The Uses of Uselessness

Americans don’t expect much of politicians. Maybe they never did – there have been jokes about how useless they are from the start – but there was a time when things got done, for the good of the country. Somehow FDR got Congress to pass laws that created Social Security and unemployment insurance and the SEC and all that financial regulation – but those were extraordinary times. The Great Depression focused men’s minds. Congress even approved all his New Deal stuff – the WPA and all the rest – to recreate something like a functioning economy. Something had to be done. It was the same in the sixties. Richard Nixon pushed through the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency – the EPA that all Republicans now hate, because it’s bad for business, requiring stuff that cuts into everyone’s profit margins, which somehow makes it a jobs-killer, or so they say. But back then, with acid rain turning the Adirondacks into a desert and no one able to breathe in Los Angeles and the Cuyahoga River catching fire in Cleveland, too many people thought breathable air and relatively clean water were pretty damned important. Many don’t feel that way now, but no rivers have caught fire lately. There’s little to focus on. Global warming caused by what we’ve dumped into the atmosphere will no doubt kill us all in a hundred years, or sooner, but not this week. This week, major corporations are trying to turn a profit in tough times. No one wants to make it tough on them. No one wants to further hobble a stumbling economy. Capping emissions can wait – and it’s probably too late for those now anyway. So, well, we’re all going to die, but not this week.

Immediacy matters. The country was tearing itself apart in the early sixties, when everyone thought they wouldn’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, after he had lost to Kennedy and then lost his bid to become governor out here in California. He did return from the dead in 1968, but by then he had missed the whole civil rights movement. What he missed was politicians being forced by immediate concerns to do something about those who were finally fed up with our American form of apartheid. It became our national shame, on national television, right out there for the rest of the world to see too. That focused men’s minds. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 addressed some of those problems. Those didn’t change men’s minds – the reaction to what happened in Ferguson shows that – but they did change the law. Our politicians did do something useful, because they had to do something.

Perhaps LBJ goaded them into thinking they could do something useful after all, in those odd years. He pushed through Medicare and Medicaid and Head Start, even if the poor and elderly had been dying from lack of medical care for centuries, and little kids without resources had always been locked in failure and poverty for the rest of their lives. That’s life. There was no immediate need for any of that, but for a time our politicians fell in the habit of doing useful things anyway.

They fell out of that habit soon enough. They’re useless again. After all those dead kids from that Sandy Hook massacre they couldn’t agree on any new rules about gun sales and registration of firearms, even if ninety percent of the public wanted that sort of thing. They certainly can’t agree on immigration reform, even if the business folks favor getting their cheap labor out from under the shadows and the public, generally, sees no problem with letting useful people, who sneaked in, stay here. They’re still ticked off about Obamacare, which is marginally useful, even if it is the law of the land. Usefulness is no longer important. Usefulness is for extraordinary times, for times of crisis. We’re back to the norm, where other things matter – gaining political power and holding it, not to get done what you think should be done, but just to hold power. You might not even know what you want to get done, but that hardly matters. In fact, that’s beside the point. You can stop things, even useful things. That’s real power, and also the essence of uselessness, and also why most Americans find politicians, and politics, not worth considering. There’s little point to all of it.

President Obama did do something useful on immigration – a series of administrative actions that will keep four or five million useful folks here without permission from being deported immediately, if they jump through a few hoops – and that has outraged the Republicans, even if he told them that would all be rescinded if they just pass something or other on immigration. They saw it as a power grab, and perhaps unconstitutional even if everyone knows it isn’t. They’ll sue him. They’ll refuse to fund the government and shut everything down, again, if he refuses to reverse what he’s done. They’ll impeach him. They’ll do something, even if all discussion of what is useful has been lost in the processes – and now they hold both the House and Senate, so they can do something, even if it’s nothing at all useful about immigration.

It’s what you’d expect. Republican leaders in Congress have settled on a way forward that will fund the government and avoid a shutdown – they know they’d catch hell for that – but not give up the fight against Obama’s executive actions on immigration. That’s what Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan report at Politico:

Speaker John Boehner announced Tuesday in a closed Republican meeting that the House would vote to disapprove of President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration this week and will vote to fund the government next week.

The two-part plan, which GOP leadership laid out Monday evening to some lawmakers, is designed to give Republicans an opportunity to express displeasure with the White House’s move on immigration while avoiding a shutdown.

The disapproval of Obama’s unilateral action – which states the executive branch cannot selectively enforce immigration deportation laws – won’t change much, since the Senate will likely ignore it.

The plan was inspired by two conservative lawmakers: Florida Rep. Ted Yoho and Georgia Rep. Tom Price. The government funding portion would keep most of the government open until September 2015 but would only supply monies to the Department of Homeland Security until March. Government funding runs out Dec. 11.

Paul Waldman comments:

There are actually three parts: fund the government through the end of the fiscal year (until October 2015), fund the Department of Homeland Security through March, and pass a resolution condemning President Obama’s immigration action. That means there will be opportunities for symbolic fist-shaking now, and a renewal of the same argument in a couple of months. The leadership may have solved the puzzle of how to convince their conservatives that they’re fighting Obama with sufficient fury: stretch out the battle.

The truth is that a lot of this is a kind of kabuki. Boehner and Mitch McConnell know that they aren’t going to be able to reverse Obama’s immigration order, at least until there’s a Republican president (and maybe not even then). But conservatives need to feel like they’re fighting for something real. By funding the DHS only until March, they’re promising those conservatives a future battle, even if the chances that it will actually result in a reversal of the order are slim to none. Even if they end up capitulating in March, they may stretch it out even further – agree to fund the department for a few more months, and tell the conservatives that they’ve lived to fight another day.

The rest is hot air:

As for the resolution of condemnation, it doesn’t have any practical effect, but at least it’s something they can do now (recall that the House passed a resolution condemning Obama once before, over the Bowe Bergdahl deal). And to be honest, I’m all for it.

Congress has every right to express its disapproval of a regulatory action taken by the president. We tend to look on the symbolic things Congress does, like congratulating the U.S. water polo team on their recent victory over Slovakia or declaring Canker Sore Awareness Week, as useless. But if nothing else they do establish a record expressing the body’s sentiments, which may not be much, but it’s more than nothing. When it comes to disapproving of a regulatory action, the only practical options are passing legislation to revoke it (which they can’t do because Obama would veto it), filing a lawsuit, or winning the next presidential election, after which your party will be in control of the executive branch and you, can shape the regulatory state more to your liking.

So in the meantime, Republicans have decided to make a statement now, and prepare for a battle in a few months that they’re almost certainly going to lose. Sounds like a plan.

There’s nothing useful here, and the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank takes it from there:

Among the many ways Republican members of Congress are contemplating to punish President Obama for his executive actions on immigration is a proposal of elegant simplicity: They would refuse to invite him to the Capitol to give his State of the Union address.

Yes, that should do the job. And if this doesn’t force Obama to back down from his executive orders, Republican lawmakers can escalate by unfriending him on Facebook and unfollowing him on Twitter. If even this fails, they can take the extreme step of having their Christmas cards from the Obamas returned to sender. Surely, the president then would have no choice but to relent.

Milbank made all of that up, except for the part about the Republicans refusing to invite this particular president to the Capitol to give his State of the Union address – they are seriously considering that – something never done before – but Milbank is not impressed:

There will be more spluttering and stomping and shouting about Obama’s illegal and unconstitutional activities, but pay no attention. In the immigration stare-down, Republicans have already blinked. Unwilling to squander their new majority and public support by risking a government shutdown, they are quickly falling in line behind symbolic protests. …

Republican lawmakers are floating no fewer than nine possible responses, from the frivolous (the State of the Union snub) to the outrageous (impeachment). But all signs indicate Republicans have abandoned attempts to defund Obama’s executive actions under the threat of a shutdown – at least for now. Instead, they plan to keep the government running through Sept. 30, probably allowing immigration-related spending to lapse earlier next year. This would be paired with a symbolic vote blocking Obama’s executive actions.

Even the author of that token bill, Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), admits it would be useless unless the still-Democratic Senate passes it and Obama signs it. Why would either do that?

“Well, you brought up a great point,” Yoho acknowledged as he emerged from a meeting with Republican colleagues in the Capitol basement Tuesday. “It can be a symbolic message… I’m relying on you to get this message out to the American people so that it is not a lame-duck message.”

Message delivered, congressman. But it won’t help.

Then there’s that other guy:

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), perhaps the most outspoken immigration hard-liner in the House, left the meeting criticizing his colleagues for going soft. “We need to shut off the funding to this president’s lawless act, nothing else, but I don’t know if there’s enough will in that room to defend the Constitution yet,” he said.

And how many share this view? “I think that there’s a majority that agree with me but there’s not yet a majority that are ready to fight.”

If the will to fight is not there now, when Republicans’ anger about immigration is fresh, it’s not clear why they think they’d have better luck threatening a shutdown next year. That may be why Heritage Action, a powerful conservative group, issued a statement while House Republicans met Tuesday declaring: “The fight is now, not next year. Americans expect real action, not a show vote.”

John Boehner was unpersuaded.

His folks have no useful ideas on immigration reform, or any idea at all on the matter, but you can only push this so far. In the storm of outage they express, the flurry of high-sounding this and that, people might not notice how useless they are. Shutting down the government is another matter. People notice.

Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine notes the other permutation in all of this:

Conservative anger at President Obama’s immigration-relief plan was bound to burble up in the form of some kind of demand for revenge. That response has manifested itself, improbably enough, in a fight over tax cuts. Congress has erupted in a kind of sublimated class war that not only pitted the Republicans and Democrats against each other, but also the Democratic Party against itself.

The predicate for this unlikely conflict is that the tax code contains a bunch of breaks and deductions that were written as temporary, but that Congress usually decides to just renew every year. Most of those breaks benefit businesses – the main one being a tax break for research and development. Also included in that package are several tax breaks for low-income workers that Democrats passed into law in 2009. Traditionally, the two parties have agreed to extend all the tax cuts together at once. It was not exactly what either party wanted – Democrats didn’t like bleeding revenue from the Treasury every year, and Republicans didn’t like extending tax cuts to low-income workers – but the compromise suited both sides well enough that nobody cared to blow it up. Now it’s getting blown up.

It had to happen:

Obama’s immigration relief plan is the proximate cause. Newly legalized workers will pay taxes, and thus be eligible for tax breaks.

We can’t have that, on principle:

The idea that tax breaks for low-income workers amounts to a form of welfare is itself a somewhat contested premise within the Republican Party. Large elements of the conservative party have spent the Obama years simmering with rage at the insufficiently high tax rates paid by low-income workers. Mitt Romney’s candid rant against the 47% percent who (allegedly) pay no taxes merely recycled a right-wing meme. Since Romney’s defeat, some Republicans have gently urged their party to ease up of their campaign to force low-income workers to pay more taxes. But adding the cultural-legal panic to the preexisting class-war panic was apparently enough to turn the GOP’s grudging acceptance of the low-income tax breaks into full-scale opposition.

So first Republicans made the tax breaks for business permanent, while allowing the tax breaks for low-income workers to expire at the end of 2017. Since they would no longer be tied to tax breaks for the more affluent constituencies that have influence with Republicans, this would mean they would almost certainly expire. Families earning $10,000 to around $25,000 a year would lose nearly $2,500 a year – a punishing blow to the working class…

Do they vote? Yes, they do, but talk about gay marriage and heroic cops doing what must be done with all the young black thugs everywhere, and the working class won’t miss the money, but here’s the twist:

Amazingly, Democrats in the Senate like Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer agreed to this plan. Before Thanksgiving, Obama threatened a veto, causing Reid to beat a hasty retreat. The (not for long) Senate Majority Leader now promises to negotiate for the extension of low-income tax breaks.

Meanwhile, the CEO community is apoplectic at the standoff. Business leaders by and large have occupied a middle ground between the two parties (which is an indication of how far right the terms of the economic debate have shifted since Republicans took control of Congress). They share the GOP’s general ideological aims, but don’t share its willingness to blow things up in order to achieve them.

There’s no one useful here, as far as you can see, out to the horizon and beyond, and Matt O’Brien adds one more twist:

Good news for fans of unimportant policy fights: Paul Ryan thinks Republicans will try to stop the Export-Import (ExIm) Bank from being reauthorized in 2015. Now feel free to go on living your lives. The stakes don’t get much smaller.

This is why:

The ExIm Bank, as you might guess, subsidizes exports for big manufacturers like Boeing by giving their customers cheap loans. It’s probably not a good idea, but it’s not a particularly bad one either – and as far as bad ideas go, it at least the virtue of making the government money. Specifically, the CBO estimates that it will add $14 billion to the government’s coffers over the next decade. That’s because the government can borrow for so little that it can even come out ahead on even subsidized loans.

Ah, but now it’s a big deal:

Republicans, though, want to show that they’re not the party of the rich … just without spending any more money on the poor… So Republicans have come up with something called “libertarian populism.” It’s basically deregulation that hurts the rich. The idea, of course, is that getting rid of corporate welfare is the way to show that they’re really on the little guy’s side.

And that’s where the ExIm Bank comes in. It is without question corporate welfare. But it’s not a lot of it. In all, its subsidies are worth about $2 billion the next 10 years. (That’s how much money it would lose if the government couldn’t borrow at the super-low rates it does). To put that in perspective, that’s about 0.0009 percent of GDP over that time. Not even a rounding error.

This is uselessness to a whole new level:

Never has so little been fought over by so many for so long. The ExIm Bank’s subsidies are insignificant. So are its profits. And the economy will have the same number of jobs with or without it – just maybe not manufacturing jobs. Getting rid of the ExIm Bank, in other words, might be a good idea, but it’s not a good use of Congress’ time. Indeed, if you were ranking policies by their importance, there’s a strong case that this would be last. But that’s part of the appeal of this particular fight. It’s a mostly symbolic way of showing that Republicans are against “crony capitalism” without angering conservative voters, like they would if they, say, eliminated agriculture subsidies for wealthy farmers.

That’s what makes the ExIm Bank the perfect legislative battle for a do-nothing Congress. It won’t upset anyone over than Boeing’s lobbyists, because nobody else cares about it. And it will give activists a new bright, shiny object to focus on during their Two Minutes of Hate of everything Washington. Even better, because so little is riding on the outcome, it doesn’t really matter whether they win or lose the fight. In fact, Republicans might secretly prefer to lose it, because that would keep the issue alive, and continue to give themselves the illusion of a middle-class agenda.

This is the ultimate fight about nothing much at all, but Americans don’t expect much of politicians, so this is useful in its way. Americans don’t expect much of politicians for good reason. Maybe if another river caught fire they’d do something useful, or maybe not – not now. They fell out of that habit long ago.

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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 The Uses of Uselessness

  1. Someone just asked me, “what does government do well?” I was nearly at a loss to defend it, and certainly he was looking for a debate, something which brings great joy to our evenings together, but I went with, “It is an old and traditional structure, and sometimes the order, process and protocol of ‘doing’ is more critical than the measure of how well something is done.” He was not inspired by this answer. He wanted measurable progress, something he could defend, and mostly i think, to hear it WAS useful.

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