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The Ticking Clock and the Ensuing Blame Game

As we start to write this the clock on The Washington Post’s internet front page is showing 23 hours and 51 minutes and 21 seconds left to avert a government shutdown, although it’s already down a few seconds more by now and time will be even shorter when you read this. There’s still plenty of time left to avert the worst possible outcome, which probably wouldn’t even be all that bad, but at this point we can’t see things turning out very well.
The Republican-controlled House of Representatives managed to pass a continuing resolution to fund the government through February 16, but the chances of the Republican-controlled Senate passing a similar continuing resolution look bleak. The Republicans control the House by a sizable enough margin that they could afford to lose a few votes from some hard-liners on spending on immigration and other matters, and they even picked up a few stray Democratic votes with peculiar local politics. In the Senate the Republicans now have a razor-thin 51-to-49 margin thanks to the recent electoral debacle in Alabama, and the absence of Arizona Sen. John McCain due to health problems has sharpened that edge, and except for one senator from President Donald Trump-loving West Virginia none of the Democrats have any political incentive to help the Republican-controlled congress and the Republican president from averting the embarrassment of a government shutdown.
Even if the Republicans are willing to offer the kinds of concessions that would outrage their core voters and somehow get something passed on the Senate side, it would all have to be worked out in a conference committee, which takes some doing, and as we write this The Washington Post’s doomsday clock has ticked down to 23 hours, 29 minutes and 10 seconds. Even if everyone talked as fast as those guys who read the side effects disclaimers on the pharmaceutical advertisements and something got passed by both chambers, it still has to be signed by Trump, who is the wild card in everything these days.
These all-too-frequent continuing resolution debates are threat of always complicated, but this time it involves complicated questions about immigration policy and health care, and of course Trump also complicates things further. The Democrats want the continuing resolution to continue protections for illegal immigrants who were brought to the country as children and can now prove their good citizenship, and the that’s polling so well the Republicans are largely willing to go along if they also stricter border enforcement from now on, which also polls well. Meanwhile there’s another deadline looming to reauthorize the Child Health Insurance Program, which provides coverage to the children of families too wealthy to qualify for Medicaid yet too poor to pay for private sector health insurance, and although it polls so well it’s always had bipartisan support the Republicans failed to meet a previous deadline for its reauthorization and the Democrats thus have a huge bargaining chip.
In a televised and much-discussed meeting with a bipartisan gathering of senators earlier in the week Trump promised to sign whatever they came up with regarding immigration, but he quickly backtracked to insist that what every they came up with would have to include funding for a big, beautiful wall along the Mexican border and various other strict border enforcement efforts, and that he was still willing to hold those upstanding illegal immigrants brought here as children hostage to get it. Then he was angrily denying his Chief of Staff’s comments to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and a cable news network that Trump’s views on the big, beautiful wall and other border issues had “evolved” since his campaign days. Then Trump “tweeted” that he didn’t like the reauthorization of the CHIP program in Republican bills, staking out ground to the left of both the Republicans and Democrats by insisting it should be permanently reauthorized rather temporarily reprieved by a continuing resolution on spending.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was preemptively blaming the Democrats for a government showdown on Thursday, as Republican senate majority leaders are obliged to do, but he also frankly acknowledged to the press that “We don’t have a reliable partner at the White House to negotiate with,” and with a politely bowdlerized nod to a recent presidential comment that has even further complicated the immigration debate he added, “This has turned into an s-show for no good reason.” McConnell is not only hated by all the Democrats, as all Republican senate majority leaders are, he’s also hated by that large swath of the Republican party that has the Grand Old Party’s establishment, but we think he has a valid point.
We’ll also give due credit to the equally-loathed-by-both-sides Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan for corralling enough of his herd of mavericks and enough stray Democrats to get something to pass in the House, and although he’s carefully avoided any public criticisms he can’t give much credit to Trump. If the government does shut down and those upstanding illegal immigrants start getting deported and whole bunch of kids lose their health insurance in 22 hours and 37 minutes and 33 seconds, as The Washington Post times it, it’s likely that at least a majority of the hated Republican establishment will have voted to avert it.
Our guess is that won’t make much difference in the opinion polls, among Democrats or a large swath of the Republican party or any of those self-described independents. The Republicans control both chambers of Congress and in a certain sense the White House, and those arcane rules about a sixty-vote majority being needed in the Senate and all the nuances of immigration and health care are far too complicated for most folks to consider, so the Republicans will probably wind up shouldering their usual blame for all these all too frequent government shutdown. The Republicans will divide themselves between those who blame the mercurial Trump or that set-in-stone Republican establishment, and the Democrats will unite in their indignation with both.
The good news for everybody is that government shutdowns aren’t so awful as they sound, and that if this one happens it will likely be short-lived. Sooner or later both that hard-nosed if out-of-his-water negotiator Trump and those more hep-to-the-game but lily-livered Republican establishment types will once again government operations and give all sorts of concessions to the Democrats, including several that poll so well that a savvy party would have been on board all along, and if it doesn’t include a border wall that was a stupid and badly polling idea all along.
The bad news for everyone is that the best we can expect is yet another continuing resolution to keep the government somehow afloat through February 16, with the same motley assortment of Democrats and Republicans that Trump guy all reviving all the same noisome arguments. Once upon a time in America the two chambers of America’s congress used to pass annual budgets, presidents would sign, some longer term agreements were also agreed upon, and the nation’s businesses and taxpayers and our foreign allies and adversaries could plan accordingly, and for the most part it worked out well.
That all broke down long before Trump took office, so we can’t blame him for that, but with 22 hours and 10 minutes and nine seconds remaining on The Washington Post’s doomsday clocked neither he nor that hated Republican establishment nor any of those damned Democrats deserve any credit for fixing it.

– Bud Norman

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Turning Right on Sesame Street

There’s a lot in the news lately other than the latest federal budget proposals, and of course there’s plenty further news within that proposed $3.6 trillion of spending that’s currently up for debate, but somehow the relatively mere pittance of $454 million per annum for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is once again getting column inches and air time. President Donald Trump wants to end the spending altogether, the relatively small but inordinately influential fans of public broadcasting are screaming foul, and it all seems slightly familiar yet somehow different.
Suspicious sorts of conservatives such as ourselves have been leery of government-subsidized media from the get-go back in the Great Society days of the ’60s, we’ve always wondered why the equally paranoid liberals didn’t share our concerns about it, and nothing that has happened since had changed our views on the matter. The arguments against allowing the government to pay for air time are all the more compelling in the age of Trump, as far as our suspicious conservative souls are concerned, and for the life of us we can’t understand why any liberal isn’t at long last seeing the light.
We’re old enough that our first exposure to educational programming for the kiddies was back in the days of the ad-supported Captain Kangaroo, though, and we understand that the subsequent generations that grew up learning the alphabet and other lessons from the Public Broadcasting System’s “Sesame Street” clearly have a different perspective. Our liberal friends of all ages also prefer the classical music and pretentious jazz and those soothing voices and sensitively wrought opinions of National Public Radio to the shrilly shrieked vitriol on the right wing radio talk shows with all the ads for gold sellers and survival food and promised relief from the Internal Revenue Service, and lately we can’t argue much with the preference, even if we’re sticking to old garage rock cassette tapes and the old folks’ AM station with the Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee tunes during our drives around town. There’s also no denying that a mere $454 million is too small a fraction of a $36 trillion budget for us to bother try to calculate, and that somewhere along the line “Sesame Street” might have taught some poor kids the alphabet and that sometimes classical music is the perfect thing for a drive around town, and we don’t doubt that Trump might just be settling a longstanding score with “Sesame Street,” which has apparently been taunting him since he was a minor New York tabloid celebrity, but we’re still comfortable with the draconian budget cut.
All the old arguments still apply, though, especially around here. Public broadcasting was touted as a subsidy to those poor folks who couldn’t afford the high-priced high-brow fare on cable, but our rabbit ears don’t get the local PBS affiliate and nobody we know all over this town can get it, and although the NPR affiliate at the local college station comes through loud and clear it doesn’t seem to be seeking out a low-income audience. Even such low-lifes as ourselves occasionally enjoy the classical music offerings that admittedly can’t be found elsewhere, but we’d happily endure the infrequent ad for contingency fee lawyers to those interminable fund-raising drives and all that Peter, Paul and Mary music. Free market purists assume there will always be a commercial market for sensitively wrought opinions broadcast in soothing voices, especially in the age of Trump, and given that the “Sesame Street” brand and all its toys and bed sheets and coloring books probably out-earns the Trump brand our liberal friends have nothing to free from a true laissez-faire media.
Back in the pre-cable days the local PBS affiliate used to come through to our suburban house with episodes of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” which we are still grateful for, and our friends affluent to still have cable talk of some good high-brow shows on PBS, but we’re not sure it warrants even a mere $454 million dollars. Getting the budget into a sustainable range will require some tinkering with the popular entitlement programs of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, which the liberals who love public broadcasting all consider sacrosanct and even Trump doesn’t dare to touch, so we’ll not worry much about this particular line item no matter how it turns out.

— Bud Norman

In Search of Silver Linings

How bad was the jobs report released on Tuesday? So bad that the unemployment rate went down by a fraction, the stock markets went up by a percent, and Democrats openly admitted their disappointment.
None of these seemingly positive developments should be mistaken for good news, however, given the currently convoluted nature of the American economy. The unemployment rate dropped only because many thousands more Americans gave up any hope of ever finding a job and joined the record number of economic drop-outs. The stock markets surged only because the jobs report was so dismal that it will almost certainly force the Federal Reserve to continue the incessant money-printing that has fueled the deceptive rally. Even the grudging acknowledgements of failure from the Democrats offers little solace, as it’s all a set-up to blaming the “sequester” budget cuts and the temporary partial government shutdown and other Republican perfidy.
An increasingly anxious American public isn’t likely to be misled about the state of the economy by obviously obfuscated unemployment numbers or obviously overpriced stock markets, but there’s always a good chance that that it will buy the part about Republican perfidy. Both the “sequester” and the partial government shutdown had little effect on most Americans, and went entirely unnoticed by almost all of the significant number of blissfully ignorant folks who avoid reading or hearing the news, but there’s a nasty ring to both of them that can be easily exploited. Any fair-minded observer would concede that the Democrats share at least some of the blame for both the “sequester” and shutdown, and that the currently dismal numbers come long after the former and before the latter, but the fair-minded are an insignificant voting bloc these days. One could make a strong argument that Obamacare, other excessive regulations, higher tax rates, growing governmental debt, and the ever more apparent incompetence of a government that daily acquires ever more control of the country have more to do with the sluggish economy than a slight cut in misspending or paid vacations for nonessential government workers, but strong arguments are easily countered by caricatured villains.
Should the Democrats succeed in their blame game, there’s really no good news in the jobs report at all. There are 148,000 new jobs, and we’re glad for that tiny minority of newly-hired workers, but that number is lower than the already-puny annual average and doesn’t offset the exodus of former job-seekers from the work force. At a time when good news is actually bad news we try to remain hopeful that the bad news presages the good news that the people will at last become fed up and try to reverse course, but the people might just agree that what’s required is more of the same.

— Bud Norman

Auditing the IRS

Anyone who has worked for a large company in recent years has endured the time-wasting indignity of a conference. It might have been a conference devoted to diversity, sensitivity, creativity, or some similarly nebulous concept such as teamwork or “thinking outside the box,” but in every case it was countless hours of notebooks and buzzwords and other distractions from work that needed to be done.
There was some satisfaction, then, in learning that employees of the Internal Revenue Service have been subjected to much the same tortures inflicted on their private-sector counterparts. One can also hope that it kept them from hours of harassing conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. Still, the extraordinary cost and unusual stupidity of the activities constitute yet another outrage by the scandal-plagued agency.
The IRS conference held in California in 2010 featured $60,000 worth of videos that parodied “Star Trek” and “Gilligan’s Island” with bureaucratic in-jokes, $135,000 worth of speakers fees that bought a “happiness expert” and a sketch artist who hosted a “Leadership Through Art” session, and a dance lesson of undisclosed cost that forced the middle-aged and slightly overweight workers to bust a few disco moves for reasons that are also undisclosed. Baseball tickets, presidential suites, the sketch artist’s portrait of the rock star Bono, and other perquisites were offered to the participants as compensation for sitting or dancing through such balderdash, and according to an Inspector General’s report it all added up to a total cost of $4 million, with another $46 million or so for another 220 conferences over the past two years.
That’s chump change by federal government standards, and the agency’s few sympathizers will likely insist that the money was well spent on improving employee morale and exposing them to innovative ways of thinking, but it’s irksome nonetheless. To whatever extent these exercises actually improve employee performance they only allowed the workers to target their ideological opponents more ruthlessly, and surely someone out there in the vast free market is willing to spout to gibberish to the country’s bureaucrats at a lower cost to the taxpayer. We’d be quite willing to do the job for a mere half the $4 million cost of the conference, and we wouldn’t make anyone dance.
At the very least, it neatly refutes the argument that the IRS scandals are a result of the stingy Republicans’ crazy insistence on budget-cutting. The notion that IRS agents were forcing groups with “Tea Party” or “Patriot” on the applications to countless hours of extra questioning and paperwork because they were under-staffed never made any sense to begin with, but revelations about the agency’s profligate party budget makes it all the more absurd.
Anyone who has worked for a large company in recent years has probably seen down-sizing and budget-cutting, and he’se likely noticed that one of the few benefits to the process is that he spend less time in conferences. It’s time the folks at the IRS have the same experience.

— Bud Norman