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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Maybe the guy in the tin foil hat was right

We should all be in line to take a whack at the idiots responsible for these completely avoidable exercises in governmental overreach and hubris.  All together now: what the hell were they thinking?  I can’t decide which is more disturbing: the government using its power to harass and tacitly threaten law-abiding citizens based on a perception of their political views, or the government using its power to harass and tacitly threaten journalists in the pursuit of their constitutionally-recognized role as government watchdog.  Both are abuses of government power that fly in the face of what this country is meant to stand for.

Today the attorney general ordered the FBI to investigate the Internal Revenue Service for apparently singling out for enhanced scrutiny the applications for tax-exempt status from what were perceived to be conservative political groups.  Yep, it looks like the party in power has been using the authority of the taxman to reward those with whom it agrees and punish those with whom it does not.  Is there any more textbook definition of abuse of power than that?

I’m not saying that the IRS shouldn’t be thorough in reviewing applications for tax-exempt status; the IRS should be exceedingly thorough in investigating such requests.  Wouldn’t we all be willing to believe there are those among us who would do whatever they could to reduce their tax bills, even lie about the true purpose of their organization?  There are entire political movements built on the effort to reduce taxes, but that doesn’t mean they deserve extra scrutiny.  Whatever’s determined to be the proper amount of review for gaining tax-exempt status should the bar for everyone to pass, and it’s just flat wrong for an arm of the government to single out persons or groups for extra scrutiny based on their actual or perceived political views, including their views about taxes!  (Is this a great country or what?)  The whole idea has conjured up in my imagination that happy visage of Richard Nixon and enemies lists.

It’s just as wrong, and just as dangerous to our liberty, for the Justice Department to seize phone records of journalists.  The DOJ notified The Associated Press last week that at some point earlier this year, and clearly without prior notice, it had seized records for 20 phone lines belonging to AP offices and journalists, including home phones and cell phones.  It did not state a reason why these records were seized; it’s believed to be in relation to an investigation into leaks about how the CIA disrupted a terrorist plot to bomb an airliner.

Our system envisions a strong press as a watchdog on government at all levels, acting as a representative of the people seeking out information that the government wants kept quiet…the stuff that the politicians and the bureaucrats don’t want you to know, that they’ve kept from you out of embarrassment or guilt.  There have been people in the government from the beginning who understood the importance of that role to the overall functioning of society, and who’ve provided sensitive information to reporters despite being told not to do so.  Today we call those people whistleblowers.  When that whistle gets blown the government’s first response is often to decide who will take the blame, and they devote a terrific amount of energy to learning who told the truth.  In some cases they ask a court to order the journalists who ran the story to tell where they got their information; in others, like this one, they just take private information without the knowledge of its owner in the hopes that they’ll be able to deduce who ratted them out.

We used to talk about the “chilling effect” that a variety of government actions would have on the newsgathering process, on the minds of the reporters who might think twice—or more than that—about pursuing a story when faced with the possibility, or the likelihood, that the government was going to fight back.  And this is that.

It’s inconceivable to me that all the people involved in these two growing scandals are merely misunderstood or made poor decisions about how to achieve a legitimate objective, but I don’t think the blame goes all the way to the top.  This president is neither that paranoid nor that stupid…although you’d think that a professor of constitutional law might have impressed on his subordinates some of his relevant thoughts about the proper use of governmental power.  If this news had come out while the last man was president, I would have accepted it as prima facie evidence of the evilness of his administration and its soulless pursuit of instituting theocratic capitalism as our new form of government.  I would have been wrong, but I admit I would have thought it.

When the government spies on reporters and appears to punish political enemies, it gives the tin foil hat crowd encouragement: “The government is spying on you—it’s keeping track of who you call and who calls you, it’s watching what you do and where you go and who you meet, it’s keeping information on your income and your taxes and your friends and who you associate with, and it’s using that information against you.”  Today that sounds a little less ridiculous that it did last week.

Unassigned additional reading:

This one guy says the evil super PACs are SAVING democracy, others are less charitable

I’m not sure if he’s right or not, but he makes an interesting argument.  Dave Weigel is an excellent political reporter who’s spent a lot of time chronicling the conservative movement.  Today at Slate he makes the provocative argument—it was to me, anyway—that the political action committees fostered by the U. S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decisionare a good thing, that they have been a force to strengthen democracy and have made this year’s Republican presidential contest fairer.

Huh?  No, no, no, wait a minute: Citizens United is an evil thing, a twisted interpretation of dictionary English by the conservative members of the court so that now the godless, faceless corporations are considered “persons” for the purposes of political participation, and they can secretly donate as much of their giant piles of money as they like to PACs and buy elections and marginalize the little guy like me (I was going to say you and me, but I really shouldn’t presume to speak for you, should I?)…it’s already happened starting in Iowa this year, right?  I mean, that’s what we’ve all been told, right?

But Weigel argues that the super PACs have had a leveling effect: the big money from super PACs is all that’s kept Mitt Romney from outspending his opponents into submission, and essentially buying the GOP nomination.  And despite the concerns about the secretive nature of the super PACs, he notes that we seem to know more about the biggest of the big donors to super PACs than we do about the people making direct donations to the individual candidates’ campaigns. He writes, “The big fear about campaign money is that it corrupts the candidates who have to beg for it.”

But that worry applies better to the shadowy bundler than it does to the megabucks super PAC donor. Corruption can’t grow in the sunlight. The people giving big to super PACs are famous. I didn’t fully understand how famous until I tagged along with [Newt] Gingrich at a speech to Aloma Baptist Church in Florida, when a parishioner asked him to explain why he was taking dirty money from the gambling industry. Gingrich explained that he and [Sheldon] Adelson had a simpatico, guns-a-blazin’ view on Israel. Is it corruption if the candidate tells you what he’ll do for the donor?

(snip)

We know more about those guys than we know about the bundlers, who’ve been passing money under the table for years. So which of those systems is worse for our democracy?

I know what’s good for our democracy: satire and ridicule, and in the case of Citizens United it’s been coming most effectively from Stephen Colbert.  The Comedy Central comedian started his own super PAC and has been using it to expose the ridiculous reality resulting from the court’s ruling.

The line between entertainment and the court blurred even further late last month when Colbert had former Justice John Paul Stevens on his show to discuss his dissent in Citizens United. When a 91-year-old former justice is patiently explaining to a comedian that corporations are not people, it’s clear that everything about the majority opinion has been reduced to a punch line.

The court fights aren’t over, and perhaps the coolest one is in Montana where the state supreme court has told the one in Washington to pound sand.  The court voted 5-2 to uphold the constitutionality of Montana’s ban on corporate campaign contributions, finding justification for the ban that Citizens United does not consider.  Beyond that, Justice James Nelson unloaded: “Corporations are not persons.  Human beings are persons, and it is an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species that courts have created a legal fiction which forces people—human beings—to share fundamental, natural rights with soulless creatures of government.”   And that from one of the two dissenters in the ruling!

More fundamentally, the majority and one dissenter seem to understand perfectly how much the American people resent being lied to about the burning need for courts to step in to protect the oppressed voices of powerless corporate interests. As Judge Nelson wrote in dissent, “the notion that corporations are disadvantaged in the political realm is unbelievable. Indeed, it has astounded most Americans. The truth is that corporations wield enormous power in Congress and in state legislatures. It is hard to tell where government ends and corporate America begins: the transition is seamless and overlapping.”