Under The Big Top

Clowns are the pegs on which the circus is hung.

— P.T. Barnum

As expected, the 118th Session of Congress got underway with a real spectacle after fifteen ballots to finally elect Kevin McCarthy (RMAGA – CA) as the Speaker of the House. In his vision quest to finally achieve his lifelong dream to be Speaker, he gave enormous power to the clowns that constitute his main supporters in the Republican caucus. Some observers argue that he gave away too much power, and thus will have little ability to actually govern or to accomplish much of anything. Assuming that the Republicans in the House of Representatives really intend or desire to accomplish anything of substance, those observers may be right. The bottom line, however, is the same. Not much of value will come out of the House in the next two years. Anything that does is likely to be ridiculous — such as their current effort to do away with the Internal Revenue Service and eliminate federal income taxes — and is almost certainly assured to fail in the Senate and absolutely will be vetoed by President Joe Biden.

There are, however, some elements of Mr. McCarthy’s concessions to the most extreme elements of his caucus that can cause real harm to our country. (I say most extreme in the context of believing that all elements of the House Republican Party are extreme. I don’t think that there are any “moderates” left. There are only hard right wing and dangerously hard right wingers in the Party now. The evidence is based not on public pronouncements, but rather on actual votes. So far, no matter how extreme the issue, the Republicans have voted unanimously. We will see if some long time Republican members realize that the country is being taken hostage and form their own bloc to counter the crazies.)

Many analysts have focused on the moves inside the House and how damaging they may prove to be. Some of it is arcane to the casual observer, but has real consequences to how things are accomplished. Or not accomplished. I do not intend to go into each and every corner of Mr. McCarthy’s concessions to the extreme right. However, there are two that we should pay attention to as the consequences could impact us all. One is the impending battle over raising the debt limit in the United States. The other is the formation of a new committee called The Select Subcommittee On The Weaponization of the Federal Government. The Chair of the Judiciary Committee Representative Jim Jordan (RMAGA – OH) will chair the subcommittee. Some critics grimly call it “The Tin Foil Hat Committee” or “The Committee to Obstruct Justice” because its primary goal is to investigate the Department of Justice, the FBI, our intelligence agencies and according to Mr. Jordan, to investigate why conservatives are being targeted by the federal government and therefore he needs to protect the First Amendment, including such violations of the amendment as is embodied in the investigations into the events on and before 6 January 2021.

It has become a twenty first century game for Republicans to try and hold the debt ceiling hostage when a Democrat is in the White House. When a Republican is president, the necessary legislation passes without remark or notice. Separating the hyperbole from the facts is important. Without going into all of the history, one should note that the Fourteenth Amendment (one amazing Amendment, by the way) says in part, “The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.” In other words, pay the bills lawfully incurred by the U.S. government. Simple, right? All it means is that we as a country, just like most consumers, buy things on credit and pay them off over time. And it’s in the Constitution. There should be no problem but somehow in this century Republicans try to use it as a way to cut spending by the federal government (and thereby shrink the size of the government and eliminate or shrink programs they don’t like). Their concerns are over future spending. That’s legitimate and should be debated in every Congress. But they present it to the American public as some kind of current fiscal responsibility, not future. Again, let’s look at the facts. The debt ceiling was originally an accounting step that Congress took during World War I to allow more flexibility to the Treasury Department to spend during the war without continually coming to Congress for approval. It was not meant to be the same as a budget, appropriation or authorization. It is only in recent decades that it has become a weapon that the Republicans use against the Democrats, depending on which party is in power. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s official web site, the debt ceiling has been raised 78 times since 1960. Forty-nine times under Republican presidents and twenty-nine times under Democratic presidents. That is not exactly a Democrat spending problem. Math can be a tricky subject and one can manipulate the numbers a lot of ways whether discussing absolute dollars, percentages, relative dollars or other measures. That said, most experts conclude that the three presidents to have the national debt grow the most were, in order, Abraham Lincoln, George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump.

Here is the bottom line. The U.S. has never defaulted on its debt. We have already passed the debt ceiling but the Secretary of the Treasury is using “extraordinary measures” to keep paying the bills until there is a new limit (which allows more borrowing). Those measures run out around June. The U.S. has never defaulted on its debt in our entire history. No one knows exactly what will happen because it has never happened before. However, there is near unanimous agreement by serious financial experts and economists that it will trigger a world wide recession, including sky rocketing interest rates in the U.S., millions of jobs lost, the government shut down, social safety nets dry up and an economic nightmare for the average citizen. No one wants that to happen. And that’s the rub. Republicans know that Democrats can never allow that to happen and so, voila, the perfect hostage situation. Speaker McCarthy wants to “negotiate” with President Biden over spending cuts in order to raise the debt. The president says that there can be no negotiation because raising the debt limit is the normal business of the Congress under the Constitution and has nothing to do with future spending. Here’s the problem for the president. Mr. McCarthy is coming to the table with a wide ranging and drastic reduction in government programs, including in Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare. If the president gives in to even a little bit of that agenda in exchange for raising the limit, the Republicans have scored a tremendous political victory without having given up anything in return, merely doing their Constitutional duty. That is not a “negotiation.” Further complicating the issue is that members of Mr. McCarthy’s caucus probably would not mind seeing the U.S. default on its debts. Their goal is create as much chaos, anarchy and division as possible in order to fill the vacuum with their own autocratic policies and leaders. In other words, there is no guarantee Mr. McCarthy can pass anything without the Democrats help.

Some of those same extremists that would not mind destroying the American and world economy are on the Weaponization Committee. Chairman Jordan is under investigation for his actions leading up to the attempted coup on 6 January 2021. Other prominent members of the committee include MAGA supporters that are also under investigation. The panel will have thirteen members and Mr. McCarthy has already put eleven Republicans on it. Representative Jerry Nadler (D-NY) automatically gets a seat as the senior minority member on the Judiciary Committee. That leaves space for two other Democrats. Democracy in action.

It is a dangerous situation. While little of substance will come out of that committee, it will be used to try to investigate the investigators and as a cudgel against any other member of the government or a particular agency that irks them. Mr. Jordan has already demanded that the Department of Justice turn over all of their investigatory information on the 6 January coup. This would be unprecedented in American history. The Congress cannot interfere in ongoing criminal investigations. It would completely undermine the rule of law in our country. DOJ rebuffed the request but I am sure that the committee will haul the Attorney General, Director of the FBI and others before their panel to brow beat them, bully them and otherwise yell and put forth misinformation. In other words, their goal is to create more chaos, more attempts to undermine American’s faith in the government and our institutions and to foment more efforts to bring down our democracy. Also in their aim is the Department of Education and “Big Tech.” They are chartered with the ability to access the same information shared with the Intelligence Committee, another unprecedented move. They will investigate the “unfair” search warrant at Mar-a-Lago and the discovery of classified papers found in President Biden’s home (but not those recovered from Mar-a-Lago because, as one Representative put it, “he’s been investigated enough.”) They most certainly will project the insurrection on 6 January as a group of patriots exercising their First Amendment rights (see above) and of course try to cover up their own involvement in the coup attempt. Recall that 147 Republicans voted on 6 January 2021 to overturn the election. All eight of the Senators and 118 of the Representatives are part of the current Congress.

In simple terms, the Weaponization Committee can try, and will try, to investigate anything that they want to anywhere in the country and anywhere throughout the government. Witch Hunts, indeed. More dangerously they will attempt to gain access to the most sensitive information available to our justice and intelligence systems. No one knows what they may do with that information or how destructive they may be. Every Republican in the House voted to authorize this committee. That is why I despair that there are no moderates left on the Republican side of the aisle.

The clowns are in charge in the House. The circus is underway. It will be quite the show. One hopes that it results only in fury and showboating and lots of air time on Fox News rather than causing real harm to our democracy.

Who Keeps the Secrets?

Since last summer, much has been said and written about the National Security Agency (NSA) and the release of sensitive information through the actions of Edward Snowden, the disaffected contract employee in the Hawaiian division of the agency.  Some argue that he is a whistleblower, or a “hero” for exposing the extent of NSA operations.  Others call him a “traitor” or an egomaniac out for his own purposes.  I tend to gravitate towards the latter.

In studying why people spy, or betray their country, or otherwise do harm to their nation’s security, old-time analysts refer to the motivation as being a result of MICE.   That is, Money, Ideology, Coercion, or Ego are the prime motivators.  Usually it only takes one, but sometimes it is a combination of things.  Obviously I have no idea what motivated Edward Snowden because I have never talked with him.  However, based on his actions and pronouncements via news sources, it seems to me that he is pretty full of himself, regardless of his stated intentions.  It appears that he thinks that he and he alone, can best determine what may or may not be in the best interests of the United States and his fellow citizens.  That to me takes a huge ego.  Further evidence of the ego involved comes from the fact that he has not released all of the information in one grand action.  Rather, he is letting it out in bits and pieces, apparently to keep his name at the forefront of the furor he has created.

More importantly, now that the information is out there, and we as citizens as well as those of other nations are aware of the extent of the collection capabilities of the NSA, the question becomes one of whether it is right to do all of things that Snowden’s revelations indicate are being done.  Henry Stimson, Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State, is to have famously said, “Gentlemen do not read each others mail.”  This came after he learned of the “Black Chamber” or a combined U.S. Army and State Department cryptanalysis effort started following World War I.  (He later had a totally different viewpoint of such activity when he became the Secretary of War during World War II.)

Such a hands off approach, then or now, is disingenuous to me.  Of course nations need to gather intelligence, even in times of peace and about our friends.  The real question is how does a nation, especially the United States, balance the need for collecting such information with the freedoms that we hold dear in our country?  There is a saying that “the price of safety is eternal vigilance” and surely we cannot be naive enough not to understand that there are people and nations that wish us harm.  At the same time, we do have laws that govern what may and may not be done in the name of that vigilance.

I am not entirely comfortable with the system of checks and balances that have been instituted under the law to protect our rights to privacy.  The courts and Congressional over sight are not foolproof, but I think that despite my qualms, they are sufficient to ensure our basic freedoms.  While no system is perfect, and serious inquiry into how well it is working is welcomed, in fact it is a necessary part of our warning systems to protect our nation from harm.

I am not a “whatever it takes” kind of person when it comes to securing our nation.  If all of the safety and security people had their way we would all be lined up in little plastic cocoons with no danger of hurting ourselves or others.  Our basic way of life is fraught with risks.  Indeed, our form of government is fraught with risks.  It seems that every time something “bad” happens a new program, requirement, or system is installed and everyone is subjected to the same scrutiny, whether or not the odds of it ever happening again are very high, whether or not the danger is real, and whether or not the impact of that activity is very substantive.  Some of these new procedures and requirements in the name of safety and security are not always better, or even very good, ideas.

Thus our current dilemma continues.  What is in the best interest of our national security while preserving the ability to know that what should be private remains private?   I am somewhat distressed at the protests over the NSA activities (which by the way, by law, cannot be conducted against U.S. citizens without court approval) compared with the nonchalant acceptance of Google, or Facebook or Amazon learning every thing there is to know about your habits, likes, dislikes, etc. etc.  I daresay that those internet companies know a lot more about individual Americans than the NSA could ever hope to know.  I for one am significantly less comfortable with the information collected by businesses of all types in the daily transactions of existence, and what they do with that information, than I am with the NSA.

Let Edward Snowden be a warning not only about the capabilities of the NSA in collecting data, but perhaps in even stronger terms, let it be a warning of what takes place in our everyday world on behalf of businesses and other non-governmental organizations in the name of “convenience” as we live our lives.