Furlough Journal: Not with a bang, but a whimper

A few unexpected days off from work means…time on the golf course, of course, and yesterday I had finally gotten past practice time and was enjoying my first round of golf in a month.  Between the 11th green and the 12th tee I got a text message from someone at work with the news bulletin that the president had agreed to end the partial government shutdown for three weeks.  Enjoy these last seven holes, pal.

I’ve got to say that the first thing that came to my mind was to assume a less-than-altruistic motive on the president’s part.  Rather than his finally recognizing the unnecessary hardship he had visited upon hundreds of thousands of civil servants and government contractors and making the decision to release the hostages while negotiating for his border wall, I was ready to bet that we’d find out Mr. Trump had said something on the order of, “OK, now I’ve opened the government so I’m on TV on Tuesday with the State of the Union, right?”  That might still turn out to be the determining factor…right along with the inconvenience of restricting air traffic in New York because of a shortage of air traffic controllers, or any one of a list of calls from people within government to end the madness, to the growing embarrassment caused by members of the administration showing off their unimagined levels of lack of understanding of what it’s like to be non-rich and miss a paycheck.  Or two.

In any case, I’ve received official word from my boss that we’re to return to work Monday at the regular time.  The deal in Washington is just for three weeks to allow negotiation on border security, and provides back pay for the civil servants who have missed two paychecks (so far)…compensation to the companies holding contracts with the government which didn’t get promised payments will apparently have to come in subsequent legislation, if it comes at all.  It seems to me that the president is setting the stage to declare a national emergency three weeks from now if an agreeable compromise is not reached, rather than closing the government again at that juncture.   (Just wondering, how can we reasonably call the situation at the border now an “emergency” if we’ve waited the last five weeks, and perhaps three more weeks to come, to declare it so?)  We’ll see what happens.

JPEG imageA few things I’ve learned during this “vacation”: the phone at our house never stops ringing all day; my beard is greyer than it was;

and my new iPad can do tricks!

JPEG image 2JPEG image 5JPEG image 4JPEG image 3

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Furlough Journal: The good, the bad, and the stupid

Surely this is happening all around the country, as we’re in the fifth week of a totally avoidable shutdown of parts of our federal government.  (Including the part that employs me.)  But I know it’s happening here in Houston, because this morning Houston’s Leading Information Source tells me it is.  Of the 800,000 or so federal employees who are out on furlough and learning to do without paychecks—because, essentially, a girl on Fox News challenged the manhood of our tiny-fingered president and that led him to renege on his commitment to sign a bill funding the government—more than 200,000 of them are in Texas and 30,000 of those in the Houston area.  It’s heartening to read about the local businesses taking action to help neighbors and customers who are strapped for cash.

There are restaurants offering free meals to federal employees; pharmacies charging discounted prices on prescriptions; banks waiving late fees or allowing customers to miss a payment with no penalty; a credit union offering interest-free loans to furloughed workers to cover their missing paychecks; phone and internet companies and utilities offering payment plans.  I’m keeping a list of these good neighbors so I can patronize them in the future, and maybe take them up on their offers if I have to as we wait to see where this unprecedented national hostage-taking leads us.

In the meantime, what’s being done to end this nasty situation and get us back to our normal routine of overeating and underexercising, staring blankly at cat videos, and worrying about whether our favorite social media influencers are getting enough online attention?  Well, after more than a month of not even talking about a single damn thing that the president hadn’t already said he would agree with (BTW, why should that be a concern with a president who never keeps his word?), the leadership in the Unites States Senate plans to take a couple of votes it already believes are doomed to failure.  But at least they’re trying, right?  Because that’s what a co-equal branch of government charged by the Constitution with providing checks and balances on the other branches of government is supposed to do, not act like it has no authority or free will or good judgment of its own and shout over and over again “Thank you, sir, may I have another?”.

The White House appears to have come to a complete and safe stop about any and all other issues—except for the president’s yes-I-will-oh-no-you-won’t fight with the House speaker over a State of the Union speech next week, and the president’s laughable “threats” to the family of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen that have given Cohen a laughable excuse to cancel his scheduled testimony on Capitol Hill about…what was it again?  Oh, yeah, about his financial crimes and possibly the campaign finance law violations in which he implicated his former boss.  Good times.

But there is some targeted action in the Senate intended to keep this jackassery from happening again in the future, and for that I am very glad if not downright giddy:

Furlough Journal: The end of an error

Uh, that’s it?

After more than two weeks of a partial government shutdown and right up to the brink of a government default on its bills, all forced by extremist Republicans trying to coerce Democrats and the president to give up their wins on health care reform, the Republicans waved the white flag.  Unable to come up with a plan that was agreeable even within the group of Republicans in the House, the House threw up its collective hands and punted, agreeing to approve a compromise originated in the Senate that funds the government and raises the debt ceiling—that is, it kicks this can down the road a few months.  And as far as the Affordable Care Act goes, this bill does not defund a damn thing but it does “strengthen income verification requirements for those who sign up for insurance under Obamacare.”  Well, isn’t that special.

The extremist Republicans got exactly none of what they claimed to have been after, the entire Republican Party has taken a black eye in public approval, 800,000 civil servants and an uncounted number of contractors who do not do “essential jobs” missed work and maybe paying some bills.  And what did I learn, back here in my little corner of the partial government shutdown?

  • I enjoy not going to the office, and going instead to the golf course
  • I don’t respond to a few consecutive days of exercise like I used to
  • Working from home on a short term basis is hard because there are too many potential distractions
  • I hate getting calls from telemarketers

Now I wait for instructions.  My contract management tells me and my colleagues we must wait until our contract gets official notification before we can step foot back at our government offices, and that hasn’t come yet, but the civil servants we work directly for are already calling 9:00 o’clock meetings for tomorrow morning.  That’s right: some things never change.

Furlough Journal: Lunatics, yes…fringe, not so much

Happy Columbus Day, which is the last day I can sit home doing nothing and still get paid during our partial government shutdown, now about to begin its third exciting week!  I used some of the time today on Twitter keeping up with developments in Washington as the Senate leaders took their turn at not only resolving the shutdown but avoiding a potential government default later this week when the debt ceiling is expected to be reached.  Good times.

The proximate cause of the shutdown that started October 1 was the inability of Congress to pass a law, known as a continuing resolution (CR), to keep all of the federal government departments and agencies fully funded and functioning; they pass a CR to extend funding at the prior year’s budget levels because they are totally incapable of passing a new budget—been that way for years now.  As noted at the time (Furlough Journal: Blaming the guilty, 10/2/2013) , this shutdown can be credited to the extremist Republican members of the House who were holding a gun to America’s head demanding concessions from the president on the Affordable Care Act.  Plenty of conservatives who oppose Obamacare were and are critical of the tea partiers for using this tactic at this time, for being oblivious to political reality.

Ah, but just what reality are we, or they, talking about?  You’ve probably seen more and more analysis that argues, if I may be so bold as to paraphrase, that the extremists aren’t interested in whatever “reality” the mainstream members and Congressional leadership are trying to protect and advance; they are out to do what they said they would do when they were elected—shrink the government and fight the good fight against liberals in general and Barack Obama in particular.  To the extent that they are trying to do what they promised they would do if elected and are fighting for a cause they believe in without compromising their principles, they should be applauded.  To the extent that their actions have consequences for their fellow citizens, they should take responsibility and must accept criticism.

Among the chattering classes there’s lately been a lot of effort put into trying to explain the beliefs and the motives and the actions of these extremists, to find an historical precedent for this kind of obstructionism, to give the average American a frame of reference.  To my surprise, a lot of writers are going back to the pre-Civil War South to find one!

Late last month (At this point in the discussion there is really only one question left, 9/30/2013) I wrote about a James Fallows piece in The Atlantic in which he argued that this fight is entirely within the Republican Party and that there’s nothing anyone else can say that will persuade, likening it to “the inability of Northern/free-state opinion to affect the debate within the slave-state South from the 1840s onward.”  More recently I’ve found a few making the argument that today’s tea party extremists are philosophically aligned with John C. Calhoun and the nullifiers before the Civil War.  Frank Rich in New York Magazine this weekend is just the latest:

The present-day anti-government radicals in Congress, and the Americans who voted them into office, are in the minority, but they are a permanent minority that periodically disrupts or commandeers a branch or two of the federal government, not to mention the nation’s statehouses. Their brethren have been around for much of our history in one party or another, and with a constant anti-­democratic aim: to thwart the legitimacy of a duly elected leader they abhor, from Lincoln to FDR to Clinton to Obama, and to resist any laws with which they disagree.

(snip)

At the heart of the current rebels’ ideology is the anti-Washington credo of nullification, codified by the South Carolina politician John C. Calhoun in the 1830s and rarely lacking for avid followers ever since. Our inability to accept the anti-government right’s persistence is in part an astonishing case of denial.

(snip)

For Republicans to claim that this cabal of 80 legislators represents a mutant strain—“a small segment who dictate to the rest of the party,” in the words of a prominent GOP fund-raiser, Bobbie Kilberg—is disingenuous or delusional. (Kilberg herself has raised money for Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor.) This “small segment” accounts for a third of the 232 members of the House Republican caucus. Lunatics they may be, but the size of their cohort can’t be minimized as a fringe in the context of the wider GOP. And they wield disproportionate clout because the party’s so-called moderates let them—whether out of fear of primary challenges from the right, opportunism, or shared convictions that are not actually moderate at all.

(snip)

…1994 marked the culmination of the migration of the old Confederacy from the Democratic Party to the GOP. That shift had started in 1964, when Barry Goldwater pried away states from the old solid Democratic South with his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and it accelerated with the advent of Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy” of pandering to racists at the end of that decade. But for an interim quarter-century after that, the old Dixiecrats were dispersed in both major parties, rather than coalescing in one. The 1994 election was the first since Reconstruction in which the majority of the old South’s congressional representation went into the Republican column.

Rich goes on to make some thoughtful points; it’s worth your time.  So is Charles C.W. Cooke’s de facto rebuttal in the National Review.  Cooke is an opponent of Obamacare who has sharply criticized the extremists for marching into this battle with no plan for how to win, but he’s not ready to cede the nullification argument, pointing out that the Constitution itself separates power in our federal government and no one should be surprised when they are disagreements among people trying to wield power:

To understand the American system is to grasp that our current impasse is by no means exceptional, and, in consequence, that there is little point in wasting time looking around for bogeymen or ghosts when the culprit is there in plain sight. If you want to blame someone for our problems, it should be James Madison, not John Calhoun.

(snip)

Some progressives like simplistically to claim that America’s two parties “switched places” in 1964 — a trade leading to the predominance of racist white southerners in the GOP eager to burn down the government to get what they wanted. If so, then one has to wonder why the vast majority of funding gaps occurred at the insistence of the good guys in what, by the time the first such gap came along in 1976, was allegedly the New Democratic party.

(snip)

…if staunch congressional opposition, government shutdowns, and high-profile debt-limit fights are now to be cast as examples of nullification, then Congress has evidently tried to nullify not only the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, but also those of Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush.

(snip)

My suspicion is that, as much as anything else, “nullification” is a word that is used consciously and deliberately as a cudgel — especially at the moment, when we have a president who is black. Accusing someone in America of seeking to “nullify” a given power is rhetorically akin to sticking the label “defenders of states’ rights” onto advocates of robust federalism. The accusers do not simply intend to imply that their opponents’ actions are illegal or illegitimate; they mean to taint them with the racism brush…

This is an interesting discussion to be having right now, and it keeps our minds off the latest news about the National Security Agency copying your email contacts list while we twiddle our thumbs and wait for our elected members of Congress to do their damn jobs.

Furlough Journal: It’s starting to get serious

An update from my little corner of the partial government shutdown: it continues, but I’m just back.  This past week I’ve been on a vacation that was planned and approved well before the PGS began, but I haven’t missed a thing because late last week my employer, a company with a contract to provide certain services to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, told us it was fine for everyone to use accrued vacation time through October 11, and that if the shutdown continued we’d receive further instructions.  So while some of my colleagues who perform (apparently) essential tasks have been doing their regular work, and other folks have been getting paid for doing other tasks, albeit not from our government offices or using government equipment, I’ve been in a holiday frame of mind and oblivious to the impact of the inaction of our Congress to do its job.  Yesterday evening I checked back in and found those promised “further instructions.”  The tone has changed.

You see, on top of the 800,000 civil servants who were furloughed and aren’t being paid since the shutdown started October 1, part of the real fallout of non-essential elements of the government being shut down is that those government agencies don’t make their scheduled payments to their contractors, who as a result may not have funds available to keep paying their employees.

In our case, as a result of not receiving expected payments from the government our company advises us that as of now we cannot use our accrued vacation hours to keep getting paid; we can, however, take leave without pay.  (Oh goody.)  For those on our contract who are furloughed, the bosses advised them that they will stop accruing vacation as of the start of the new pay period next week and offered them instructions on how to apply for unemployment insurance payments.  Those of us who are (currently) not furloughed will continue to accrue vacation (that we can’t use yet) .  Health insurance benefits remain in effect for all.

But we’re not alone.  This morning Houston’s Leading Information Source offered this front-page localization of the government shutdown story: a prediction that the number of NASA contractors in Houston who are on furlough could triple by the end of next week if Congress doesn’t end the shutdown.  In this case at least—there may be other similar cases—the blame does not rest entirely on the members of Congress who failed to do the job we elected them to do; the bureaucratic mentality that runs our government is responsible for at least part of the pain:

Some of the pain could be eased if NASA paid contractors millions of dollars it owes them for completed work, Mitchell said. Just before payments were to be made to contractors, he said, Elizabeth Robinson, NASA chief financial officer, furloughed workers in the office where checks are written.

“There is no reason NASA can’t pay these small contractors the money due to them,” Mitchell said. “It’s in the bank, it’s due to them, and she’s not paying them because she considers people who pay bills for NASA non-essential.”

Some contractors are owed for as much as two months of work, he said.

Neither Robinson nor a NASA representative could be reached because of the shutdown.

Of course.