired at the end of 2012—they were, technically, voting against lowering the tax rate for the bottom 98% or so of Americans.  Because there weren’t enough spending cuts.  Or in this case, any.

Which Barack Obama were Republicans negotiating with—was it the same one that the Conservative Industrial Complex consistently criticizes for being too soft, too dumb to get a good deal for America?

I try to look on the bright side: at least they finally agreed on something, even if it was only that going over the fiscal cliff would be a bad thing. Hooray…take an honorable discharge out of petty cash. (Thanks, Hawkeye.)

(Heavy sigh.)

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice…

The “supercommittee” admitted defeat; it won’t have a blueprint for reducing the nation’s deficit (stories here, here and here).  Is this a bad thing?

Some have argued, no: the first direct result of getting no plan from this committee is that the law which authorized it will now automatically cut $1.2 trillion from defense and non-defense spending over ten years starting in 2013, and that may end up giving us more deficit reduction than we’d have gotten otherwise.  No way to know for sure, of course, but it makes sense.

I mean, there’s no reason to believe that the same members of Congress who thought nothing of threatening government default for political gain this past summer were likely to come to any agreement now, not when the party that controls the House (and virtually controls the Senate with the threat of filibuster) is still holding its breath threatening to turn blue rather than be responsible and discuss the best ways to increase revenue as part of the answer (along with spending cuts and overall economic growth) to getting the federal budget on a healthy path.  None at all.

To believe otherwise would mean, first of all, believing that the sheep people lined up behind Speakers Boehner and Limbaugh have any goal more important that the defeat of President Obama.  They don’t, unless it is the personal destruction of Obama, and anyone unlike themselves.  Second, it means they would have to have the backbone to say no to the no-tax extremists and the campaign contributors.

I read an interesting article making the point that we’re foolish to think that our elected representatives will do anything that makes sense for us, because they’re in place to serve their bosses: namely, the minority of the population who actually vote in the primaries, and the even smaller percentage of the people who pay the bills through campaign contributions both above and below board.  (By the way, read Michael Moran’s piece setting the stage for his blog The Reckoning.)

The other thing to watch out for right now, though, is the cowardly Congress finding a way to back out of the deal it made with itself!  No Congress can pass a law that would prevent a future Congress from unpassing that law; just because it set itself this deadline and mandated future budget cuts as a penalty for failing to meet that deadline can’t prevent the next Congress from overriding all or some part of the threatened budget reductions, and that’s entirely possible for a group that already can’t say no to anyone (which is a big part of what got our budget in this mess to begin with).

Give some thought to Moran’s suggestion: in times of crisis, what if we take control away from politicians and give it to people who know what they’re doing?

A real super-committee – a real committee not only empowered to take the steps necessary to right the American economy, but competent to do so – would include 12 serious thinkers. They might include policymakers like former Fed Chairmen Paul Volker or (the suitably contrite) Alan Greenspan, economists of left and right like Stanford’s John B. Taylor, Yale’s Robert Schiller, NYU-Stern’s Nouriel Roubini, plus a few representatives of labor, small business and capital – let’s say Robert Reich, Joseph Schneider of Lacrosse Footwear, and Warren Buffett, just for kicks. No investment bank chairman, please, and no one facing reelection.

Can you imagine this group failing to come up with a solution? Can you imagine any of them worrying more about the next election than the future of the world’s largest economy? Certainly, they would clash – perhaps over the same tax v. spending cut issues. The difference: they would understand better than any member of Congress that no solution is far worse than a less-than-perfect solution.