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April 17, 2014 / 17 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘debt ceiling’

In the U.S. Capitol: Darkness Rather than Light

Monday, February 17th, 2014

Men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil. (John 3:19)

Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the Lord, who do their work in darkness and think, “Who sees us?  Who will know?” (Isaiah 29:15)

It is with a heavy heart that I write this.  What is reported here will surprise some people, but will not surprise others.  The events will shed, on the last few days in our republic, a light different from the spotlight directed by the media.  If we see the events clearly, we may realize that our focus has been misdirected.

Like most Americans, I think, I assumed it was inevitable that the Senate would vote to increase the so-called national debt “ceiling” this month, once the House did.  There might or might not be legislative shenanigans, but there would be a grudging vote to authorize more debt.  And so there was.

Ted Cruz famously irritated his colleagues – and much of the putatively conservative media – by “forcing a recorded vote” on Wednesday to raise the debt ceiling.  What he actually did was force the Senate to break a filibuster to pass the debt-ceiling increase.  The basic legislation for the debt-ceiling increase could have been passed with only a simple majority, which the Democrats have the seats to muster without any Republican help.  But breaking the filibuster, which takes 60 votes, required Republicans voting with Democrats.  What Cruz insisted on was having those votes recorded.

Here’s what most Americans probably don’t realize: the Senate Republicans who voted with the Democrats to break Cruz’s filibuster went to extraordinary lengths to try to keep their voting secret – against the normal practices of the chamber.  They didn’t think their actions would stand the light of day.  They wanted to be able to break the filibuster without voters knowing which ones of them had done it.

Here is AP reporter Andrew Taylor (hardly a font of Tea Party bias):

As lawmakers voted Wednesday on must-pass legislation to increase the government’s debt limit, they dropped the parliamentary equivalent of a curtain on the voting as it was in progress.

Typically, roll-call votes in the Senate play out in a very public manner. People watching from the galleries or tracking action from afar via C-SPAN can watch democracy unfold in all its messy wonder.

Each senator’s vote is announced by the clerk; each time a senator switches sides, that’s announced too. Onlookers can keep a running tally of how it’s going.

But not this time. Fifteen minutes into the vote, as captured by C-Span cameras, the tally clerk rose to recite the vote. A Senate aide alerted Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the six Republicans who later switched his vote from “nay” to “aye.” McCain intervened, and the clerk sat right back down. “Would you …” McCain said before the live microphone cut off.

According to Taylor, McCain’s staff later said he did not intervene to shroud the progress of the vote in secrecy.  Nevertheless, it was shrouded.

Skittish Republicans … knew the Democratic-backed legislation couldn’t move forward without at least a few GOP votes, but none of them wanted to be left hanging out there alone on what could be a politically treacherous vote.

Whatever the reason, they kept the public in the dark while they worked things out. A Democratic spokesman later explained that Republicans requested the clerk stay silent so it would be easier for GOP senators to switch their votes.

No more announcing each individual “yea” and “nay.” The running tally was known only by a handful of insiders.

The vote itself took a very long time, presumably because of the arm-twisting involved to get the Republican votes needed to pass 60.  As we know, it eventually got done.  In fact, six additional Republicans switched their votes in solidarity with Mitch McConnell, who finally stepped to the microphone, with John Cornyn, to break the filibuster with 60 votes.  The vote to break the filibuster ended up at 67-31.  But there was confusion in the chamber as to whether McConnell and Cornyn had actually put the tally at 60 – because the vote wasn’t being tallied publicly.

That appeared to put the tally at the required 60, but no one could be positive.

Had a Democrat skipped the vote to get out of town ahead of a looming snowstorm? Did the press gallery staff members who unofficially record each tally as a service to the media miss a crucial hand gesture in the initial flurry of votes?

None of this was what the Capitol Hill media – or major customers like the stock markets – are used to:

“We were very disappointed that Wednesday’s change in Senate voting protocol kept us from giving the public real time access to this key vote,” said Terry Murphy, C-SPAN’s vice president of programming. “The tactic certainly gives the concept of legislative transparency a black eye.” Afterward, there was confusion. Initially, a spokesman for Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat who runs the Senate, said Reid was unaware at the time that Senate procedures were being bypassed. Later, spokesman Adam Jentleson said Reid “consented to Republicans’ request.”

[…]

“We are extremely concerned with the way the vote tally was handled yesterday on a pivotal debt-ceiling vote,” said Siobhan Hughes, chairwoman of the Standing Committee of Correspondents, which represents the interests of Capitol Hill’s print media. “When the vote tallies are not read aloud, it makes it harder for the media and therefore the public to get the information they need to hold lawmakers accountable.”

Indeed.  It’s one thing for pundits and political strategists to sell the argument that the debt-ceiling vote wasn’t the place to take a stand.  But it’s another thing entirely for the politicians involved to try hide from the consequences of acting on that argument.  If it’s the right thing to do, then man up and be accountable for it.  If your deeds have to be shrouded in secrecy, the problem isn’t the voters.

The pusillanimous approach of a handful of Senate Republicans isn’t, moreover, the end of the story.  This could all happen again:

While acknowledging the media’s concerns had merit, Jentleson couldn’t guarantee a veiled vote won’t happen again.

“After the vote began, it was quickly clear that Republican leaders were struggling to deliver enough votes … and a potentially catastrophic default suddenly seemed possible,” Jentleson said. “At Senate Republicans’ request, the clerk did not call the names during the vote to make it easier for Republican leaders to convince their members to switch their votes.”

Here’s the principle, in other words: it would be so catastrophic to not increase the debt ceiling that Senators must have the option of avoiding the people’s scrutiny.

At some point, we have to start calling this what it is.  When Senators are trying desperately to hide what they’re doing from the people, they aren’t exercising strategy.  They’re fleeing responsibility.  Ted Cruz was right to call that out.  Darkness cannot be the better path.

It certainly is not a “strategy” for achieving a positive, forward-moving objective.  The evidence of that is all around us.

But apart from the evidence of outcomes, we can say this on principle: if managing government seems to demand hiding your actions from the people, you’re doing it wrong.  Perhaps nothing shows so clearly how our current crop of leaders have painted themselves – and us – into a corner as this sad attempt at secrecy by Senate Republicans.  The people are not the ones who are stupid here. We’re not the ones who “don’t understand.”

How I Stopped Fearing the Tea Party Apocalypse and Started to Love It

Sunday, October 13th, 2013

The most memorable early executive act on the part of the newly elected President Barack Obama, for whom I voted in 2008, was to embrace his predecessor’s economic stimulus package, push it up to $800 billion and give it to all the many speculators and fat cats who had caused the collapse in the first place.

As far as I was concerned, this was an act of class betrayal of an enormous magnitude. The White House and the loyal media bombarded us with the notion that if we dared permit sick, corrupt financial institutions to meet their natural demise it would mean the end of civilization. They were—so we were told—just too big to fail. Millions of Americans could go underwater with their properties – that we weren’t afraid of, but if AG stock holders were left at the end of the day with what amounted to so much useless paper – that would have been catastrophic.

What Obama should have done back then, which would have surely brought us over the hump in a couple of years—instead of schlepping a delusional recovery for the better part of a decade—was to hand out trillions of dollars to local municipalities, so they would in turn give them to their citizens for make-work. Dig ditches, mow lawns, fix bridges, write poetry, I don’t care. It wasn’t about the end product – it was about getting money into people’s hands so the economy would be resurrected not on Wall Street, but in the thousands of towns and hamlets across America. Because when you give a poor man a paycheck, he goes right away and pays for food, clothing, rent. It’s the best distribution system known to man. If it took ten trillion dollars – what the heck, print ten trillion dollars and send them out to fix the country.

You would be worried about inflation, you’re saying? Well, since the dollar has been taken off the gold standard in 1971, inflation is caused by one, singular factor: what it costs banks to buy money from the Fed, the U.S. central bank. If they pay half a percent or so in interest—as they’ve been doing for decades now—then there’s no inflation. The only other possibility for an inflation is if there’s a shortage of goods, and then too many dollars are chasing too few goods and the prices soar. Look around you – we’re in a merchandizing glut, despite all the economic catastrophes and the poverty line and the single mothers – there are still way too many iPhones out there for each American.

But you don’t have to agree with me on any of the above to understand the following: If, back then, in early 2009, when President Obama was pushing his stimulus package in all the wrong directions, a group of 80 Democrats had stood up on their hind legs and said, Hell, No, We Won’t Go, I and all my Democratic friends would have rushed to the streets to cheer them on.

That’s the part I find hard to accept – why is it that when 80 right-wing parliamentarians are standing on their hind legs and telling their leadership and their president to go to hell, they won’t sign on to what they consider to be a wrong budget policy – why are they being attacked as messianic crazies, just this side of the loony bin?

Former Labor Secretary in the Clinton Administration Robert Reich, whom I happen to like very much, had this to say to Spiegel about the Tea Party Congress members: “Some of them really have contempt for the entire process of government. They’re followers of people who say that we ought to shrink government down to the size that it can drown in a bathtub. They hate government viscerally. They’re not in Washington to govern; they’re in Washington to tear it down.”

I’m not telling you anything you haven’t seen and read over the past month or so, and as the looming date of the “default” grows nearer, those character assassinations will only get nastier. And the polls are showing that America is buying it, and seems to be blaming the Republican party for our economic mess. And since our politicians live and die by the polls, it’s quite possible they’ll find a way out of this crisis, maybe for 6 weeks, maybe for 2 months, who knows.

Obama’s Threats

Monday, January 21st, 2013

In his quest to raise the debt ceiling, President Obama issued a threat in his press conference last week that troops won’t get paid and veterans’ pension payments will be delayed.  He warned of delays in Social Security payments as well.

It’s important to understand that these comments constitute a threat (which may or may not be a hollow one).  Obama is not stating some inescapable reality, to which he along with the rest of us is subject.  If retirees and vets see a delay in their payments, it will be because Obama himself decides to hold the payments up.  Moreover, Obama is not caught in a trap when it comes to paying the troops; he can make sure they get paid, if it’s his priority to do so.

The payments to retirees are going to go out unless Obama stops them.  The debt ceiling doesn’t prevent those payments from being made.  It requires that other types of federal expenditures – current-year operating expenses like federal purchases, welfare outlays, payrolls, etc – be suspended or managed differently.

The two Social Security Trust Funds (one for old-age benefits and one for disability benefits) had nearly $2.7 trillion in assets at the end of fiscal year 2011. The most recent for which a trustees’ report is posted online.  The funds are used every year to ensure obligated pay-outs to beneficiaries, and have been borrowed against many times by Congress, under routine fiscal circumstances.  While repayment of any amount expended during a government shut-down should be part of a debt-ceiling deal, the trusts allow Social Security payments to be made on time during a shut-down – unless Obama decides against that.

Likewise, the Military Retirement Fund had about $428 billion in total assets at the end of fiscal year 2012, three-and-a-half months ago.  The fund’s assets can certainly be used to make on-time pension payments to veterans in early 2013 – again, with a repayment plan as part of the debt-ceiling deal.  In fact, military retired pay is already programmed for electronic distribution throughout FY2013; it takes active intervention to prevent it from being distributed.

Active-duty military pay is a current-year expenditure, and would be directly jeopardized by a government shut-down.  But whether or not the troops get paid is up to Obama’s leadership.  He could agree with Congress to set aside enough to pay the troops while the negotiations continue – a move that could well require cutting or suspending expenditures elsewhere in the federal government, in order to remain under the debt ceiling until a deal was reached.

Obama could also get a read from his attorneys on the precedents for and propriety of borrowing against one of the big trust funds to meet the uniformed payroll during the government crisis.  Paying the troops, especially when the military is forward-deployed and much of it is in combat in Afghanistan, ought to be politically unifying.  It’s hard to imagine Congress trying to impeach or otherwise hobble Obama over the actions he might take to ensure the troops are paid.

What Obama is doing, in effect, is issuing threats about what he will do, if Republicans don’t give him what he wants.  But he’s representing the threats as a consequence for which the GOP lawmakers would be responsible.

This kind of mendacious demagoguery flourishes when the press is biased and/or cowed, and fails to challenge the political leaders.  Every appeal from the leadership gets to be emotional; government is discussed in unaccountable, irrational, and even hysterical terms, as when the president postulated, in his speech on gun restrictions during the same press conference, that the victims of mass shootings had been “denied their rights” by the shooters.  The distinction between committing crimes against individuals, which the citizens can do, and denying the people’s rights – which only government can do – is one of the most important concepts underlying the American system of government.  But Obama elided it out of existence on last week, in his quest to depict the use of firearms as, principally, a means of injuring others.

Parse, parse, parse, my friends.  This president doesn’t speak in the terms of American political philosophy, which holds government and its leaders accountable for meanings both philosophical and practical.  It is not our practice, in American government, to shrug off misleading demagoguery.  That’s not “business as usual” for us.  Our president is supposed to bind himself to constitutional meanings.  He is supposed to depict the actions of government honestly.  It’s a big deal that this one doesn’t.

The Trillion Dollar Coin Approach to Mideast Peace

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

There have been rumors and shmumors about America’s intention of minting a “trillion dollar coin” and sticking it in the Federal Reserve in order to bypass the so-called debt ceiling, which is more of a debt elevator. I couldn’t help but think of the Simpsons episode where the government prints a trillion dollar bill and Mr. Burns and Homer escape with it and somehow it ends up in the hands of Fidel Castro and the country survives on the wealth of the trillion dollar bill.

It is rare that I am dumbfounded, but this time I really am. I don’t know what to say. The mere possibility of the minting of a trillion dollar coin is so despicably absurd that I’m overloaded with a litany of potential sarcastic remarks that none of them can fit through the door of my mouth as they’re all crowding together simultaneously and are now jammed in the back of my throat and I can hardly breathe. Jon Stewart did a pristine job I must say.

Let me just start by saying that the source of this problem is that some primordial government, when it came in and seized the local mints and splayed the king’s face over all the coins, decided to give the monetary unit a proper name instead of a weight. For example, “dinars” instead of “ounces”. Then the Alice-in-Wonderland concept of “face value” was born, which doesn’t really exist. If instead of “dollars” the term for money was “grams” then money would be tied to weight instead of fancy shmancy names like “dollar” and the possibility of printing a gram of money or a “trillion gram coin” would be a lot more difficult for the government to do. So they had to rename the monetary unit to some imaginary term.

Two obvious questions are these, reductio ad absurdums, but it’s hard to engage in those when the premise you are attacking is itself so intensely absurd on its own:

  1. If you’re going to mint a trillion dollar coin, why not mint 16 of them and pay off the national debt?
  2. Why make it out of platinum? Why not elephant dung?

Better yet, you want mideast peace, right? And you love foreign aid and meddling. Then by God go all out! Why use it for such a petty thing as raising the “debt ceiling”? I say give the trillion dollar elephant dung to Israel, and then we can buy all of Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt and every single Arab in the country, pay them outrageous salaries to tap dance for us, and give them each their own personal trained pet chimpanzee to give them manicures and shiatsu massages and build them all gold-plated ivory mansions so they’ll be happy and won’t have to do anything after the daily tap dance for the Jews? Everyone over here will be rich, obviously, and therefore at peace. And the chimpanzee population will have a big boon.

There’s only one problem. How are we doing to break a trillion to get all this done? The local Five and Dime? Or the Five and Trillion?

And you want to use it to get around your stupid debt ceiling?

My Lord the world has lost its mind.

And don’t forget, there is nothing qualitatively different between a trillion dollar coin, and a one dollar bill.

Visit Settlers of Samaria.

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