Forced Learning

The year was 1918 and the music was odd – but with worldwide sales of phonograph/gramophone records hitting about a hundred million that year, part of that was a revolution in technology. Mark Oppenheimer explains what it was like before that:

If you couldn’t make the music yourself, then you would rarely hear it. Before the radio and the phonograph, any music in the house was produced by the family itself. So it made sense to play fiddle, piano, jug, whatever. And before urbanization and the automobile, most people did not have easy, regular access to concerts. Of course, small-town people could come together for occasional concerts, to play together or to hear local troupes or traveling bands. Growing up in the sticks, you still might see Shakespeare performed, and a touring opera company could bring you Mozart – but very infrequently. If music was to be a part of your daily life, it had to be homemade.

That changed. Others now made all our music. We just listened to it, and we loved it. It was the birth of pop music, widely-distributed uniform performances everyone listened to, over and over, and liked a whole lot. It was also the birth of the hit song, and one of the big hits of 1918 was How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree) – “Imagine Reuben when he meets his Pa / He’ll kiss his cheek and holler OO-LA-LA!”

This was a comic commentary on insular Americans finally learning about the rest of the world, through war of course. We entered the First World War late, but for millions of Americans, Paris was no longer imaginary. Farm-boys had been there. Maybe it had ruined them, or at least turned them into silly fops, but it was a real place – for better or worse. The Spanish-American war had us in Cuba and the Philippines, but this war was the big one, America’s first real geography lesson, but then, as many have said, war is how Americans learn geography. In the next war Americans learned all there was to know about every obscure island complex between Melbourne and Honolulu, and all about Burma and the hop over the Himalayas to interior China, where our Flying Tigers did their thing. In the next decade we learned everything there was to know about Korea. In the decade after that we learned everything there was to know about Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos. Ten years later we learned all about the Balkans – Kosovo and Serbia and even Slovenia, if you were paying attention. Now we know all about Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran, and soon we may know the lay of the land in Syria, or Mali. Portugal is still a mystery – we never went to war with them – and only Brits can tell you where the Falkland Islands actually are – but this is a hell of a way to learn geography. It’s enough to make your junior-high geography teacher weep. She, or he, really was teaching all this stuff way back when. No one was paying attention.

It was the same with that other thing they used to teach in junior high – Civics, or Government, as it was sometimes called. That was also a class where everyone snoozed. That seemed to be the appropriate response to endless dry discussion of the excoriatingly dull separation of powers thing – the three branches of our government and their separate functions and how they keep each other in check. So what? Then there was all that stuff about how a bill becomes law, which had to include explaining the parliamentary procedures that had to be followed in the House and the Senate, and the rules of order in each case, and the traditions of comity or whatever. There might be discussion of the filibuster and cloture rules, and also why grown men who hated each other’s guts addressed each other as the Distinguished Gentleman from this state or that. Any fourteen-year-old would roll his or her eyes, if he or she were still awake. Teaching state-mandated stuff like this is a thankless task. Those who teach junior high are heroic, or the field attracts sadists. Many school districts have dropped the whole thing. It was always a losing cause.

It’s not like there was a war going on. That’s how we learn things – when it actually matters. It’s not like the government is going to shut down and things will stop working. It’s not like the country is going to default on its debt and throw the world’s financial markets into mass panic, followed by the collapse of the whole system. In either of those cases all that crap from eighth-grade Civics would matter – but that is the case, and we seem to find ourselves in a situation where a sort of war will force us to learn, quickly, what we slept through in junior high. The Republicans actually pulled the trigger. They made their move. Unless Obama agrees to defund and dismantle all of the Affordable Care Act they will shut down the government, but since they know that won’t work, they say they’ll move on and force America into default, collapsing the world’s economy. They never had the votes to stop Obamacare when the matter was before Congress, the Supreme Court said it was just fine, and they didn’t have enough votes in the last election to retake the Senate and the White House and change everything, but they have this. They can bring on the pain, and the darkness. They’re also destroying their own party. They’re screaming at each other about who among them is sane and who is principled. They sort of did start a war.

In the Los Angeles Times, Doyle McManus explained it this way:

“The American people don’t want the government shut down, and they don’t want Obamacare. The House has listened to the American people.”

That’s what Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said at the GOP’s victory rally Friday after the House voted to pass a spending bill that cut all funding for the president’s healthcare law – and took the country one step closer to a government shutdown on Oct. 1.

The American people, alas, weren’t in the room to speak for themselves. But was Boehner right about their desires? Polls show that most Americans are, not surprisingly, divided.

Yes, a majority doesn’t like Obamacare. They’re unsure about what it will do and worried that it might make their healthcare worse. But do they really want to defund the law, and risk the chaos of a government shutdown to do it? Probably not, most polls suggest.

As one Republican pollster told me, though a majority of voters don’t like Obamacare, they’re not angry enough about it to risk a fiscal crisis that could hurt the economy.

That of course begs a question. Why are they doing this? And McManus reports the answer:

A visit to the House side of Capitol Hill these days feels a bit like an excursion to an alternate universe, where the voters are all conservative, the will of the American people is crystal clear and the only mystery is how that Obama fellow ever got reelected.

“This is all a result of redistricting,” a Republican strategist told me. “The only election these guys have to worry about is the Republican primary. The only danger they face is from the right.”

According to ratings compiled by Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, only 28 of the House’s 233 Republicans have even a theoretical chance of losing their seats to a Democrat next year; the other 205 are safe as long as they win their primaries.

They see only their narrow world, and that bumps up against that stuff from that junior-high class everyone slept through:

In the Senate, Republicans acknowledge there is almost no chance of passing legislation to defund Obamacare, the president’s most cherished achievement. Even Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the loudest champion of the defund Obamacare movement, agreed on that last week, landing him in hot water with the House conservatives he was urging to plunge ahead.

The entire strategy, warned Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), is “a box canyon” for Republicans – a trap with no way out but retreat.

Cruz and other tea party senators have vowed to filibuster to block the Senate from approving a spending bill that doesn’t defund Obamacare, but Senate rules make that difficult. So the Senate is expected to strip the Obamacare provision and kick the bill back to the House, where Boehner and his Republicans will consider their next move.

The Senate will amend the 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 in about ten days. Congress hasn’t passed a budget in many years, just one continuing resolution after another, to fund operations at their current levels, because no one can agree on anything, and this is just one more of those – but they can’t figure out a way to pass this one, not this time. McManus cites various sources saying there’s about a seventy percent chance of a government shutdown, if we’re lucky, and the next step is the House refusing to raise the debt limit and default, which is the real war:

Once again, conservatives have begun telling one another that the American people would welcome the crisis if it resulted in less federal spending and the end of Obamacare. They argue that a debt-ceiling standoff wouldn’t force the federal government to default on its debts and throw the world economy into crisis; the Treasury, they say, could keep paying bondholders and stop most of its other checks. Even if that were possible (and the Treasury Department says it isn’t), the world’s lenders would almost certainly downgrade Uncle Sam’s credit rating, imposing higher interest costs on the federal budget for years to come.

Yeah, that’s awful, and permanently awful, but this is war. McManus sees no way to avoid it now, and all that Distinguished Gentleman stuff is in danger too:

Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace said Sunday morning that he’d received opposition research from other Republicans about Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) in advance of Cruz’s appearance this morning, a serious indication of how upset the GOP is with the Senator leading the risky charge to defund ObamaCare.

“This has been one of the strangest weeks I’ve ever had in Washington,” Wallace said. “As soon as we listed Ted Cruz as our featured guest this week, I got unsolicited research and questions, not from Democrats but from top Republicans, to hammer Cruz.”

“This was a strategy laid out by Mike Lee (R-UT) and Ted Cruz without any consultation with their colleagues,” said Karl Rove. “With all due respect to my junior Senator from Texas, I suspect this is the first time that the end game was described to any Republican Senator. They had to tune in to listen to you to find out what Ted’s next step was in the strategy.”

You weren’t paying attention in Civics class? Senator Cruz broke one of those unwritten rules of the Senate:

“You cannot build a Congressional majority, in either party, for any kind of action, unless you are treating your colleagues with some certain amount of respect, and saying, ‘Hey, what do you think of my idea?'” Rove said. “Instead they have dictated to their colleagues through the media, and through public statements, and not consulted them about this strategy at all.”

Rove also corrected Cruz’s interpretation of a Wall Street Journal as giving the GOP the advantage on whom Americans trust on health care. “I wish that were true,” Rove said, pointing out that Democrats still held the advantage, but were at a historically low number.

The rule is you don’t blindside your own colleagues, ambushing them by going to the press first, and you really shouldn’t lie about basic facts. Comity is everything, or at least it’s essential. That’s how things work. Young Ted wasn’t paying attention in junior high. This is a change, and in the highly conservative Washington Examiner, Byron York offers this on all the shifting positions:

Some Republicans who are vehemently opposed to the defunding gambit today voted for it in March. North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, for example, has called the current defunding proposal “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.” In March, Burr not only voted for defunding; he was a co-sponsor. Another Republican, Sen. Tom Coburn, has denounced the current defunding move as “dishonest” and bound to fail. In March, Coburn co-sponsored the Cruz amendment. Other Republicans – Sens. Johanns, Johnson and Chambliss – who now say defunding won’t work were also co-sponsors of the Cruz defunding measure in March.

The change has left some of today’s defunders bitterly resentful of their colleagues and former allies. In private conversations, they complain that their fellow Republicans were with them when voting for defunding was easy but have run away when everything is on the line. They could force Majority Leader Harry Reid to give in to their demands, claims one aide working for defunding, “if our leadership was on board with this effort and was willing to fight.”

But the fight has become increasingly desperate, and the internal debate among Republicans increasingly sharp.

These are generals arguing about how to wage this war, but the devil is in those details from civics class:

Senate rules require a cloture vote – that is, a 60-vote margin – to begin debate and then to limit debate on the continuing resolution that contains the defunding language. If Republicans vote to do both – after all, they support defunding and want it to go forward – then after the vote to limit debate Majority Leader Harry Reid can propose an amendment to strike the defunding provision. The rules allow that amendment to be passed on a simple majority vote. That means Democrats could strip out the language, and then pass – again, on a simple majority vote – a “clean” spending resolution funding the government but making no change in Obamacare, and send it back to the House.

When Republicans who oppose the defunding gambit pointed out what the rules allow Reid to do, defunding proponents called it a “procedural trick” and came up with an alternative strategy: Yes, Republicans should vote to begin debate on the bill. But they should then vote in a bloc against limiting debate. That would stop dead the entire continuing resolution – including the defunding provision – as the clock ticks toward a possible government shutdown. Nothing could go forward. Republicans would then press Reid to adopt a procedure that would require a 60-vote threshold to pass an amendment striking the defunding provision. At that point, if the Senate’s 46 Republicans remain united, Reid’s amendment could not pass.

For Republicans who aren’t part of the defunding drive, it was a jaw-dropping proposal. We’re supposed to filibuster our own bill? We pushed the House to pass a continuing resolution with a defunding measure attached – and now we’re supposed to kill it in the Senate? What sense does that make? And even if it made sense, they say, the plan is simply not possible.

Was no one paying attention in Civic class way back when? It seems not:

That response has caused deep resentment among defunding proponents. No, they aren’t proposing filibustering their own bill. “What we are filibustering is a procedural maneuver by Reid so that he will not be able to gut the bill that we want a vote on,” says the aide.

“Our demand is for Reid to do one of two things,” the aide continues. “Either agree that all amendments post-cloture have a 60-vote threshold, or bring the amendment up pre-cloture. McConnell can demand those things.” Translated into less insidery language, that basically means forcing Reid to adopt a procedure that would allow Republicans, if they stay united, to stop Reid from taking out the Obamacare provision.

The only problem is that Republicans, in the minority, cannot force Reid to do that. “It would require UNANIMOUS consent to change the vote threshold,” says one aide opposed to the defunding maneuver. “You really think Reid, Schumer, Bernie Sanders are all going to agree to make it EASY to strip Obamacare? Give me a break. And what leverage will they [the defunders] have to ‘force’ that? They will have just filibustered their own bill -and shut down the government. They will be solely responsible for shutting down the government. Why would a single Democrat lift a finger to help them – much less give away Obamacare?”

Now they have a real mess:

Sen. Lee circulated a letter among his colleagues asking them to pledge to refuse to vote for any government funding bill that includes funding for Obamacare. So far, a grand total of 15 Republicans, out of 46 in the Senate, have signed on. It is extremely unlikely the new Hail Mary plan will garner any more GOP support.

Yes, the Republicans who voted to defund Obamacare back in March would still like to do so. But many of them are firmly convinced the new defunding strategy won’t work – indeed, that it can’t work.

So, this is how you learn what you slept through back in junior high. You go to war and find out about the real world.

Of course there are those who don’t cotton to book-learnin’ at all, like Sarah Palin in this post:

Following the will of the people is apparently a novel idea in D.C. these days. Just ask Senator Ted Cruz and his liberty-loving posse on Capitol Hill who have led the charge to defund Obama’s train wreck.

Those of us who hang in there supporting a major political party with our energy, time, and contributions would like to believe that that party would praise principled conservatives like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee for following through on campaign promises. We’d like to believe that the GOP establishment would applaud the way these bold leaders have rallied the grassroots to their cause. But, no, such praise would require a commensurate level of guts and leadership, and the permanent political class in D.C. is nothing if not gutless and rudderless.

We’re now, once again, subjected to the “anonymous sources” backstabbing game. The Capitol Hill cowards are rushing to anonymously denounce Senator Cruz to any reporter with a pad and pen.

Welcome to our world, Ted. The same people have been denouncing conservatives like me for years (right after they ask for help fundraising for themselves or endorsing the latest candidate they’ve suckered into paying their exorbitant consulting fees). We can compare shiv marks next time we meet, my friend…

That’s passionate, and lively, and completely ignores how the government is structured and how things actually work – the rules and procedures everyone has followed since the Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788, but Steve M at No More Mister Nice Blog sees what’s going on here:

Even if – perhaps especially if – Cruz fails to round up 41 votes to prevent the continuing resolution from going forward in the Senate, he’ll be seen as a hero to the base, while those who failed to join him will be regarded as traitors. I know that Fox is throwing in its lot with the Rovians and is not giving Cruz’s efforts prominent play – here’s a Fox story titled Capitol Hill Report Warns Shutdown Could Pose Risks to National Security – but I think Fox is going to have to get on board with Cruz or risk alienating its audience.

Yes, but as ABC News notes, this is war:

If the federal government “shuts down,” active-duty military will still be paid and national-security workers and air-traffic controllers will also stay on the job. But those involved in mundane government business – think national park personnel, people who process government claims and data technicians at places like the Labor Department or Census Bureau – will effectively shut down for the duration of the standoff.

So you won’t be able to go to national parks or monuments, new Social Security and Medicare claims could be delayed, and clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health will stop enrollment. If past is precedent, federal workers will be paid retroactively for the missed days, so taxpayers would wind up paying for services that weren’t provided during any period where funding ran out.

If we hit the debt ceiling, the possible consequences are difficult to predict but much more dire. Wall Street would probably freak out if the U.S. government found itself unable to make good on all its commitments. A spike in Treasury bond rates would fuel an increase in mortgage and credit-card rates, and might leave financial and energy markets across the world reeling.

We’d still have money coming in to the federal government, mainly in the form of tax receipts, but the Obama administration would have to make some extraordinarily stark choices. Presumably, we would cover the interest on our debt, or worse economic calamities would follow, and continue defense spending, Social Security, Medicare and the like.

So forget everything else the federal government does – in education, transportation, criminal justice, food inspections, air safety and all the rest, and our credit rating would be downgraded, making borrowing more expensive, which might lead to a real debt spiral, where things get worse and worse forever.

Ah, but that’s how we learn about everything – the hard way – which raises a question for the shut-it-all-down conservatives. How ‘ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm after this?

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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2 Responses to Forced Learning

  1. Rick says:

    Sarah Palin bemoans the lack in the Republican leadership of “guts and leadership, and the permanent political class in D.C. is nothing if not gutless”.

    Far be it from me to defend GOP leaders, but America sure dodged a bullet when it chose to not allow Palin to be one of them. People forget, but “guts”, found near the bottom of the body, tend to be full of shit — literally — while at least the non-tea-sipping Republicans have chosen to give more weight to the top end of the body, where brains and judgement reside.

    But I must say I do enjoy learning about all these arcane Senate procedures. As it turns out, details matter after all.

    On the other hand, I wonder if we’re not headed into another sequester trap, in which our being too sure of ourselves leaves us the losers and the Republicans getting everything they wanted after all. Yes, we might not be able to visit “national parks or monuments, new Social Security and Medicare claims could be delayed, and clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health will stop enrollment”, but what do hard-nosed conservatives care? They think the only legitimate function of the government is not those things, it’s defense. Yes, soldiers need to be paid, but other than that, they probably think they can hold out on approving any new continuing resolution to reopen government until the Democrats, who DO care about all that other stuff, finally blink and will be then be open to paying some ransom.

    And as for the debt-limit causing world-wide collapse, Republicans may realize that we might not see higher rates on our bonds anyway — after all, that didn’t happen in 2011, when S&P lowered our AAA — and, they might ask, so what if we do? Paying higher rates to borrow only matters if we continue to borrow money to support our profligate spending — which is something they will have stopped anyway.

    Maybe I’m just being a nervous Nelly here, but I do worry that, if we think we have Republicans over a barrel, we may have another think coming.


  2. BabaO says:

    Being one of nature’s assholes is a degraded human condition. Being a self-agrandizing asshole is sad for those who suffer at the asshole’s hands. Being those things and an idiot, to boot, leaves few alternatives for gainful employment that does not require an MBA. Those of this sort would gravitate to positions of power if given any opportunity to do so. Sadly, our country provides just that opportunity to those of this type who can be cleaned up fairly well and will take orders from those who would have them do their bidding in exchange for a ‘safe’ seat and campaign funding.
    Today there’s a shitload of them who call themselves ‘conservative’, though they are in favor of conserving nothing but their jobs.

    The Brits had a better phrase than ‘safe seat’. They called them ‘rotten boroughs’.

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