Calculated and Careful Callousness as Policy

This was the Monday before the Monday, one week before Monday, September 30, when, at midnight, the federal government shuts down. It will have no legal authority to spend any money, except on essential services. Everyone in the military will get a promissory note instead of a paycheck – they’ll get their actual pay, and all their back pay, when and if the government starts up again. Civilians working for the military will be furloughed. The EPA and the national parks will shut down of course, and no one will process your passport application, and of course you won’t be getting your permit for that high-power assault rifle you want – federal background checks will stop for now. If you’re really pissed at your coworkers, and you’re planning something to let them know just how pissed off you are, you’ll just have to wait. All research at the National Institute for Health and the Centers for Disease Control down in Atlanta will slow, if not stop, even if the nasty microbes and viruses don’t. Medicare and Social Security payments will probably continue however – there is automatic spending locked in, including, oddly enough, spending for the implementation of Obamacare, much of which is funded by fees, not tapping the federal revenue stream – but if you’re new to Social Security and Medicare, you also have to wait for this shutdown to end before you can begin to participate. You chose the wrong time to turn sixty-five.

This is pretty simple. Congress authorizes all spending. They pass a budget each year, releasing specific funds for this this and that. They also issue emergency appropriations, not listed in the budget, for the unexpected – disaster relief and such things, or the entire war in Iraq and the one in Afghanistan, which were entirely off-budget until Obama put an end to that. He likes the traditional rules of accounting. If you know you’re going to spend a couple trillion dollars, plan for it. The president’s role, however, is limited. He proposes a budget – he sends what is usually a honking-big stack of think volumes over to Capitol Hill for their consideration. That’s it. All the members of both chambers then rip it apart, screaming at each other and posturing for the media, and their constituents, until everyone settles down. The House passes what they think the budget should be, which may or may not bear any resemblance to what the president proposed, depending on who controls the House, and the Senate passes their version too – then both versions go to conference committee, where the differences are ironed out. Then the mangled bastard-child of the whole process somehow passes both chambers and goes to the president, as a bill for his signature. He may not be happy with what has come back to him, but he almost always signs the new budget. If he vetoes it the government can’t run. He’ll just have to live with what’s in there. He can slow some spending and accelerate other spending – those are administrative decisions – but he can’t spend what he’s not authorized to spend. You can’t spend what you don’t have, just like in real life. The president is like a kid with an allowance, which must be spent on what he’s told to buy, more or less. He has very little wiggle-room. That’s why presidents like it when their party controls congress. It’s like having an indulgent parent, or one who trusts your judgment.

It’s an odd system, but those are the rules. It’s that Separation of Powers thing the folks who wrote the Constitution came up with back in the late eighteenth century – a way to make sure that any one person doesn’t go hog-wild and do anything stupid. Our democracy depends on that, except the system is now broken. Congress hasn’t passed a budget since 2009 – although the Senate passed one a few months ago. The Tea Party crowd and the talk radio crowd and every pundit on Fox News convinced House Speaker John Boehner to not agree to the traditional conference committee in any way shape or form. There would be no conference committee, because in those committees there would be compromises – that’s the whole point of them – and Republicans, now, compromise on nothing. That’s who they are. That’s why Americans admire them so, as they see it. The Senate budget died, and we’re back to just one continuing resolution after another, to fund operations at their current levels for the next three months, or six months, because no one can agree on anything. We’ve kept spending as is, but sometimes with a new wrinkle. The last continuing resolution contained sequestration – a ten percent across-the-board cut in spending on every single thing, for ten years. That was the price that had to be paid for the Republicans to agree to fund the government for even the next six months – it was that or nothing – but now that continuing resolution is expiring.

Here we go again. The Republicans made their move. Unless Obama agrees to defund and dismantle all of the Affordable Care Act they will shut down the government – the house passed their version of a continuing resolution that funds everything but Obamacare. The Senate will amend that bill, taking out the bit about defunding Obamacare, and send the amended bill back to the House. The House will not pass that. They’re locked into their position on this, and the government will shut down, until John Boehner eats crow, because Obama isn’t going to agree to any such thing – the law was passed fair and fair square, long ago, by both houses of Congress, and survived a Supreme Court challenge too. It’s the law, and there are normal procedures for repealing a law. You find the votes to pass something else in its place, perhaps a law forbidding that what the law was supposed to do never is done, ever. If you don’t have the votes, you don’t have the votes. Defunding a law while keeping it on the books is chicken-shit nonsense – a minority of a minority doesn’t get to stop what the majority enacted. Sure, you can force the government to shut down, but that’s not the way things are done. Become a majority or sit down and deal with reality.

Reality is the question now, and once again reality is the foe of the Republicans:

A solid majority of Americans oppose defunding the new health care law if it means shutting down the government and defaulting on debt.

The CNBC All-America Economic Survey of 800 people across the country conducted by Hart-McInturff finds that, in general, Americans oppose defunding Obamacare by a plurality of 44 percent to 38 percent.

Opposition to defunding increases sharply when the issue of shutting down the government and defaulting is included. In that case, Americans oppose defunding 59 percent to 19 percent, with 18 percent of respondents unsure. The final 4 percent is a group of people who want to defund Obamacare, but become unsure when asked if they still hold that view if it means shutting down the government.

Now add this:

According to a new Gallup poll, U.S. lawmakers enter continuing resolution and debt ceiling negotiations with a plurality of Americans favoring compromise over ideological inflexibility.

Fifty-three percent of respondents indicated that they prefer for politicians to compromise instead of sticking to their beliefs at the cost accomplishing nothing. A quarter of respondents said they preferred that their representatives stick to their beliefs, while 20 percent put themselves between ideology and pragmatism.

The response in favor of cooperation is up 6 percent since 2011, when House Republicans first negotiated with President Obama over an increase in the borrowing limit.

Yep, the response in favor of cooperation has jumped up, much to the dismay of Ted Cruz, who is leading the charge to defund Obamacare in the Senate. He says the government will shut down unless he gets his way, unless Obamacare is defunded. He even has an interesting new plan – that would be defunding the military to stop Obamacare – Republicans should say they’ll stop their efforts to stop Obamacare if the Democrats agree to stop all military spending and disband the Army or whatever. He thinks that is brilliant. That will trap them. Fox News’ Brit Hume says Cruz and his allies, like Sarah Palin, seem to be making things up as they go along – and the rest of his party is abandoning him:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) broke with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) on Monday, revealing that he won’t filibuster legislation to fund the government in service of conservative goals to defund Obamacare.

The Republican leader’s decision is a major blow to the push by Cruz and powerful conservative activist groups, who wanted Republicans to unite and filibuster a continuing resolution until Democrats caved and agreed to gut funding for the Affordable Care Act.

This is a little arcane:

The decision clears a path for Democrats to pass a continuing resolution that funds Obamacare. Procedurally, Democrats need 60 votes (they have 54 members) to advance the House-passed continuing resolution. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) can strike the language defunding Obamacare with 51 votes, which frees up McConnell and every other Republican to vote against such an amendment. This way he never has to actually vote to fund Obamacare but doesn’t force a shutdown over an unachievable goal.

This is trickery, but necessary:

The move also signals how badly McConnell wants to avoid a government shutdown, which observers across the political spectrum agree would harm the GOP. He’s facing re-election in 2014 and fending off a conservative challenger, Matt Bevin, who is demanding he get tougher on Obamacare. A shutdown would also harm McConnell’s ultimate goal of becoming majority leader after the mid-term elections.

There was also this bit of nonsense:

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) objected on Monday to Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) request for unanimous consent to pass the House’s continuing resolution to defund Obamacare.

Reid also objected to a request by Cruz to hold amendments to the CR at a 60-vote threshold, which Senate rules allow the majority leader to do, in certain cases, with 51 votes.

“I try to follow the Senate rules,” Reid said on the floor. “Sometimes they are obnoxious, and I wish they were different.”

Harry Reid said that with a sly smile. Cruz asked him to change the Senate rules, just this one time. Nope – although Cruz can go back to his constituents and tell them how unreasonable Reid was being. They’ll believe it. No one else will. It’s the same with the latest column from Glenn Reynolds – Obama is the one being selfish and stubborn here. All he has to do is end Obamacare. If he were a reasonable person he would, but he’s not. The country deserves better.

There is new polling that shows the country is divided on all this – they’d blame both parties almost equally for a shutdown – probably because everyone is fed up with all of it – but Paul Waldman suggests that ignores a few key factors:

1. Only one side is making a substantive demand.

The Democrats’ position is let’s not shut down the government, because that would be bad. They aren’t asking for any policy concessions. The Republican position, on the other hand, is if we don’t get what we want, we’ll force the government to shut down. So from the start, Republicans look like (and are) the ones forcing the crisis.

2. The demand Republicans are making is absurd and everyone knows it.

Even many Republicans admit that it’s ridiculous to think Barack Obama would destroy his signature accomplishment, the most meaningful piece of domestic legislation in decades. If I say to you, “Would it be OK if I took your car, killed your dog, and burned down your house?” and you say “No, that would not be OK,” no one is going to accuse you of being the unreasonable one.

Then there’s this:

Republicans are the ones who hate government, and Democrats are the ones who defend it.

This is the heart of it. After so many decades of Republicans saying that government is evil, trying to slash it in a hundred ways, and more recently saying that they don’t think a shutdown would be all that bad, it will be all but impossible for them to convince people that they’re the ones who want government to stay open. Even if it were true (which it isn’t) they wouldn’t be able to convince people of it. They’re the anti-government party. That’s who they are. They worked very hard to create that image. So the universal default assumption is that when there’s a question of who’s responsible for shutting down the government, Republicans are the ones who are doing it, and persuading people that the opposite is true just isn’t going to happen.

They want to shut down the government over an odd issue too – making sure thirty or forty million more Americans don’t have the chance to buy low-cost subsidized health insurance from private-sector parties – which ain’t exactly socialism. It’s somewhat the opposite of socialism. People who aren’t currently insured through their employer – or who aren’t old and on Medicare or disabled and on Medicaid – actually have to BUY something on the open market, from someone who wants to make real money off them. The currently uninsured have to do that or pay a fine. It’s forced-capitalism in a way, although this new market is somewhat regulated. Health insurers can’t sell worthless crap-policies and do have to follow some rules. But still, someone is going to make a killing here, and it won’t be the government.

It’s sort of hard to see what all the fuss is about, although it fits a pattern. It’s that forty-seven percent thing, where everything is about personal responsibility and taking care of your own life, with no help from others, or at least from the government. It’s about being intentionally mean to all others, here though public policy, or lack of one, to make all others better people. If the only options are self-reliance or death, there’s only one choice. They’ll become self-reliant, or they’ll die. It’s the right’s version of social engineering.

That may be the difficulty here. It’s hard to tell someone that you calculated and careful callousness toward them is for their own good, and they should be happy about it – and you end up looking like a jerk. And it’s not just making it hard for them to buy health insurance, because the parallel effort at the moment is to pretty much end the food stamps program, as Paul Krugman explains:

The word “freedom” looms large in modern conservative rhetoric. Lobbying groups are given names like FreedomWorks; health reform is denounced not just for its cost but as an assault on, yes, freedom. Oh, and remember when we were supposed to refer to pommes frites as “freedom fries”?

The right’s definition of freedom, however, isn’t one that, say FDR, would recognize. In particular, the third of his famous Four Freedoms – freedom from want – seems to have been turned on its head. Conservatives seem, in particular, to believe that freedom’s just another word for not enough to eat.

Hence the war on food stamps, which House Republicans have just voted to cut sharply even while voting to increase farm subsidies.

He sees the obvious pattern:

In a way, you can see why the food stamp program – or, to use its proper name, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) – has become a target. Conservatives are deeply committed to the view that the size of government has exploded under President Obama but face the awkward fact that public employment is down sharply, while overall spending has been falling fast as a share of GDP. SNAP, however, really has grown a lot, with enrollment rising from 26 million Americans in 2007 to almost 48 million now.

Conservatives look at this and see what, to their great disappointment, they can’t find elsewhere in the data: runaway, explosive growth in a government program. The rest of us, however, see a safety-net program doing exactly what it’s supposed to do: help more people in a time of widespread economic distress.

Krugman applies simple logic to the matter:

The recent growth of SNAP has indeed been unusual, but then so have the times, in the worst possible way. The Great Recession of 2007-9 was the worst slump since the Great Depression, and the recovery that followed has been very weak. Multiple careful economic studies have shown that the economic downturn explains the great bulk of the increase in food stamp use. And while the economic news has been generally bad, one piece of good news is that food stamps have at least mitigated the hardship, keeping millions of Americans out of poverty.

Nor is that the program’s only benefit. The evidence is now overwhelming that spending cuts in a depressed economy deepen the slump, yet government spending has been falling anyway. SNAP, however, is one program that has been expanding, and as such it has indirectly helped save hundreds of thousands of jobs.

The program works and does what it’s supposed to do – make things better:

SNAP, in short, is public policy at its best. It not only helps those in need; it helps them help themselves. And it has done yeoman work in the economic crisis, mitigating suffering and protecting jobs at a time when all too many policy makers seem determined to do the opposite. So it tells you something that conservatives have singled out this of all programs for special ire.

Even some conservative pundits worry that the war on food stamps, especially combined with the vote to increase farm subsidies, is bad for the GOP, because it makes Republicans look like mean-spirited class warriors. Indeed it does. And that’s because they are.

In National Review, Henry Olsen picks up on that:

The conservative war on food stamps is the most baffling political move of the year. Conservatives have suffered for years from the stereotype that they are heartless Scrooge McDucks more concerned with our money than other people’s lives. Yet in this case, conservatives make the taking of food from the mouths of the genuinely hungry a top priority. What gives? And why are conservatives overlooking a far more egregious abuse of taxpayer dollars in the farm bill?

It’s almost as if they want to be seen as the party of hand-outs to the very rich – to big agribusiness in this case – and the party of rather vicious indifference to the needy poor, for their own good. The needy poor need to stop being Takers, as it were. Monsanto is a separate issue.

All this ties back to the idea of shutting down the government unless the needy poor are kept from getting something they seems to need, even if a number of private parties are going to make big bucks providing what they need, and healthcare costs for everyone will slowly come down, and the economy will perk up, as those worried sick about getting sick can get back to doing work and getting ahead. Against that we have a party that wants to shut down the government to prevent any of that from happening. Ted Cruz may be an arrogant sanctimonious jerk for the ages, but he’s only part of the problem. He’s a symptom, not the disease itself. The disease is calculated and careful callousness, along with bypassing all the rules, to win for the minority what they couldn’t win outright, presented as a sort of heroic virtue. There is no cure for that.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Calculated and Careful Callousness as Policy

  1. Rick says:

    I’m thinking the Republicans should drop the elephant as their mascot and adopt Chiquita Banana instead, since what these people are trying to give us is a banana republic. That’s exactly what this country will become if the banana party gets its way — hurting the economy by slashing spending and food stamps, not to mention even temporarily shutting down the government and defaulting on our debts.

    In fact, every time we hear one of those people call our party the “Democrat” Party — something they seem to mean as a sly insult — we should counter by calling theirs the “Banana Republican” party.

    And the reason they can get away with doing all these ridiculous things, and survive just fine, despite seemingly being in favor of things that hurt the country, is because of what Rush Limbaugh calls “low-information voters” (although Rush, of course, mistakenly uses that term to describe Obama voters). “Low-information voters” are the millions of idiots and jerks in flyover-land who vote for all those Republican congresspeople that give that party all the power it needs to be jerks, knowing full well that the Democrats would never reciprocate in kind because, unlike the Republicans, the Democrats have nothing to gain and everything to lose by being jerks. If they’d just used their actual brains, the low-info voters wouldn’t ever give power to people who refuse to pay our bills, try to defund our duly-passed laws, and try to shut our whole country down.

    Yes, I realize I’m committing a “Romney” here, by accusing a large section of the electorate — maybe even 47%, for all I know — of being stupid jerks who elect representatives in their own image. So be it.

    My point is, the reason Republicans get away with all this blatant dumbness is that they figure they can go on like this for years, sitting on whatever power they have in Congress, without ever really worrying about getting one of their own elected president, since they apparently don’t really see the chances of that happening anytime soon anyway.

    And if they ever happen to win the White House again? That’s just icing on the cake! Meanwhile, they’re happy to settle with what they got.

    Rick

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