It’s not as hard as I thought it would be to praise Congress for doing its job

The Senate took action first, agreeing on spending authorizations to keep the government operating until the end of the fiscal year; the House did the same the next day. Thing is, they both did what needed to be done more than a week before the drop-dead-line that would have seen the government start to shut down for lack of operating funds. How uncharacteristic of them.

In the past few years the American Congress has never missed an opportunity to run right up to the brink of any fiscal catastrophe; like the Road Runner being chased by Wile E. Coyote, it safely came to a screeching standstill in a cloud of dust just on the edge of the abyss (beep beep). To what do we owe this unusual display of fiscal responsibility? I don’t know, but I’d like to order another round.

It had become too easy and too predictable for the thousands and thousands of voices online and on air and in print to chastise House and Senate, Republican and Democrat, for failing/refusing to take care of business. I’d begun to think it was ultimately ineffective as well, but maybe–just maybe–there was still some shard of humanness left deep inside our elected representatives that was tired of being ridiculed and abused, that knew that the voices raised in criticism had a point. It’s not that I’m pleased with the details of the budget the government will operate under for the next six months, but that I’m pleased “the government” got off of its ass and made a decision with something less than the usual quotient of bluster and drama…the “sound and fury” that, as is often the case in our politics, signifies nothing.

So, good on ’em for what they done (there, I said it; are you happy?). And fine, let them go ahead and propose future budgets, have debates and secret meetings and public hearings and horse-trading and try to persuade us all of the virtue of their ideas; that’s the way we’re supposed to try to come to a consensus on public issues. Just because I don’t have the heart or the stomach for this circus right now doesn’t mean the rest of you should miss out on the fun.

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Just shut up and let me do the talking

It’s about damn time that the public reports about the private negotiations on the federal budget had some good news: Speaker Boehner and President Obama have gotten everyone else to leave the room!

Since the election last month there’s been plenty of balloon juice about how to avoid running the federal budget over a “fiscal cliff,” which is just an agreement made last year between Congress and the administration on a set of tax increases and budget cuts that would go into effect at the first of next year unless they took some other action on taxes and spending by that deadline. Remember when they said that Washington had “kicked the can down the road?” Well, this is where that can stopped; it was kicked to here so the issue wouldn’t inconveniently get noticed while America was paying attention during the fall election campaigns.

You’d like to think that there would have been some effort underway all along during the past year and a half to find a compromise on ways to strengthen the economy and reduce the government’s budget deficit, but to all appearances there wasn’t. The people we elected to go to Washington to use their judgment and wisdom in the best interests of our communities and our states and our country couldn’t climb down off their talking points long enough to get anything constructive accomplished. They could, however, make a lot of noise about the virtuousness of their own moral and political philosophies, and by extension if not by direct accusation the seditious intentions of their “friends across the aisle.” Perfect way to prepare the ground for fruitful negotiation over disagreements, right?

You don’t have to be a political scientist to know that any honest effort to come to a compromise on a course of action regarding a disputed issue isn’t aided by (1) having too many negotiators at the table, and (2) conducting the negotiations in public. The more people that are involved, the harder it is to get everyone to agree on anything. And the more the people who are involved do their talking in public and make great political show of what they will and will not accept, the harder they make it on themselves to come to a compromise without seeming to lose face in public or run the risk of being bashed as surrender monkeys or traitors to some cause or other. So it seems to me to be a thoroughly sensible decision that Boehner has asked the Senate leaders and the House Democratic leader to step back, and that “White House aides and the speaker’s staff, by mutual agreement, have largely shut down public communication about the talks” in the hope that some real progress can be made.

Now for the entertainment portion of today’s post: since I’m not one to overlook an opportunity to point out stupidity where it exists, I should highlight this. The Times story notes that as the president reaffirmed his position that the tax rate on incomes above $250,000 must go up…

On Capitol Hill, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, moved Thursday to vote on Mr. Obama’s proposal, in his broader deficit package, to permanently diminish Congress’s control over the federal government’s statutory borrowing limit, assuming that Democrats would break ranks and embarrass the president. Instead, Democratic leaders did a count, found they had 51 solid votes, and took Mr. McConnell up on what Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate majority leader, called “a positive development.”

Mr. McConnell then filibustered his own bill, objecting to a simple-majority vote and saying a change of such magnitude requires the assent of 60 senators.

“I do believe we made history on the Senate floor today,” Mr. [Richard] Durbin said.

History indeed: had to filibuster his own bill to keep it from being passed! I’m thinking that Ashley Judd might be just the thing the U.S. Senate and the people of Kentucky need.

Separating the symptoms from the syndrome

Had enough already of the economy, jobs, and Medicare as political issues?  Are you ready for some good, old-fashioned, divisive social issues, guaranteed to split Americans along religious lines?  That’s what evangelical Christians do, and with the election getting closer there should be no surprise that a new round is erupting.

The Republican National Convention is next week; this week the platform committee approved a plank regarding abortion that pretty much falls in line with the party’s position on that issue over the last few platforms: no abortion, no way, no how…and no exceptions for pregnancies that result from rape or incest.

“Faithful to the ‘self-evident’ truths enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, we assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed,” said the draft platform language approved Tuesday, which was first reported by CNN. “We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.”

I’ll give them this: that’s the only intellectually consistent anti-abortion position possible—if an unborn child has a fundamental right to life, there can be no exception that would permit that right to be “infringed.”  But that’s a hard line to take, and those exceptions have been included in many laws outlawing abortions because, to most people, it doesn’t seem fair for the government to force a woman to carry a pregnancy to term when she didn’t choose to become pregnant, or when the pregnancy itself threatens her life and health.  Unless you don’t believe that women deserve the same treatment under law as men, in which case, well, that’s tough luck for the little lady.

Is it just coincidence that this comes up as a Missouri congressman stuns us with the concept of “legitimate rape”?  Probably; more’s the pity.

Let me give Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., the benefit of the doubt.  When he answered a question about permitting abortion in the case of rape (KTVI-TV’s complete report is here), and said that he understood pregnancy as a result of rape was rare because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” I think he was trying to say that he believes that most of the pregnant women who claim they were raped are lying about having been raped, not trying to suggest that there is such a thing as “legitimate rape” as opposed to “illegitimate rape.”

In other words, he was demonstrating his ignorance.  That’s what’s driving a large part of the reaction, but what’s driving the rest—the portion from within the Republican Party—is that Akin looked stupid on a national stage, thereby threatening the GOP’s takeover of the U.S. Senate in this election, and opened up a crack in the extremist positions of the Republican Party for all the rest of us to take a peek.

We should not be fooled that Akin’s statement, merely because it is so offensive and quickly retracted or clarified, is a mere slip. It actually represents the worldview of Akin and many like-minded Republican colleagues. His comments are part and parcel of a view of civil rights, women’s rights, and science that should be antithetical to a modern society. It reflects a worldview that has held up progress on too many serious issues, a form of know-nothingism for the modern era, a rejection of the very notion of learning.

There’s little doubt that the “conservative” forces that have taken control of the GOP have a wide-ranging agenda driven by their adherence to the belief that America is a Christian nation that needs to be evangelized, to be “taken back” from the forces advocating the constitutional principles of a secular, inclusive, civil society.  What was once the party of Lincoln, of Roosevelt, even of Reagan, has moved so far to the extreme that it’s left a lot of its old membership behind.  (Let’s make posting examples of that a new parlor game, shall we—who wants to go next?)

Republicans…conservatives…evangelical extremists…organizing themselves to support and promote their beliefs, is absolutely their right, without question; speaking out against that myopic vision of our country is a right, too.  A right LZ Granderson exercised today…

Some social conservatives talk of protecting religious freedom, but what they are really seeking is a theocracy that places limits on freedom based on a version of Judeo-Christianity that fits their liking.That language is also being considered for the GOP’s national platform.

And John Avlon, also

So the real scandal is not just the sincere stupidity of Akin’s statement — it is the policy that undergirds it, enshrined in the Republican National Platform. The problem is bigger than politics, and that’s why it is worth discussing in this election, even when Akin is off the front pages.

…just to name two; I’ll be looking for the slightest excuse to post more.

Today Akin apologized for his comment and confessed he does understand that, yes, rape can cause pregnancy.  He also defied his party (from a safe perch behind Mike Huckabee’s microphone) and said he will not resign from the Senate race against Missouri’s Democratic incumbent senator; the applause and the apoplexy resume.  But Akin is not the issue…he’s only a symptom, and one to which an attentive citizenry needs to pay attention.

You hate to see a grown legislator cry

It’s not a pleasant sight, but we should get used to it because it’s not over: across the country, and soon in Washington, D.C., elected representatives are finally struggling with making actual budget cuts.

Here in Texas we face the same problem as everyone else: not enough money to pay for everything we want.  Fact is, we’re $23 billion short of what we’d need to fund the last budget with no increases in anything—or in other words, we need to cut the last budget by more than 12%—and the Texas Constitution doesn’t permit deficit spending.  So our legislature is in the midst of that “adult conversation” we’ve heard so much about, making tough decisions about what to keep and what to cut.

No one’s really in favor of cutting state funding of public education by $8 billion (or in favor of what Tom the Dancing Bug down there is imagining), or short-sheeting projected growth in Medicaid caseloads by $4 billion, or running TDB onbombing schoolsthe risk of nursing homes closing because of the proposed cut in Medicaid reimbursement rates.  But all of that’s in the budget approved yesterday by the state House of Representatives, and that’s after getting the governor to agree to use $3.1 billion dollars from the savings account.

Republican leaders in the Texas House, who are still talking about finding some “non-tax revenue” source to ease the cuts, passed this budget because they believe the voters made it clear in November that they’re opposed to raising any taxes, and so far there’s been no groundswell of Texans begging to pay higher taxes to prevent these cuts…although there’s been plenty of complaints about what’s proposed to be cut.

Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, likened the situation to entering a burning house and finding schoolchildren in one room and elderly people in another.

“I finally figured out that I couldn’t save anybody in this fire,” Dutton said, asking why lawmakers chose not to put out the fire by addressing the state’s underlying fiscal problems.

The same kind of tough decisions need to be made in Washington, and just like in Texas there’s no way to make real change without pain—a lot if it.  Most of the federal budget is tied up in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and defense spending.  The deficit commission concluded that everything has to be on the table for discussion, and a small group of senators has been negotiating quietly to come up with a plan.

Tomorrow, House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin releases his plan, and I hope that kicks off some serious discussion about our options for resolving the government’s financial problem.  I hope, but frankly I’m not overly optimistic about Congress solving the problem: you see, tomorrow another group of worthies meets at the White House to see if they can keep the government from shutting down on Friday, because Congress has repeatedly failed in its responsibility to pass a budget for the year that started October 1 of LAST YEAR!

C’mon, guys; cut the crap and get serious, wouldya?