The Real Meaning of Politics

Yesterday Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress.  In my view his speech, and indeed his entire visit thus far, was extraordinary.  Not just in seeing a Pope addressing Congress, although that alone was indeed extraordinary.  And not just in seeing the overwhelming positive reaction he elicits from celebrities and regular citizens, rich and poor, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.  It was in his message.

(As a footnote, we should note that he was not the first head of a religion to address a joint session of Congress.  Queen Elizabeth II was the first when she addressed Congress in May 1991 as she is the titular head of the Church of England.  Similarly, Pope Francis is also the titular head of state of the Vatican, which adds diplomatic overtones to the visit and resultant ceremonies.  But I digress.)

Some people may focus on his remarks at the welcoming ceremony at the White House and his remarks to Congress as being too “political.”  I disagree.  His public comments are not political, they are pastoral and totally in keeping with the long-held traditions of the Catholic church, and dare I say it, the Bible.  I had the opportunity to watch his entire speech live (you may find a transcript here) and thought it engaging, knowledgeable, and entirely within his “lane” as the current punditry likes to use the term. Likewise, he was animated in his delivery, which means to me that not only did he believe in what he was saying, but that despite speaking in a language that is not his own, he understood the subtleties of what he was saying.

Even though this is his first ever visit to the United States, as a life long citizen of the Americas, he understands the United States and the traditions of the Western Hemisphere.  It was a well thought out speech that understood the historical touchstones of this nation.  Rather than focusing on the individual policies and hot button issues of his speech, I took away that his over all message was one of reconciliation and an admonition that politics, to accomplish anything, means that there must be compromise for the common good.  Additionally, he gently reminded the members of Congress before him that they were not there for their own good, but rather for the good of the nation.  Or as he said right at the beginning of his remarks:

“Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. You are the face of its people, their representatives. You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics. A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.”

His remarks are particularly cogent given events today.  As I write, the Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced that he would step down as Speaker, and resign his seat in the House, at the end of October.  We have yet to hear from him personally (I am sure we will before the day is over), but those who heard the announcement in a closed-door Republican caucus meeting said that it was because of the divisiveness of his own party — in particular the roughly 30 or so Tea Party Republicans that have no desire to compromise on anything.  They are interested in their agenda rather than the essence of politics — as even the Pope understood — which is to compromise and, as Pope Francis said in his speech “(b)uilding a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity, in a constant effort to do our best.”

“To do our best.”  What a concept.  I am disappointed that the tremendous atmosphere of good will and positive outlooks evident in the Pope’s visit yesterday — and it was clear that many of the Representatives and Senators in the chamber during the speech were moved by it — has evaporated in less than 24 hours.

I, among others, have been critical of Speaker Boehner and his leadership style.  However, his stepping down is likely to make things in our Congress even more chaotic and divisive.  The Tea Party element of the Congress will probably celebrate his departure and see it as some kind of victory for their viewpoint. They are aiming for another shutdown of the government, an outcome that the serious leaders in the House and Senate, Republican and Democrat, are seeking to avoid.  We shall see if they are succesful as things unfold.

None-the-less, such developments are the antithesis of the Pope’s message. Already seemingly lost is his plea to the Congress, and through them to all of us as citizens, that we remember our history and our purpose as a nation.  As he put it:

“I have sought to present some of the richness of your cultural heritage, of the spirit of the American people. It is my desire that this spirit continue to develop and grow, so that as many young people as possible can inherit and dwell in a land which has inspired so many people to dream.”

Pope Francis knows the real essence of politics.  I hope that in some way, our representatives, the candidates now vying for our votes for president, and each of us as citizens remembers that we are all here together and can only achieve our greatness by working for common goals.

“My visit takes place at a time when men and women of good will are marking the anniversaries of several great Americans. The complexities of history and the reality of human weakness notwithstanding, these men and women, for all their many differences and limitations, were able by hard work and self-sacrifice – some at the cost of their lives – to build a better future. They shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people. A people with this spirit can live through many crises, tensions and conflicts, while always finding the resources to move forward, and to do so with dignity. These men and women offer us a way of seeing and interpreting reality. In honoring their memory, we are inspired, even amid conflicts, and in the here and now of each day, to draw upon our deepest cultural reserves.”

Amen.


Here We Go Again

In case you haven’t been following it, Congress is about to shut-down part of the government again. In this case, it is the Department of Homeland Security (home to the Coast Guard, TSA, Secret Service, FEMA, Border Service, and many other national security organizations) in a dispute over President Obama’s Executive Order last year concerning immigration.

As is the case with most of the recent self-created crisis cliff hangers, this one was known to be coming for months.  I hesitated for days to write about it because I thought that surely this was a tempest in a tea pot (or a tempest in a tea party, as one may prefer) and that it would be resolved. Indeed it may yet be resolved today or tomorrow, but as it stands now, as of midnight Friday, all funding for DHS will cease.

The Senate Majority Leader, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) proposed what seems to me to be a reasonable compromise.  We will see if the Senate Democrats can say “yes” to getting “yes” but I think that they will after milking the situation for a day or two.  Since the issue is one of whether or not the president over-stepped his Constitutional authority, a Federal judge in Texas provided the “exit sign” to the stalemate, as Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) calls it, when he put a stay on the execution of the president’s order.  Since this is purported to be a Constitutional issue, it should rightly be resolved in the courts and that process is underway.  Let it play out as it should, and it seems that the Senate, or at least the majority of Republicans and Democrats, will let that path be the one to resolution — once they get past the pyrotechnics of politics and both sides making specious statements to the press.

(By the way, as a footnote — the judge in Texas did not rule the Executive Order unconstitutional as some have claimed.  I am not a legal scholar, but it appears from what I can discern that all he did was give Texas and 25 other states legal standing to pursue the case in court.  Since they have, he declared, legal standing the judge stayed the execution of the order until the case is resolved.  The Justice Department is appealing the stay order.  Apparently the judge provided legal standing to Texas based on an obscure interpretation of the cost basis for providing driver’s licenses, of all things.)

An unusual interpretation at best as I understand it, but the point remains that it is best resolved in the courts rather than through the withholding of funds for the DHS.

So what’s the problem?  Pursue the Senate compromise and be done with it.  The compromise is to separate the issue into two bills — one attempting to stop the president’s Executive Order and one to provide funding to DHS.  Bada bing bodda boom.  Done.  Both sides get what they want and our government continues to function.  While there are still some on both sides of the aisle unhappy with that arrangement, there appears to be sufficient bi-partisan support to get it done and move on.

Ah, but as always, there is a catch.  A pretty big catch.  That, as recently always seems to be the case, is in the House of Representatives — the People’s House.  Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) claims that the House already passed their bill and have no further obligation to take action.  The House bill ties funding the DHS to over-ruling of the Executive Order.  The Republican House members want that bill to go to the President so that he has to veto the bill and thus he can be blamed for blocking funding to the important DHS.  A political move that plays with our national security. There seems to be sufficient bi-partisan support in the House for the compromise that the Senate is proposing, but as we have seen time and again in the last few years, there is a strong tea party contingent that refuses to compromise and thus the bill can only pass with bi-partisan support. As in the past, Speaker Boehner is more than reluctant to anger that base by going ahead with a compromise.  We’ve seen this script before and it’s tiresome.

Some in the Congress are arguing that shutting down the DHS will not really compromise the security of the United States because 85% of the employees are considered essential and will continue to work anyway.  And although they will be working without pay, they’ll get it eventually — whenever eventually may be.  Of course, those workers can pay their mortgages, car payments, grocery bills, etc. “eventually” can’t they?

More to the point it ignores the function of the 15% that will be furloughed and the role that they play to make sure those in the field are able to do their jobs.  It also ignores that the DHS provides grants to states, cities, counties and other local governments to support some of their first responder capabilities. Those stop on Friday night which means that some jurisdictions will have to furlough local workers because they cannot pay them.  None of this of course takes into account the long-term implications of continued games whereby government workers see themselves as pawns in political point-making.  It impacts morale and more importantly, causes good workers to leave the public sector for more promising employment in the private sector.  It is also just plain wrong.

The ability of Congress to govern is broken, caught up in attempts to embarrass one party or another. We have all had enough.  I suppose this latest self-inflicted wound will resolve itself at the last minute, probably by providing temporary funding for four to six weeks while they work out another “compromise.” That will really turn into, again, kicking the can down the road so that we do this all over again in a few weeks.  Here we go again.  I just do not get it.

 


Why Would He Do This?

Yesterday Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address the Congress in February, which he accepted.  While on the surface this may seem relatively innocuous, it would not be the first time that he addressed Congress, in reality this invitation is an “in your face” move by Speaker Boehner and a direct challenge to President Obama. While technically not required, as the Speaker pointed out he can invite anyone he pleases to speak to Congress, it is highly unusual as the Speaker gave no advanced notice to the Obama Administration.  Diplomatically, historically and in keeping with protocol, not to mention good manners, the Speaker should have coordinated the invitation with the administration.  It is customary that a head of state invite, or at least tacitly agree to, another head of state coming to the United States on official business.  And oh yeah. According to the Constitution, the Executive Branch is responsible for foreign affairs.  This does not, of course, mean that the Congress does not have a role to play in oversight of foreign affairs.  Indeed they do have a role and an important one at that. The Senate is tasked with the duty to “advise and consent” to Ambassadorial appointments, treaties and other functions related to foreign affairs.  The House does not have that role, but they do control the money and that is the primary way that they influence such matters.

Equally rude was the revelation that Prime Minister Netanyahu did not inform the Obama Administration about the invitation either.  It could be because the Israelis did not want to get in the middle of an American political dispute.  It could be because the Prime Minister is himself in the middle of a contentious re-election campaign and an appearance before the U.S. Congress can only help him in his bid.  It could be because the Israelis, and Prime Minister Netanyahu in particular, could care less about any American policies, they are only interested in protecting their own interests.

Why is this a big deal?  Besides the theatrics and political gamesmanship, behind Speaker Boehner’s move is the ongoing negotiation with Iran about its nuclear weapons ambitions.  Many Republicans, and some Democrats, (and certainly Prime Minister Netanyahu) believe that President Obama is about to make a “bad” deal with the Iranians that will give them the ability to produce nuclear weapons on short notice.  Those that oppose any deal, or at least the deal currently under negotiation, with the Iranians want to impose more and more severe sanctions now on the Iranians and keep them on until they, in essence, capitulate and remove any nuclear capability whatsoever.  The current negotiations would allow the Iranians to keep peaceful nuclear reactors for generating electricity and for research, but with significant restrictions and under a severe inspection regime.  There are currently sanctions in place with Iran which, coupled with the dramatic drop in the price of oil, have a significant impact on their economy and brought some in their government around to the possibility of agreeing to the constraints on their nuclear program.

To be sure, there are Iranian hard-liners in influential positions in their government that oppose any deal.  The current negotiations are not a sure thing.  President Obama clearly states that there is “probably less than a 50-50 chance” of the negotiations succeeding.  He is willing to put more sanctions in place if the negotiations fail, but strongly opposes any further efforts now as he argues that the chance of success will fall from 50-50 to zero.  It will also have an impact on negotiations with other nations as the move would be perceived as the United States (and other nations, more on that shortly) reneging on their good faith negotiations.

These are not unilateral negotiations.  Negotiating partners (sometimes referred to as the P5+1) include the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China working to get Iranian concessions on their nuclear program.  In a press conference during his visit to the United States last week, British Prime Minister David Cameron said  that he told U.S. senators that “it is the opinion of the U.K. that further sanctions at this point won’t actually help to bring the talks to a successful conclusion.”  In today’s Washington Post the foreign ministers of France, Britain, Germany and the European Union wrote an opinion piece directed at the United States Congress delineating the progress made to date in gaining International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to Iranian reactors and other progress in providing oversight, and subsequent limitations, on the Iranian ability to produce a nuclear weapon.  They ask that diplomacy be continued to allow further progress and specifically make the point that:

“new sanctions at this moment might also fracture the international coalition that has made sanctions so effective so far.  Rather than strengthening our negotiating position, new sanctions legislation at this point would set us back.”

Given such overwhelming international support and concern, it baffles me why members of Congress would actively work to undermine our negotiating position.  Several have advocated military action to prevent Iran from developing its nuclear capabilities, a view shared not coincidentally by Prime Minister Netanyahu.  President Obama did not take military action off the table, stating only that it should, rightly in my opinion, be the “last resort” when no other option remains.  We are not there and probably will not be there for some time.

I do not mean to impugn the good intentions or character of members of the House and Senate that truly believe that Iran poses an imminent threat to the United States and its allies.  However, I do not believe that all of those that advocate increased sanctions on Iran do so out of that belief.  I think that Speaker Boehner’s move to invite Prime Minister Netanyahu, who will undoubtedly advocate for increased sanctions, if not military action, against Iran is motivated by domestic politics to embarrass the president and to imply that the president is not concerned about the well-being of Israel.

Speaker Boehner is playing with fire.  Perhaps he is trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy by pushing harsh sanctions on Iran, causing them to withdraw from the negotiations, and thus providing the opportunity to spout an “I told you so” about the president being naive, weak, a poor leader or all of the above.  The usual talking points.

Again,  the best analysis is that there is a 50-50 chance that the negotiations will succeed.  The best analysis, including from our closest allies, is that harsher sanctions will doom the process and sink that chance of success to zero.  The process has only a few more months to play itself out.  Why must the Congress act now?  Harsher sanctions may indeed be in order if the Iranians withdraw, or dissemble, or otherwise bargain in bad faith.  But we are not there yet.  This is a serious issue and there are serious arguments that can, and are, made on each side of it.  In the end, our national security is only our business and no one else’s, we need to do what is right for our own national interests.  Got it.  Let the debate begin.  But this spiteful move is not what one would expect from the Speaker of the House.

So why would he do this?  To use a domestic political ploy to embarrass a sitting president of another party by playing with serious international problems.  Speaker Boehner, you’ve made your point.  You won’t be ignored.  Now let’s get serious.


Immigration

“We’re all very different people.  We’re not Watusi.  We’re not Spartans.  We’re Americans with a capital “A”.  You know what that means?  That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world.”  Bill Murray as “John Winger” in the movie Stripes.

President Obama’s speech last Thursday outlining an Executive Order regarding immigration raised a national hue and cry about the merits of his actions.  Some applauded it, some opposed it on Constitutional grounds and some opposed because, because, well I’m not quite sure why they opposed it, but they sure are vociferous about it.

I am not a Constitutional lawyer and so I will leave it to the experts (of which I’ve heard very few certified experts weigh in — and they seem to be split) as to the Constitutionality of his actions.  It seems from what I read that there is merit to his claim that it is within his power, as well as precedents by previous Republican and Democrat presidents, but I’ll keep an open mind about it as it plays out.  I’m more interested in trying to take the emotion out of it and trying to discern the facts surrounding the issue.

The Pew Research Center did significant research into the immigration issue and continues to do so.  Interestingly, they find that 75% of Americans surveyed believe that our immigration laws need “to be completely rebuilt” or have “major changes.” Only 21% said that the laws are fine or need only “minor changes.”  So it would seem that many United States citizens are looking for the laws to change. There is less agreement on what those changes should be, but still nearly 73% of those surveyed believe that there should be a way for undocumented immigrants to stay in the country legally.  There is far less agreement on the means to allow them to stay, ranging from permanent residency only to the belief that there should be a path to citizenship, even if it isn’t an easy one.

They also reveal that there is a misperception on current enforcement of the border.  In recent years, over 400,000 undocumented immigrants were deported.  Significantly higher than for most of the last twenty years.  Conversely, the number of illegal immigrants in the United States also increased over those twenty years — although it is down over the last six years.  In other words, there are lots of ways to look at the numbers, but one cannot argue that there is no, or lax, enforcement at the borders.  To be realistic about it,  there will never be (or almost certainly a nearly non-existent chance) a time where no one crosses the border illegally.  We should also note, that not all of those undocumented immigrants are crossing the border illegally.  There is a significant portion that came to the United States legally, but never left.  Many of those are in college or in jobs that contribute to the American economy.  Indeed, according to the Pew Research Center, Americans are nearly evenly split on whether the presence of undocumented immigrants helps or hinders our economy.  According to their survey, 49% believe their presence “strengthens” the economy and 41% believe that they are a “burden.”

Canards that undocumented immigrants are a pathway to terrorism, and even the spread of Ebola, are merely the hysterical statements of those desperate to get elected, or to find themselves in the news. There is no evidence of either taking place.

I am sympathetic to the argument that our country should not condone illegal activity and, some argue, short change those immigrants that play by the rules and wait years to legally enter the country as workers or permanent residents.  I also argue that it is unrealistic to believe that we are going to round-up and deport 11 million people and send them to, to, where exactly is it that we are going to send them? And how?  To say “back where they came from” is hardly realistic.  And realism is what we need. Deportation, as has been accurately reported, will also tear families apart, as some family members are legal residents and some are American citizens.  How do we deal with that reality?  Talk about an impact on our economy and the militarization of our nation — try rounding up 11 million people from across every state in the Union and transporting them outside of our borders.  Not to mention the impact on the stability of the rest of the world.

This is a knotty problem.  There are no easy solutions.  I keep coming back to the idea that our country is a nation of immigrants.  I daresay many of us would not be upstanding, law-abiding citizens in our nation today if one of our ancestors had not immigrated from somewhere else.  And recall that for much of our nation’s history, all you had to do was show up and find your own way.  So what do we do today?

As you know, the Senate already addressed the issue.  In June, 2013, nearly 16 months ago, by a vote of 68 to 32 a bipartisan bill passed.  (Let us just note that in the current political climate, the Senate usually cannot muster 68 votes in favor of sending flowers on Mother’s Day.)  The bill is not perfect, and reflecting its bipartisan flavor has something for everyone to dislike or like.  It’s key provisions involve a pathway to citizenship that takes about twelve years and involves some very specific actions to make up for their previously illegal status.  It also addresses increased border security, an expansion of high skill visas, a guest worker program and employment verification.  All of the things that those serious about reforming our immigration laws, from both sides of the aisle, want to see.

This is where I am critical of the opponents to any reform.  Speaker of the House John Boehner asked the president to “wait” and he will bring up the issue of immigration in the next Congress.  I am not sure why the president would think that Speaker Boehner would follow through on that statement (when specifically asked, Speaker Boehner would not promise to bring up the issue).  The House had nearly 16 months to act on a bill passed by the Senate and that the president said he would sign.  And nothing happened.  Nothing.  Not a hearing in committee.  Not a vote on the floor.  Not an alternative bill that addresses the issue and that could then go to negotiations.  Nothing.  There is no reason to believe that anything would be different in the coming Congress.  And by most Republican and Democratic polls, it would pass.  But since politics and not what is good for the nation seems to dominate everything in the House of Representatives these days, Speaker Boehner will not bring it up because he knows he would need Democrat’s votes to pass it and he will only bring up bills that will pass with only Republican’s votes.  I am not saying this hasn’t happened in the past or that Republicans are the only one’s to do this, but I am saying that in the past, both Republicans and Democrats brought important, but divisive within their own parties, bills to the floor that passed and the leadership did it because they thought it important to the country.

Those running around yelling “amnesty” should take another look at the Executive Order and at the Senate bill.  There is no amnesty as defined by the dictionary. (“A pardon extended by the government to a group or class of persons, usually for a political offense; the act of a sovereign power officially forgiving certain classes of persons who are subject to trial but have not yet been convicted.) Amnesty means that there will never be any action taken against the perpetrators of the forgiven offense. This is not what the president did, and it is not what the Senate bill does. However, for those that just like to shout slogans, I suppose it gives them something to shout about.

I am with the president in this respect.  If certain members of the House and Senate do not like what he has done, then pass a bill.  They can undo what he has done.  However, I do not think that no action is the way to go.  In all the hand wringing and ‘toing and froing” I have yet to hear a serious proposal from the loyal opposition as to how they would deal with the issue.  To coin a phrase, I suppose those opposed to any action on immigration advocate “don’t ask, don’t tell”.  By doing nothing, they are endorsing the status quo.  If only they would say so.  However, I guess they can get more political mileage out of complaining rather than doing something.

Others more knowledgeable than I will decide the Constitutionality of the president’s actions.  But I remind everyone that it will become a moot point if the House finally acts.

 


Well Isn’t That Special

To few people’s surprise, the Republican Party won big in Tuesday’s election.  What was a surprise to most of the “3Ps” (politicians, pundits and personalities) is how easily they won and by such wide margins.  While the word “historic” is passed around, it isn’t quite as historic as it is made out to be, but significant none-the-less.

This is the third president in a row (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barak Obama) that had the Congress flip completely during their tenure (going from full control of one own’s party to full control by the loyal opposition).  That to me is significant in a number of ways.

Perhaps foremost among them is the possibility that fewer and fewer people are voting “straight tickets” anymore.  That is, voting only for one party regardless of the issues.  To some degree I question my conclusion here, as there are some states, especially in the South and the Northeast that are increasingly deep red or blue states.  But there are also significant numbers of “purple” states that change from one party to the other based on the particulars of that election.  That gives me hope.  One would think that more and more Americans vote on the issues and finding the best people to lead our country rather than just voting ideologically.

Many analysts see Tuesday’s votes as a repudiation of President Obama and the Democrats.  I am not as sure about that as they are as I see a subtle difference.  While many Americans are disappointed in the president, and legitimately disagree with some of his decisions, I think the vote is more of a reflection of the general dissatisfaction that the electorate now holds, particularly with respect to the economy.  To me the vote was one based on the premise that the party previously in control — the Democrats symbolized by the president in the White House — is not getting the job done.  The results are based on a framework of “let’s give the other guys a chance to make it better.”  In other words, change for change’s sake as a means to shake things up and to see if something positive can result.  So yes, it was a vote against the president and Harry Reid and the rest, but that does not necessarily translate into a vote for Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and company.  As a nation we are willing to see what they can accomplish, but if they don’t move the ball forward they will be in trouble in 2016 as another backlash is likely to occur.  This time against the Republican controlled Congress.

Of course if they succeed they will be in a much stronger political position and the country should also be better off.  I am sure that there will be some serious behind the scenes discussions in the Republican caucus to get the disruptive Tea Party types — who are by their own statements unwilling to compromise on anything, an antithetical position to take in governing — to sit down.  If not to be quiet, at least to let the process move forward.

Ironically, one could argue that Presidents Clinton and Bush did some of their most productive work after their party lost control of Congress.  Perhaps the same will hold true with President Obama.  In my mind a divided government forces compromise or nothing is accomplished.  Fortunately President Clinton and President Bush did not have to deal with Tea Party conservatives or disruptive liberals. Not that there weren’t ideological differences that interrupted the workings of government from time to time (think Gingrich vs. Clinton and the government shutdown), but in the end they figured out how to make it work.

Both parties need to reassess the events of the last four years and learn that cooperation on common issues of concern is a far better way to govern.  Hopefully (and I am hopeful), both parties will avoid the easy lessons learned about why the vote went the way it went and look closer.  They must realize that the outcome is a reflection of a willingness to try anything to get rid of the status quo of gridlock and bitter partisan politics.

To the super conservatives that say this gives them a mandate, all I can say is, “well isn’t that special.”  To the moderate Republicans and Democrats that want to get things done, I say go for it.


Cleaning Things Up

I do not often give a “well done” to Speaker John A. Boehner (R–Ohio) for his leadership in the House, but today I’ll give him a nod and a smattering of applause for getting fed up with his own party and getting something done.  Yesterday the House approved a “clean” extension of the government’s borrowing authority, or in common terms, they passed a bill allowing for an increase in the debt ceiling.   It was accomplished without amending any other elements to it and without creating another crisis such as the country went through last fall.  Unfortunately, it still had its share of drama, at least in the Republican Party.

The bill passed by a vote of 221 to 201 with only 28 Republicans voting for it.  Speaker Boehner made it clear that there would be no shutting down the government again this time and that the bill needed to pass sufficiently ahead of the government hitting the debt ceiling so as to remove the uncertainty and drama of the past several years.  I hope that he determined this was necessary in order to insure the full faith in the word of the United States government, and not because we are approaching mid-term elections and most of the American voting public is fed-up with the shenanigans from last fall and he did not want to risk losing control of the majority in the House.

The Speaker worked hard since the start of the new year to find a suitable compromise that would bring in both Republican and Democrat House members to vote for the bill.  He tried several different amendments to bring Republicans on board such as lifting the Cost of Living Allowance (COLA) cut to military veterans benefits (see my post from 7 January 2014) without losing Democrats’ votes.  It also had to be realistic enough that there would be a chance of getting the bill through the Senate and signed into law.  He was unable to come up with any compromise positions on the bill because the extremely conservative elements in his party opposed any effort to raise the debt ceiling — even though that ceiling is necessary to pay the bills already authorized by the Congress.

In a surprise move on Tuesday morning, he told the Republican caucus that he was moving ahead with the clean bill and, essentially, letting the Democrats move ahead with actually governing the country.

What rankled me a bit, although I was happy they finally did what they should have done long ago, is  that many Republican Congressmen wanted the debt ceiling raised knowing what the consequences of not doing so would be, but refused to vote for it because of fears that they would be challenged in this year’s primaries.  As Representative Devin Nunes (R-California) put it (he was one of the 28 Republicans that voted for the bill); “It wasn’t exactly a profile in courage.  You had members saying that they hoped it would pass but unwilling to vote for it.”

The Senate is expected to pass the same legislation (although just one hour ago a filibuster by some conservative Republican Senators was narrowly averted) and the President has declared that he will sign it.  Now we can get on with the business of governing.


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.


How Long Do We Have to Put Up With This?

There go my men and I must follow as I am their leader.  — John Boehner

Speaker of the House John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) did not actually say those words, or at least there is no record of it.  But it seems to be his motto.  He has demonstrated little to no control over his party in the House of Representatives.  The latest lack of leadership revolves around the upcoming end of the fiscal year and the need to fund the government or shut it down.  Right behind that by about three weeks we will face default on our national debt if the debt ceiling is not raised.  This development seems to be yet another impending manufactured crisis in the continuing efforts of about forty right-wing Republican Representatives determined to destroy our national economy if they do not get their way.  “Looking out for the middle class” indeed.

Speaker Boehner understood that the legislation passed in the House yesterday is not the way to make sure that the government continues to operate effectively.  He knows that the Senate and the President will never go along with his plan to delay and/or de-fund the Affordable Health Care Act otherwise known as “Obamacare.”  He tried to maneuver legislation that will give the malcontents a chance to vote once again to eliminate Obamacare but in a way that the Senate could then easily overcome and everyone could move on.  But no, that wasn’t good enough for those trying to hijack our country and so Speaker Boehner backed down and moved legislation nearly guaranteed to keep us tied up in knots once again.  He even pretends now that it is a good idea.

There are several things to remember about this “fight” as they call it.  First of all It is a manufactured crisis.  The Affordable Care Act is duly passed legislation found Constitutional by the Supreme Court (with five of the Justices avowed conservatives) and a national election where Obamacare was a primary issue.  In case nobody noticed, President Obama was re-elected and the Democrats retained the Senate.  Let me put a finer point on that.  The president was re-elected in a national election.  Any member of Congress, including the Speaker, was only elected by a small fraction of the electorate.  On top of that, the House has voted at least forty times (almost too many to count) to repeal, defund, delay or otherwise disrupt the legislation.  This they have time for but they cannot seem to find the time for getting on with the business of actually running the country.  Throw on top of that the refusal to consider other significant pieces of legislation passed in the Senate with bipartisan support and they really do have a terrible track record.  I suppose that the only thing that matters is that they demonstrate their commitment to obstructing the Obama administration at every turn whether or not it is a good idea and whether or not it hurts the majority of Americans.

Oh, and by the way, the bill they passed is only a continuing resolution to mid-December.  There will still be no 2014 budget or appropriations.  They “need more time.”  This after being on vacation for five weeks in August and September and coming after several attempts by the president in the spring to work with Republicans to avert a crisis and to get things moving again.

Oh, and by the way, sequestration remains in force under their continuing resolution which all agree is not the way to reign in government spending.

Speaker Boehner spoke of “victory” after the vote.  The only “victory” was by the recalcitrant gang of forty and their allies outside the government such as Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth that have intimidated moderate Republicans in the House.  I could go on about the growth industry supported by these groups and the immense amounts of money that come their way when the conflict continues, but that will be a post for another day.  I will merely say that they have no real interest in resolving these issues because that’s what they thrive on.

Not-with-standing the real politics behind the scenes, and I do understand how a Speaker of the House gets elected by the majority party, there should still be an occassional reminder to Speaker Boehner that he is Speaker for the entire country, not just a radical wing of his party.

I am also tired of these guys (and a few gals) who claim to speak for all Americans.  As the Speaker said, “We had a victory for the American people, and frankly we also had a victory for common sense.  Our message to the United States Senate is real simple.  The American people don’t want the government shut down and they don’t want Obamacare.”  Well, maybe he got it half right as most of us do not want the government to shut down.  Note that he says the “American people” meaning every American.  Not “most Americans” or “many Americans” or even “my constituents that are Americans” or any other modifier.  Every American.  How dare he or anyone else say that?  How conceited to think that he or his party speaks for every American.  He may mean those that voted for him and that’s legitimate, but the facts just do not support the assertion that everyone wants Obamacare eliminated.  Note also that they have not proposed any replacement for bringing health care to those that need it.  Just get rid of what was passed three years ago.

This is outrageous to me.  Saner minds, including I’m sure Speaker Boehner, must know that their bill will go exactly nowhere.  However, it is not clear to me how this will get resolved.  If the malcontents do not get their way on the continuing resolution (an actual spending bill by 30 September is now out of the question) they have threatened to default on the national debt.  Thanks guys, I’m sure that will help the economy to recover.

Oh, and by the way, raising the debt limit is required to pay our nation’s bills.  Bills that we are already committed to based on legislation already passed in the House and Senate.  This is not new spending.  It’s paying the existing bills.

To be clear, I do think that we should take a hard look at spending, programs and where government can be trimmed or modified or improved.  Likewise I’m sure that there are ways to improve the Affordable Care Act and that there will be blips along the way that need to be rectified.  Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other programs have been improved through bipartisan efforts.  It should be the same for this program and for government spending on the whole.

There is no moral equivalency here.  Suggestions to compromise fall on deaf ears because there is nothing to compromise about.  The hostage takers will not negotiate or compromise.   I understand that Democrats don’t get everything right.  The president doesn’t get everything right.  Not all Republicans are trying to bring down the government.  There are some good people on both sides of the aisle that could fix some of these issues in a meaningful way.  It is not happening because of the group of Republican crazies in the House (and lately two or three in the Senate).  No one will stand up to them from within their own party for fear of losing their job.  From where I sit, those people may as well lose their job because they are not doing it.  If they are unwilling to stand up for what they believe to be right, then they should leave.

To me Speaker Boehner has decided that it is more important to remain as Speaker of the House than to do the right thing (he wouldn’t lose his seat in the Congress as he is popular in his home district).  He could have put forward a bill to solve the “budget crisis” that would have passed with bipartisan support.  But he also knew that those in his party that want to hold the country hostage would probably have brought him down as Speaker.

Here is what will probably happen, although increasingly I am finding that I should get out of making predictions.  But, I will give it a try anyway.

The Senate will pass a bill that is a continuing resolution that keeps spending at about current levels but that will try to move some money around to lessen the impact of the sequestration.  A few Republican Senators will try to derail it.  This slows down the process so that the bill passes with only two or three days until the deadline and then goes back to the House.  Another round of publicity speeches will take place as they continue to rant against Obamacare and the administration.  This will further slow down the process so that the “compromise” that passes the House and Senate sometime early on the morning of 1 October will be the spending levels that we have now including sequestration.  It will be temporary so that we can do all of this again in late December or early January.

All concerned will take a break for about one day and then the hostage taking will continue anew over raising the debt ceiling.

How long do we have to put up with this?