That Was The Week That Was

With apologies to the old 1960’s era television show — the precursor to shows on now such as the Daily Show — That Was The Week That Was, or as it was commonly known TWTWTW, or TW3, we just experienced among the craziest weeks in recent history.  Like the Daily Show, TW3 took actual news events and gave them a “can you believe it” comical twist.  Unfortunately, there was nothing comical about this past week.  If you were busy shopping or attending holiday parties, here are the highlights of what you missed over the past seven days.  In some semblance of chronological order, of which very little exists today in this administration, they include:

  • Late last Friday night a federal judge declared the entire Affordable Care Act (ACA) unconstitutional.  The judge said that since Congress lowered the tax for the Individual Mandate to zero, they essentially repealed the tax.  In two Supreme Court decisions the ACA was ruled constitutional because of the tax — which is a right held by Congress.  Since there is now no tax, the whole law was deemed unconstitutional, ignoring the long-standing legal precedent of “severability” which means that just because one part of a contract or law is deemed to be wrong, the whole contract or law is not voided.  More on this in a future post.
  • Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned from the Cabinet to avoid investigation of his actions while in office.  This now means that since the mid-term election in November, Mr. Trump has fired or accepted the “resignations” of the Attorney General, his Chief of Staff, the Ambassador to the U.N., and the Secretary of Defense.  There are still countless White House staff positions, Assistant Secretaries, and Ambassador positions yet to be filled two years into this administration.
  • It was revealed that there are currently at least 17 investigations of Mr. Trump, his organizations, and associates by at least seven different jurisdictions.  (The Special Counsel, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, the U.S. Attorney for  the District of Columbia, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Attorneys General from New York City, New York State and other states, and a “mystery” investigation that is under court seal.)
  • Two independent studies reported to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the Russians’ involvement in social media and efforts to help Mr. Trump and to hurt Secretary Clinton were more widespread than previously understood.  It continued well after the election and shifted focus to undermining Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation of Mr. Trump.  In particular, the Russians took actions to suppress the minority vote.  Since Mr. Trump won the Electoral College by a total of approximately 80,000 votes spread across the three states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan it is probable, but not provable, that their actions changed the election.
  • General Michael Flynn arrived for sentencing thinking that he would get probation.  Judge Emmet Sullivan disabused him of that perception and threatened to lock him up.  “I am not hiding my disgust, my disdain, for this criminal offense,” said the judge.  Keep in mind that the judge has seen the redacted parts of the case that detail the full extent of the former National Security Adviser’s role in the campaign, transition and administration.  The sentencing was postponed for 90 days to give General Flynn another chance to cooperate with the investigation.  (Hint. Hint.)
  • In an ongoing civil suit in New York State, the Attorney General of New York attained a court order for the Trump Foundation to shut down.  The Foundation will distribute its remaining funds under court supervision.  The suit continues.  The N.Y Attorney General argued that the Foundation was little more than a slush fund for Mr. Trump, the Trump Organization and the Trump campaign.  All illegal activities.
  • Acting Attorney General Whitaker refuses to recuse himself.  The senior career ethics professional in the Department of Justice told the Acting A.G. that he should recuse himself from the Mueller Investigation.  Mr. Whitaker decided not to do so.  Remember that A.G. Sessions forever will feel the wrath of Mr. Trump for having rightly recused himself last year following the appointment of the Special Counsel.
  • The president unilaterally announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria within 30 days. On Twitter. He further ordered that plans be drawn up to withdraw most if not all of our forces from Afghanistan.  This decision was met with great joy and celebration in Russia, Iran, and by Syria’s despotic ruler.  It takes the U.S. out of any significant role in the future of the Middle East and sends a message to our friends and allies that we cannot be trusted.  The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are the Kurds.  Through U.S. training, equipping and our Special Forces fighting alongside, they have become the most effective fighting force in Syria and were our partners in driving ISIS out of the cities.  We are now throwing them under the bus.  The Turkish government (along with Iran) does not want the Kurds to be a strong entity in the region and indeed the Turks are planning to attack them as soon as we leave.  Likewise negotiations to end the conflict in Afghanistan are now in jeopardy because the president wants us to leave.  All of our opponents now know to just wait us out.  We have lost all credibility in much of the world, but especially in Asia.  We also undermine Israel with this decision as the Syrians, Iranians, and Hezbollah and others can now consolidate their power, gain new territory and not worry about a U.S. presence in the area.  This is a dream come true for Vladimir Putin.
  • The president agreed to a Continuing Resolution to keep the government open until 8 February, the Senate unanimously voted to approve it and then he changed his mind and refused to go along unless he got at least $5 billion for a border wall.  Ironically the approximately 800,00 federal personnel that will be impacted are significantly represented by TSA agents, Border Patrol agents, Coast Guardsmen (the Coast Guard is not part of the Defense Department but falls under the Department of Home Land Security) and others charged with keeping our borders safe.  They will keep working but not get paid until the budget bill passes. For those that have mortgages, Christmas presents to buy, groceries to feed their family and other obligations, getting paid sometime in the future is not helpful to their current situations.  Mr. Trump promises a “very long shutdown” if he doesn’t get his way.  Remarkably, Representative Mark Meadows (Trump-NC) said that federal employees knew what they were getting into.  “It’s actually part of what you do when you sign up for any public service position.”  (Someone should tell Mr. Meadows that a well-run government does not shut down.  Furthermore, the Republicans have controlled the House, Senate and White House for two years.  Apparently that isn’t enough time to, you know, do your job and pass a budget.)
  • Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned.  Take a look at his resignation letter here.  Those familiar with the way such things normally work, Secretary Mattis’ letter is a direct rebuke of Mr. Trump and his policies and his leadership.  Through the eloquent and gentlemanly language, the Secretary basically tells Mr. Trump that he is full of it and an anathema to all that the United States stood for, for over seventy years.  This is unprecedented in modern times.
  • The stock market is on track to have the worst December on record since 1931 and the Great Depression.  The reasons are varied but include the uncertainty created by Mr. Trump and his impulsive policy decisions, especially regarding trade and tariffs.

These are only the quick highlights.  And only one week’s worth of news is listed here.  In “normal” times this much activity in a month would be noteworthy.

Much of this will play out over the next few weeks and months.  I am sure we will all have plenty to say about it as events unfold.  Right now I want to emphasize what much of this means to us with respect to national security and foreign affairs.

Mr. Trump campaigned on an “America First” agenda.  Nice slogan.  As has been pointed out by many, this was also the slogan of the fascist leaning, isolationist wing of American politicians in the 1930s that refused to oppose the rise of Hitler and Mussolini.  I am not hinting that Mr. Trump is a fascist sympathizer, I am merely pointing out that there are historical roots to the thoughts, and policies he espouses.

Given Mr. Trump’s use of hyperbole in everything that he does, many thought that “America First” was just a catchy phrase that he liked.  What is becoming increasingly clear is that the words are more than a slogan.  He believes them in the sense that it governs his views on trade, national security, military action and our role in the world.  It is reflected in his decisions (against nearly unanimous caution not to do so) to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan, his decisions to impose tariffs, and his desire to build a wall on the southern border.  It is an entirely isolationist, transactional way of thinking.  In this way of thinking we do not help or stand by allies unless there is something tangible in it for us — in Mr. Trump’s view, money.

This way of thinking is dangerous — to the interests of the United States and to peace and stability in the world.  It cedes the playing field to Russia and China who are more than happy to fill the void.

Re-read Secretary Mattis’ resignation letter. He resigned because of those “America First” policies.  This is what he is not so subtly saying.  Mr. Trump is a danger to all that we as a country have held dear for over 70 years and a danger to the influence and power for good that the world used to count upon from the good old U.S. of A. Not anymore.

Expect it to get worse as Mr. Trump has systematically removed all of those in his administration that were not afraid to tell him “no” and stood against his misguided plans.  The president acts impulsively and erratically and it seems that with two years of data, we now know that his instincts are either no good, or his knowledge of the world is sorely inadequate.

We are fast approaching a time where the United States government is run like the Trump Organization.  It will be in the hands of Mr. Trump, his daughter and son-in-law.  Period.

Likewise, the world — our friends and allies as well as our enemies — now know that the president is weak and ill-informed.  The decision to leave Syria proves it to them.  The icing on the cake was his decision to cave to the whining from hard-core right-wing pundits on television calling him out on not shutting down the government over his wall.  It makes Mr. Trump look scared of losing his base and gives power to the likes of Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh.  Along with Sean Hannity, those apparently are his real cabinet.

On the other hand, this is a season of great joy!  Celebrate with friends and family.  Remember that we are all God’s children and enjoy the gift of life.  For a few days, we can put aside the worries of the secular world and revel in the power of the spiritual world.

Best wishes to all.


While You Were Tweeting

I trust that you all had an enjoyable Thanksgiving weekend.  In many ways we have so much to be thankful for so it is always nice to take time out and to reflect on our good fortune — whatever form that may take.

In our nationally induced tryptophan haze, one may have noticed, or more hopefully ignored, a bevy of tweets and other distractions that obscure the many important legislative challenges coming up in the next four weeks.  Or more accurately, in the few days that the House and Senate are actually in session before Christmas.  Nearly all of the following impact Americans in some form or another and are important to the smooth functioning of our nation.  These are important issues that deserve serious consideration and discussion.  I will let you decide whether or not that will happen.

To name a few:

  • Tax cuts.  The president promised a “great big beautiful Christmas present” with completion of the Republican tax cut.  Both the House — which passed its version before Thanksgiving — and the Senate — which hopes to pass its version this week — have significantly different bills designed to permanently cut corporate taxes and to cut some lower and middle class taxes for a while.  The Republican leadership is touting both bills as a boon to the middle class.  Sorry, but I don’t see it.  Besides adding at least 1.5 trillion dollars to the national debt over the next ten years, it makes some puzzling changes.  For example, nearly all deductions (mortgage, student loan, state and local taxes, medical expenses, moving expenses and about 40 some more) are removed from the individual taxpayers’ ability to use them but keeps them in place for corporations.  The argument is that the individual standard deduction will greatly increase (roughly doubled) and therefore there will be no need to itemize.  At the same time, corporate taxes drop roughly 40 percent (from 35% to 20%) but they still keep all itemized deductions, including those listed above that go away for the rest of us.  The real kicker is that corporate tax rates and rules are permanent and the rules for the rest of us are temporary.  The non-partisan Tax Policy Center (TPC) estimates that for many of us, our taxes will actually go up over the next ten years as compared to current law.  This happens primarily because of the “sunset” provisions impacting everyday Americans.  Many Republicans are arguing that some time “in the future” Congress will make them permanent and so in the end, we all benefit.  Except.  Except.  There is no guarantee that they will become permanent.  If they don’t, we are victims of a big lie.  And if they do, then it all has been a sham and a trick.  In order to meet the rules of the Senate, they cannot exceed the 1.5 trillion dollar addition to the national debt.  (To do so, they need 60 votes in the Senate, which means getting Democrats onboard, who, so far, have been shut out of any input to the bill.)  Thus, the permanent cuts for corporations are paid for by the average tax payer.   But not to worry, according to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Dick Mulvaney, it is all a trick.  A “gimmick.”  As he said on Meet the Press, in order to meet the Senate rules, “certain proposals can only have certain economic impact.  One of the ways to game the system is to make things expire.”  Or as he went on to say, “a lot of this is a gimmick… to get through these rules in the Senate.”  This from the president’s point man on the cuts and in charge of explaining them to the public.  There is a whole lot more to this issue, but it deserves a separate piece as the issues are complex with wide impacts on each of our futures.  Keep an eye on this.

(Please note that there is no need to place a time limit on getting this legislation right. It is an arbitrary political goal to “deliver” a tax cut by Christmas.  Remember that as it crowds out the following issues, many of which do have — or have already reached — a drop dead date to accomplish.)

  • Government Shutdown.  Funding to operate the federal government expires on 8 December.  Here we go again.  Both Republicans and Democrats are using the imminent expiration of the spending authorization to promote their political agendas.  As in the past, it is unlikely that the Republicans can pass a spending bill without at least some Democrats voting for it as well (there is always a hard-core Republican group opposed to the amount of spending and the impact on the deficit — although they mysteriously voted for the increased deficit from the tax cuts).  There is a “summit” planned tomorrow involving the leaders of both parties from both houses and the president to try to come to accommodation on this and other issues.  Probably there will be a short-term extension to keep the government operating — a continuing resolution or CR.  CRs wreak havoc on all government agencies from defense to agriculture as they limit immediate spending and give no clear guidance for the future, thus severely inhibiting planning for the future.  Predictions are not optimistic as to a quick resolution because the Republican leadership remains laser focused on getting the tax cuts finished first.
  • Defense Spending.  As part of the overall objective of setting spending levels for 2018 many want to see defense spending increased from about $549 billion to about $600 billion.  In order to do that, Congress must rescind a bipartisan 2011 budget deal that set spending caps on all areas of government.  Democrats are insisting that any increases in defense spending must be matched by increases in non-defense spending or they will not vote to lift the 2011 caps.  Under Senate rules, 60 votes are required to change the bipartisan agreement providing the limits so Democrats have a say in how this is resolved.  Very little progress in resolving the issue is apparent and this impacts the funding for the government as a whole (see above).
  • Health Care. Politicians on both sides of the aisle want to see the market stabilized for health care.  Not surprisingly, there are differences on how to do it.  The Alexander-Murray health care bill is a bipartisan effort to bring some continuity and stabilization to health care under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  The administration opposes this bill and the Senate version of the tax cut plan eliminates the penalty for not having insurance — thus creating the possibility of increased premiums for those with insurance and eventually driving a predicted 13 million from the roles.  (See my previous posts about the “three-legged stool” needed to keep the system stable.)  Democrats say the Alexander-Murray bill is off the table if the repeal of a key provision of the ACA is enacted.  Republicans are still making noise about “repeal and replace in 2018.”  Compromise seems unlikely and the public suffers.
  • The Children’s Health Insurance Program.  The generally popular CHIP provides health coverage for about 9 million poor children and others.  The current legislation expired on 30 September and it is unknown when this usually bipartisan issue will be addressed.  To date, the states have picked up the slack to keep the program going in the short-term but many say that funds will run out at the end of the year.  This is also caught up in the “need” to address tax cuts before other legislation.
  • Immigration.  The president announced the expiration of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) (the Dreamers) program last September and gave Congress until March to come up with a system for dealing with the children brought here illegally by their parents.  Many Democrats say that they will not vote for any spending bills unless this issue is addressed by the end of the year.  Some Republicans say that they will not address immigration unless “The Wall” is part of the bill.  There are also Republicans that agree that the Dreamers issue needs to be addressed and that may actually favor their remaining in the country.  But, again, they argue this cannot be part of any spending bill and can only be addressed after the tax cuts pass.
  • Intelligence Gathering.  On 31 December of this year Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act will expire.  This section of the law, approved by Congress in 2008 as a part of the response to the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, is intended as a tool to track and thus foil foreign terrorists.  It is meant for use in conjunction with foreign citizens outside of the United States and has specific provisions to protect American citizens.  Unfortunately, critics of the provision claim that vast amounts of information is collected on U.S. citizens as they communicate with foreigners — any foreign national, not just those suspected of being terrorists.  Known as “incidental surveillance” it raises many questions of privacy and government intrusion into the lives of innocent, ordinary U.S. citizens.  The NSA considers this provision to be among their most important collection capabilities and fear that if they lose the ability to continue the surveillance that it will severely inhibit their counter-terrorism capability.  There is general bipartisan support to extend the statute, but with some restrictions to further try to protect Americans’ privacy.  Currently, there are no plans to address the expiring statute by the end of the year.
  • Disaster Relief.  The Administration asked Congress for $44 billion in disaster relief for help in mitigating the impact of the hurricanes and wildfires that affected many areas of the country this year.  To pay for it, they have asked for reductions in other expenditures, such as benefit programs.  By all accounts, 44 billion — a lot — is inadequate to meet the need.  Puerto Rico alone estimates that it will cost $99 billion to get the island back on its feet.  Congress has promised to provide the aid, but does not plan to address the issue with concrete action (money duly appropriated) until the tax cut plan is finished.
  • Iran Sanctions.  By declaring in October that Iran was not in compliance with the international deal to limit Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons, the president activated a 60 day period which expires in December for Congress to act to impose new sanctions or not.  The general sense is that there is mostly bipartisan agreement not to extend new sanctions on Iran and thus to keep the deal in place.  However, at the end of the 60 day period the ball is back in the president’s court and it may be that inaction on the part of Congress will lead to action by the president and thus put the deal in jeopardy.

And there’s more!  But you get the idea.  Not much of anything will get done until the tax cuts are passed, which is not a sure thing in the Senate.  Even if it does get through the Senate this week, or soon after, they still need to reconcile the two versions of the bill — no easy task as they are significantly different in several important areas.  All deadlines discussed for the tax cuts are purely political and self-imposed, unlike many other items in need of Congressional attention.

It is sure to be a busy political December.  Enjoy!  And don’t let the tweeting distract you from the real action going on.


A Road Map For Success

Today President Obama signed a two-year budget deal passed by the House and Senate last week in a bipartisan deal to get the nation through and beyond the election of 2016.  Indeed, it is called the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015.  It accomplishes several things.  Foremost among them is that it suspends the nation’s debt ceiling until March of 2017, taking that issue off the table until after the next president is sworn into office. Additionally, it provides relief from the Budget Control Act of 2013. That is the bill that set spending levels for domestic and defense programs that many thought were too severe.  It has become known as the “sequester bill”  putting arbitrary limits on spending.

This is a good deal — not perfect for either Republicans or Democrats — because we would have hit our debt limit tomorrow (3 November) with the distinct possibility of a major financial crisis as a result. It also provides for increases in defense and domestic spending above the sequester limits. Perhaps more importantly, it provides a two-year deal that will finally give some stability to military and other planning and allow for more long-term investments, rather than living weeks or months at a time on Continuing Resolutions (CR) that may or may not be held hostage for political reasons each time they come up for renewal.  The CRs provided the ever-present opportunity to threaten a default or a government shutdown should certain minority demands not be met.

There are of course other provisions in the 144 page bill addressing a number of issues, but perhaps the most important of the other provisions is a fix for Medicare to keep premiums from rising drastically and a provision to keep the Social Security Disability Insurance trust fund solvent through 2022.

It also shows that members of both parties in the House and Senate can work together and actually accomplish meaningful results.  To me, this reinforces my belief that many of our nation’s problems can be solved with moderate Republicans and Democrats working together to compromise on important legislation rather than letting the extremes of either party hold the rest of the body hostage.

From a political standpoint, this may be the last gift from the former Speaker of the House John Boehner to the rest of us.  Given his imminent retirement, he was freed from having to negotiate with the Freedom Caucus — the group of 30 or 40 Tea Party conservatives in the House — and could get sufficient bipartisan support for it to pass.  The Senate recognized a solution when it stared them in the face and ignored objections by Senator Ted Cruz (R – Texas), another Tea Party favorite and Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky).  Both are running for president as “outsiders” and condemn the leadership of both parties in Washington.  I suppose the bill gave them another meaningless grand standing opportunity to make it look like they are “standing up” to Washington when they knew full well that the bill would pass anyway.

While this is a major milestone — even as one might argue that doing the nation’s most basic business should not be a “milestone” — there are obstacles ahead.  It is too early to sing kumbaya as we all hold hands around the campfire.

The new Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) has promised to use the Hastert Rule in bringing bills to the floor of the House.  The Hastert Rule is named for the now disgraced (he is on his way to jail) former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois).  Basically, it is a “majority of the majority” rule whereby a Speaker will not bring a bill for a vote if it is not guaranteed that the majority of the party will vote for it. Speaker Boehner often invoked this same rule.  What it does, is give groups such as the Freedom Caucus inordinate power within the House of Representatives to veto any legislation that they do not like, regardless of the ability otherwise to get a majority of the Representatives to vote for a given bill.

Speaker Ryan may be a new face and a respected leader.  I hope that he is able to get the House working again.  Unfortunately, he seems to have already tied his own hands by promising over the weekend that he would  continue to use the Hastert Rule, thus again inordinately empowering the minority of Tea Party Republicans in the House.

Another reason to keep from breaking out in song is that the deal is not done.  The bill that President Obama signed today is really only a framework for work yet to be done.  Because the legislature and White House could not reach a deal prior to the start of the new fiscal year, the nation’s business is currently conducted under a Continuing Resolution that keeps things going only until 11 December this year.  The CR is based on the sequester spending caps and there are some in the House and Senate that believe those caps should stay in place regardless of the just concluded compromise. As we all know from our civics classes, the budget is meaningless until the Congress passes Appropriations Bills (to say exactly how much money goes where) and Authorization Bills (allowing the government to actually spend the money).  Normally those are passed in 12 individual bills to fund each area of government (Defense, Education, Homeland Security, etc.).  Given the time remaining (and the propensity for Congress to take weeks off for holidays such as Thanksgiving), it is likely that there will be an omnibus bill (all of them rolled up together in one big bill) to cover the ability to spend money to the new budget guidelines.  This will give those that oppose the agreement more time to undermine it, especially by adding amendments to the bill that have little to do with the subject at hand but are used because they know that the overall bill needs to be passed and thus their individual proposals get little scrutiny.  There is also the possibility that some of those amendments may be “poison pills” added to scuttle the agreement totally.  One example would be to add a rider totally defunding Planned Parenthood.  That would open up a new debate that could cause the 11 December deadline to pass and result in shutting down the government after all.  There are some presidential candidates that think that would be a very fine idea.  Only time will tell on how skilled House and Senate leaders are in moving forward.

For all us political junkies, last week there was further cause for hope that maybe the House could act in a bipartisan way for the good of the country.  Many Tea Party members in the House (and Senate) want to eliminate the Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im Bank).  Most moderate Republicans and Democrats see the bank as important to American commerce and small businesses.  Without going too far into the arcane rules of the House of Representatives, moderate Republicans utilized a little used rule to set up a petition, signed by enough Republicans and Democrats to force a vote on a bill that was previously held from the House floor by Speaker Boehner and the rest of the leadership as a “bone” to the Freedom Caucus.  The measure to restore the Ex-Im Bank passed on a vote of 313 to 118, (within the Republican Party the vote was 127 for and 117 against), demonstrating again that the majority can work together to accomplish common goals when the full House is able to cooperate. After debate, the Senate is also expected to pass the bill.

I hope that these two accomplishments are more than a mere flash in the pan but are instead a positive sign of things to come.  It does demonstrate that there is a road map that can lead to success when compromise is not considered a dirty word and our leaders work together to move our nation forward.


Now What?

“Mr. Boehner, tear down this wall!”

–with apologies to Ronald Reagan

As we continue to endure the shutdown of the federal government — or as the Republicans prefer to call it, the “slim-down” — it is just too easy to be outraged.  Unfortunately, that does not help and does not get us anywhere.  Even more dangerously, we are approaching the point where the good faith and financial reliability of the United States will be in jeopardy.

I am confused, however, by the tactics of the Republican members of the House.  Either that, or those tactics are so blatantly obvious that even I can understand them.  There does not seem to be any over-all strategy in what they are doing.

I constantly shake my head each day as I remember that all of this fuss is over a Continuing Resolution.  It is not about solving the economic problems that we as a nation face.  It is over a six-week Continuing Resolution (CR).  It seems pretty clear to me that passing that CR and then beginning negotiations on the larger problems and issues we face is the way to go.  The Senate and the President have both already said that they would agree to discuss “anything” that the House Republicans put on the table, but not without opening up the government and giving us some breathing room on the debt ceiling.  The inside the Beltway crowd that tracks such things repeatedly states that there are enough moderate Republicans in the House that will join all of the Democrats in the House to pass such a CR giving enough time to move on to solving bigger problems.  Speaker Boehner refuses to allow that to happen.  He also states that when (if?) negotiations begin there can be no “red lines” inhibiting the discussions, and in the next breath says there can be no discussion about raising anything that even smells like a tax.  What?  Say that again.  I believe he said there are no red lines except for those he wants to have.  That’s what I thought I heard him say.  (See this whole thing is getting me so that I’m talking to myself now.)

More confusing is the current Republican tactic in the House that passes individual pieces of a CR to open up selected pieces of the government.  Primarily those where they are taking heat from their constituents because of the media attention.  Things like the national parks, the National Health Institute, Head Start, etc., all areas where there has been bad publicity concerning the shutdown.  On top of that, they passed a bill that essentially pays federal workers to stay home indefinitely.  How does that help the nation save money?  We are paying more for what some people think we shouldn’t pay for in the first place, but getting nothing for it.  Makes no sense to me.  I’m glad for the workers that will get their back pay — although that doesn’t help them pay their bills right now — but it doesn’t help all of those workers that do not work for the government but support it.  These range all the way from contractors (by definition no contract, no job, no pay) to food truck operators that have government workers as their primary patrons, and hundreds of thousands of others that are not part of the government and not getting paid and will not get back pay.

Now they are trying to turn the tables on Senate Democrats by saying that they’ve helped these people by passing their piecemeal CR for some areas, but that the Senate refuses to take them up.  Hey!  It’s easy!  Just pass one CR for the entire government and all those other piecemeal bills are totally unnecessary.   The only reason to do it in bits and pieces is to try to claim that the far right-wing Republicans are not the ones holding things up — it’s the Democrats after all!  How silly.  It also shows that they hold the citizens of our nation in such low regard that we would not see right through this callous political ploy.

Now we have to worry about the debt ceiling.  I think it fair to say that no one knows exactly what will happen when we hit that mark.  The United States has never done it.  However, I believe it would be reckless to find out.  A child has never put their hand on a hot stove before either so they may want to try to find out what “hot” means.  A responsible parent, of course, would never allow it.  Where are the responsible Republicans in the House?  There are many in the Senate.  I know there are many in the House as well.  Why not speak up and keep us from finding out what happens about a week from now?  I suppose to some it is kind of exciting to see what will happen, or to think that you have the power and the means to destroy our nation’s economy.  If that is what they are thinking then we used to have a name for people who were trying to destroy our country and surely it was not “patriot.”

I have heard many people saying that this is just business as usual, we’ve been here before, and in the end it will work out.  I hope that they are right, but I’m not so sure.  This has a different feel to me.  Unlike similar developments in the past, I am unaware of any back room or back channel negotiations taking place.  Those that have brokered such deals in the recent past, primarily Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell, are noticeably absent in this go around.  There is no clear path out of this situation unless Speaker Boehner allows a vote on the clean CR in exchange for some defined negotiations over budget issues (not Obamacare).  Right now he does not seem inclined to take yes for an answer as the President has already promised to do that.  I know that Speaker Boehner does not want to go over the fiscal cliff and that he wants to re-open the government, but I don’t know that he knows how to get out of this situation.  And that is scary.

If you remember my earlier posts concerning Syria, I provided an outline of how planners put together an operation.   Of foremost importance was understanding the mission, and that includes what things should look like when the mission is accomplished.  How do you know that it is over?  I also discussed branches and sequels if the plan does not go as expected — either through unanticipated success, or unanticipated obstacles.  If the hard-core Republican position is the end of Obamacare, then they have already failed in their mission.  They are not going to get it out of this scenario.  If their alternate plan is to cut government spending then they have already succeeded through the budget negotiations in 2010 and 2011 and the current sequester.  If they see the end state as something else, then it is not clear to me what that would be.  Or at least one that they could realistically achieve.  That is what makes this scary.  At this point I don’t think they know what they want, other than some grand statements about less government spending and smaller government.  Okay — if that is their desired end state then what is the plan to get there from here?  I have not heard an articulate explanation of what they will do.  I have only heard what they will not do.  At some point they must have a coherent plan.

I suppose the only way out now is for the Democrats and the President to provide some face-saving concession to Speaker Boehner to give him a life-line to get out of this mess.  What that is, or should be, is not clear in my mind.  It should not be anything having to do with Obamacare — we’ve been down that road too many times already.  It will probably have to do with entitlements and ways to cut spending in those areas, although the President has already offered some of those as the basis to start negotiations and been rejected.

Okay Tea Party Republicans, you’ve had your fun and shown that you cannot be ignored even by your own party.  Now what?  More importantly, Mr. Boehner, tear down this wall of intransigence!


Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid

John Boehner is allowing a small radical wing of his party to attempt to destroy the fabric of American democracy.  Sooner or later most Americans will realize the true nature of what is going on in the current fight over the Affordable Care Act.

Whatever one’s view of the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare may be, supporters of American democracy should be very concerned.  This is not business as usual, especially as the debt ceiling limit gets closer and closer.  Earlier Washington stalemates that resulted in government shutdowns in the 1980s and 90s concerned budget issues, where money should or should not be spent and which programs took priority.  This is about none of that.  This time around it is a radical minority of one party trying to undo the fabric of our democracy.  They do not like Obamacare and obviously have very strong opinions as to why.  In my view, most of those arguments are incorrect or mere assertions without a basis in fact,  but okay, I’ll respect your opinion.  Unfortunately, after over forty attempts to undo the legislation (without, I will add, any alternatives to provide healthcare to Americans in the greatest country in the world), they have decided that they will bypass the legislative system that we have and create their own.  Simply put, if they get their way on this issue, there will be more issues that take some portion of the American way of life hostage until they get their way.  Remember that they are taking our economy hostage for a six week continuing resolution.  It isn’t even about an actual spending bill.  Who is naive enough to think that if Congress delays Obamacare for a year that we won’t be right back where we are now in 2014?  It will never end.  It is time for the showdown and a restoration of the American way of democracy.

There is nothing that the Tea Party Congressmen are demanding concerning Obamacare that should be negotiated.  Period.  If they want to go to conference with the Senate to resolve budget issues and to negotiate a spending bill for this fiscal year, by all means, it should be done.  But that’s not what they want.  They continue to try to eliminate or cripple the health care act.  An act, again, that has withstood every conceivable challenge in our way of government.  They failed.  So now we have to put up with their antics outside of the normally accepted legislative process.

John Boehner is now Speaker of the House in name only.  He has seriously undermined the authority of that position by caving to the hard liners.  Every account coming out of Washington from both sides of the aisle is that a “clean” continuing resolution to fund the government for another six weeks would pass in about five minutes with sufficient Democrats AND Republicans voting for it .  Done and done.  Speaker Boehner won’t do it because he fears losing his Speakership.  In truth, it is doubtful that he would be voted out, but apparently, he’s unwilling to take the risk and is afraid to do the right thing.

This is also, in my opinion, a naked attempt by the Senate and House Tea Party members to severely hobble the President.  If President Obama gives in to the demands to delay or defund the health care act, he is done as president.  Indeed future presidents of both parties would be weakened if this undemocratic tactic being foisted on our country succeeds.  It would become a weapon for any dissatisfied minority to use that will hobble the ability of our country to operate.

We should be afraid, very afraid for the future of our country if this naked attempt by a minority to grab power from the majority succeeds.


Quick Thoughts for a Friday

Another busy week in the news.  I hope to expound on these topics in the future but thought that I would get some quick thoughts down in the interim.  Here we go:

  • Syria.  Events continue to percolate in our continuing effort to bring the Syrian regime to account for its August use of chemical weapons on its own population.  Frankly,  diplomatic efforts have gotten further than I anticipated that they would in this amount of time.  The next key step will be to actually pass a United Nations resolution under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter.  This is what will put the teeth into any effort to bring the chemical weapons under international control should the Syrians back off.  The Russians had objected  to any strong resolution to make Syria comply but it appears there may have been a diplomatic compromise.  We will find out next week.  I am still of the opinion that no action would have been taken on any front if President Obama had not threatened, and continue to hold open the possibility, of military action.
  • Budget Battles.  As we all know, the right-wing of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives continues to threaten to hold our economy hostage if there is no bill to defund the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare.  As predicted, this afternoon the Senate passed a Continuing Resolution to keep the government operating into November.  It is unclear what will happen as the bill returns to the House.  Probably, they will not meet the deadline of midnight on 30 September but I don’t think they will miss it by much so that the impact will be minimal.  Or seem to be minimal.  As I’ll explain below, it is already having an impact.  The reason that it will pass is that Speaker Boehner will promise a similar showdown over the raising of the debt limit in mid-October.  The current impasse will seem minor compared to what we are likely to see over that issue.  Yet to be determined is whether or not the Congress can actually pass a bill that sets up a long-term management plan for the people’s money.  Since 2007 the continual use of Continuing Resolutions is the primary method that Congress chooses to fund  the government rather than using the appropriation and authorization bills.  This year the Continuing Resolution keeps spending at or below last year’s funding and includes the sequestration that resulted in furloughs of workers, limited hours for government agencies and severely limited the ability of our Armed Forces to meet their training and equipping requirements.   So, even if they pass the short-term Continuing Resolution by 1 October, they will not have solved any of the fiscal problems we face now and in fact, they just exacerbate them as we move forward.  They should be so proud.
  • Federal Government Workers.  Consider the plight of government workers.  So far in 2013 they have been publicly vilified by certain politicians, had their pay frozen for the last three years, furloughed via the sequestration which impacts their take-home pay, threatened with more time off with no pay if the Continuing Resolution does not pass, and experienced a shocking violation of the safety of their work place with the murders in the Navy Yard last week.  In addition they must do more work with fewer people as the government continues to shrink but the requirements mandated by Congress have not abated.  Please remember that these are not faceless bureaucrats.  They are regular people working hard on important issues.  They really do work hard.  Of course, there are a few dead beats.  There are dead beats in almost any work environment.  However the vast majority, the vast majority, of people working in the federal government are working long hours trying their best to do the right thing.  Many are beginning to re-think their dedication as they continue to be vilified and used as pawns in a political game.  These are real people, not some theoretical “they” that can be played with without consequences.  These same people have to pay rent, get their kids to school, fix the family automobile and deal with the same frustrations of life in the 21st century as do the rest of us.  Different visions of what the government should or should not be are legitimate issues for discussion.  Vilifying dedicated public servants is not.
  • Entitlements.  Lost in the brouhaha over the federal budget is the fact that several other important pieces of legislation sat in the House without action.  Among these was the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), otherwise known as food stamps.  The House Republican leadership stripped the SNAP funding out of the farm bill passed last summer by the Senate in a bipartisan vote.  Traditionally, the SNAP funding was part of the farm bill.  It actually may be a good idea to separate the two as special interests were quite effective at getting what they wanted when the two were linked.  However, the House action stripped nearly forty billion dollars from the program over the next ten years.  Nice.  If there is a country on Earth that should not have hungry citizens it is the United States.  Part of the motivation for stripping funds is that allegedly too many people take advantage of the program.  Does this happen?  It is most likely that it does.  Will stripping forty billion dollars from food stamps stop fraud?  Most likely it will not.  What the bill does do is restrict who is eligible for the assistance and limit the amount of time that they are allowed to receive benefits.  It also puts new requirements on the states (the individual states actually control the distribution) which will require increased government workers to implement.  I suppose that helps with job creation, but seems ironic from a number of Congressmen that want to reduce government.  Here is the tough question that no one has yet resolved in my mind.  Most Americans agree that there should be some kind of social safety net for our citizens — Social Security, Medicare, SNAP, WIC, and others.  Most Americans agree that there is some percentage of the population that are dead beats — no matter what you try to do to help them, they just do not get it and never will.  So the magic question is where to draw the line?  How do you legislate out the dead beats without hurting those people who have legitimately fallen on hard times and need a hand while they strive to get back on track?  Given the state of the economy over the last five years, there are a large number of people in that latter category.  Let’s not cut them off to score political points.

There is a lot going on in our country.  Many of these events underscore for me, yet again, that votes count and elections have consequences.  I hope that our so-called leaders in the House and Senate figure out that the vast majority of Americans are disgusted by their inability to reach some common sense decisions.  Quit manufacturing crises — there are enough to deal with without shooting ourselves in the foot.

Okay, I guess I wasn’t that quick after all.