Polar Vortex Underscores Frozen Congressional Activity (January 23, 2014)

Deep Freeze Washington

Oh the weather outside is frightful this winter, and this year there are very few places to hide. Last weekend as I boarded a flight to Nashville, visions of 50-degree temperatures danced in my head. The normal January range in the Music City is between 28 and 47 degrees, infinitely more tolerable than the climate in my hometown of Chicago. Alas, I deplaned in a disappointingly similar environment, where the thermometer struggled to reach the freezing point. Mother Nature is bitter and unforgiving all over.

Maybe she’s taking her cues from the inert members of Congress, who at the close of 2013 dared to make us consider the possibility of action. Briefly scared straight by the public backlash over the fall’s disastrous and ill-reasoned government shutdown, intransigent Republicans in the Senate (and to a lesser degree, the House) suddenly seemed in the mood to get things done. This led to the production of a bipartisan budget agreement, followed by feckless House Speaker John Boehner’s better-late-than never repudiation of right wing groups such as the Heritage Foundation, which have egregiously encouraged GOP games of chicken over the last six years. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid finally found the political courage to change the broken chamber’s filibuster rules so that an enormous backlog of Executive Branch appointments could begin to be cleared. It was a heady time when actual work once again seemed possible.

But the spirit of compromise didn’t last. Early into the New Year, thousands of long-term job seekers were cut off from sorely needed unemployment insurance benefits. No sooner did the holiday bills and winter’s cruelty roll in than the Republican Party doubled down on the suffering of the jobless. Despite the fact that respondents to a Fox News poll (!!!!) overwhelmingly favor the extension of benefits, to the tune of 69 percent, Congressional Republicans have continued to ignore the will of the people. Washington Post writer Aaron Blake rather charitably reports that “Congress is deadlocked over whether and how to continue funding unemployment insurance beyond that 26-week period.”

I would offer that there’s no deadlock about it. Democrats maintain some human empathy for the Great Recession-ravaged unemployed while Republican Party standard bearers like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul leverage pretzel logic to avoid helping that wretched 47 percent of “takers.” Paul famously said, “the longer you have it [unemployment insurance], that it provides some disincentive to work, and that there are many studies that indicate this.”

I am betting that these “many studies” were conducted by conservative research groups. As someone who has been on the layoff dole more than once in the course of a relatively short career, I can safely say that six months of roughly 30 percent the usual take home pay did not result in leisurely champagne and caviar consumption.

Only the party that brought us two budget and deficit busting wars, tax cuts and an unpaid for Medicare prescription drug benefit under the Bush II regime could have the absolute, unmitigated gall to demand fiscal responsibility when it comes to helping suffering workers. And naturally, the GOP has brushed aside numerous credible reports that extending the benefits actually creates jobs and saves the government money in the long run.

But let me not consume the entire column railing against Republican opposition to helping once hardworking Americans survive. As the great Gail Collins of The New York Times wrote today on her end of “The Conversation” with David Brooks: “to be honest, if the president told a reporter that he had great confidence this would be the year we’d see immigration reform, better gun control, tax reform and a hike in the minimum wage, I’d probably be less excited than worried about his mental health.”

Anyone who believed that late fall’s sudden flurry of activity would extend past the New Year, or counted upon the Republican obsession with opposition to die along with the party’s shutdown approval rating, is discovering that the polar vortex is both metaphorically and literally in charge.

Media Finally Pivots Away from Repetitive Deficit Scare Tactics and Notices Surging Populism (December 30, 2013)

barack_obama_ap_605

The conclusion of a calendar year before the inception of a fresh one is both a literal and metaphorical time of hope: a chance to wipe the slate clean and welcome new ideas, goals and attitudes. While any period of transition lacks clean orderliness, the end of December is perhaps the one time in twelve months where an opportunity is presented to  stop, think and even change the most important mind of all – your own.

It was just two months ago, in the midst of October’s bogus and pointless government shutdown, that I was pretty much resolved to throw in the political towel. Despite a surprisingly strong spine shown by President Obama and Congressional Democrats in refusing to help lunatic Republicans save face, it seemed as though we had beamed an unmistakable message across the globe: “The United States has jumped the shark. A minority of conservative radicals is in charge, holding the rest of us hostage. And mainstream ‘liberals,’ perpetually preoccupied with the next election cycle have forsaken economic and social stewardship. We will continue to lurch from one manufactured fiscal crisis to another. We have stopped caring about the middle and lower classes. We will continue to ignore the growing incidence of mass gun violence, dismantle the social safety net. Give us another decade to complete our transformation to banana republic.”

But just when all seemed utterly and completely lost, a series of fortunate and promising events occurred. The GOP was pummeled in the public court of good opinion over the two-week shutdown, effectively neutralizing the party’s oft-stated talking point that its actions reflected the will of the people. They completely capitulated, the government reopened and there was good reason to believe that Boehner and the bunch would be loathe to attempt any similar monkey business in the near future.

Next we received the holiday gift of a bipartisan budget agreement. And though it was at best an imperfect plan which does nothing to aid the struggling, invest in the future (infrastructure, education) or bolster job creation, the final resolution was a glorified nod to the retreat of deficit panic as our defining government ideology. The cherry on top was the subsequent inter-Republican bickering, punctuated by Speaker Boehner’s repeated admonishment of right wing advocacy groups like the Heritage Foundation. The grumpiness appeared to be little less than the opening shot of the Republican civil war that for years appeared as necessary as it was unlikely.

And now, finally, at the conclusion of 2013, the conversation is turning. Yes, the change is beginning to take root in “liberal” media outlets such as The New York Times, but it’s happening. Time was you couldn’t get anyone but Nobel Prize-winning economic Paul Krugman to steer off the GOP sound bite course. And bless his heart, the stalwart solider of good sense is back at it this week with a column entitled, Fiscal Fever Breaks. But I wasn’t about to get excited until a major story made the front page.

The headline is neutral enough: Democrats Turn to Minimum Wage as 2014 Strategy. But the statistics referenced within the piece are the real story: “Sixty-four percent of independents and even 57 percent of Republicans said they supported increasing the minimum wage, according to a CBS News poll last month. Some 70 percent of self-described ‘moderates’ said they supported an increase.”

The movement away from “serious” economic butchering that only serves to enrich the wealthy and kick the troubled when they’re down, no longer holds the same appeal – for the White House, for papers of record and, most importantly of all, for the people. A large cross-section of ALL of the people. 2014 might just be the year of resurgent democracy, of empathy and of a modicum of policy sanity. Yes, we can.

A Lot of Politically Surprising Things Happened Last Week…But Has Anything Changed? (December 16, 2013)

Quotation-Andrew-Cuomo-politics-surprises-government-Meetville-Quotes-14876

As we barreled toward the New Year last week, it seemed that each morning brought with it some genuinely surprising political news. Taken together, the most welcome unifying theme was a phenomenon we haven’t seen in Washington in quite some time: movement.

Six days ago, concerned Americans, weary of the fiscal showdowns, debt ceiling crises and many years without an operating Congressional budget resolution awoke to a bipartisan shocker. Democratic Senator Patty Murray and Republican Representative Paul Ryan hammered out a budget compromise that avoids another painful government shutdown on January 15, and if passed by the Senate, eliminates the arbitrary and debilitating sequestration cuts that went into effect last March.

The exhausted and cynical among us wondered how long it might take for the Heritage Foundation, the Koch Brothers and their ilk to scare Ryan, Boehner and other Republican leaders into hasty retreat. And sure enough the predictable reproaches and accusations of fiscal treason arrived right on cue, before the full details of the Murray/Ryan compromise were even available. But then another amazing thing happened. Not one but two full days in a row, a beleaguered and angry Speaker Boehner went on the offensive against the third party groups who have exerted undue influence on U.S. government. In a Washington Post article entitled, Boehner attacks tea party groups as House approves budget deal, writers Paul Kane and Ed O’Keefe observe, “After years of placating conservative groups that repeatedly undermined his agenda, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) took direct aim at some of his tea party critics Thursday, accusing them of working against the interests of the Republican Party.”

Obvious and overdue certainly, but amazing nonetheless.

But the week was not yet through bestowing minor gifts of karmic delight upon the frazzled liberal and moderate. Hot on the heels of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s November decision to push through long-threatened changes to thePresidential nominee filibuster rules, the chamber began attempting to clear the enormous backlog of Executive Branch appointments. Embarrassed and angry Republicans did what they could to slow the process down, which only brought more self-inflicted pain from newly empowered Democratic leadership. Per a Thursday, December 12 Daily Kos post:

“The Senate is in the midst of a marathon session forced by Mitch McConnell and his minions in full revenge mode. In retaliation for the Democrats changing the rules on nominations to end Republican filibusters, Republicans insisted on using up every bit of time available to delay votes as long as possible, by insisting on using all 30 hours of possible debate on nominees. The tactic merely delays the inevitable.”

After neglecting to do much of anything for a full calendar year, it’s like Congress woke up, chugged some 5-Hour Energy and suddenly remembered it was hired to do a job. The week’s events offered a glimmer of hope, no matter how small, that the legislative bodies just might prove capable of governing after all.

But hold on a minute. There was also plenty to warrant a collective pause, enough sobering activity to make us wonder if we might not be getting ahead of ourselves in all the giddy celebration. Because yes, the House and Senate managed to perform some actions that were once considered routine business, but has anything fundamentally changed?

Last Friday’s latest school shooting in Colorado soberly reminds us of Capitol Hill’s repeated failure to pass anything resembling sensible legislation to control the gun violence that has ended more American lives than all the wars in our nation’s history.

And about that awesome budget deal? Sure it avoids another pointless and reckless budget shutdown, but it doesn’t do much of anything to help the unemployed, jumpstart the infrastructure and educational investment we badly need or help shore up cash-strapped local economies. The Economic Populist headline from late last week says it all: Congressional Scrooges Deny Unemployment Benefit Extension. Because nothing says “goodwill toward men (and women)” like kicking the long-term unemployed when they’re down.

The moral of the story is this: there is reason for optimism. Hope that the flailing GOP is finally ready to get serious about wresting control of its party from the one percent interests that have completely marginalized its platform and messages. Hope that the Democrats have learned that there is no compromising with economic and social terrorists, and that they are finally willing to try governing without waiting for partners that will never arrive. But there is still plenty of reason to worry that for the foreseeable future, no one is fighting for the dwindling middle class, the working poor, the mentally ill and those terrorized by gun violence. Let this season of somewhat renewed hope be tempered by raising the bar of government expectation a little higher. Keeping us afloat is not enough.

Republicans To Big Business: Guess What? We Don’t Care What You Want (October 14, 2013)

monopoly-man

I don’t often say this in print so my detractors should enjoy the novelty. I was wrong. Granted, I have been in error at several intervals when I believed that Tea Party Republicans, no matter how fervent and misguided their messages, were ultimately Americans first. There’s no way they’d take us close to the brink during the 2011 debt ceiling crisis, causing our nation’s credit rating to be downgraded for the  first time since those stats were recorded, right?

Once Obama roundly won re-election in November 2012 and after Obamacare became the law of the land, they’d come to accept this as reality and move onto another target? Anyone? Anyone?

But most assuredly I had been led to believe that no matter what intransigent, batty opposition this faction of the G.O.P. had to all things POTUS supported, there was still one group’s authority that brooked no opposition. I speak of course of Big Business, that bastion of free market, deregulated “freedom” that these Tea Party patriots seem to value above all things, starting with the fabric of the social safety net.

It isn’t very often that the views and interests of compassionate liberals and sterile, bottom-line driven business leaders intertwine, but these my friends, are unusual times. Thus we encounter headlines such as Business Groups See Loss of Sway Over House G.O.P. in last week’s New York Times. The piece, from writers Eric Lipton, Nicholas Confessore and Nelson D. Schwartz, opens with the following:

“As the government shutdown grinds toward a potential debt default, some of the country’s most influential business executives have come to a conclusion all but unthinkable a few years ago: Their voices are carrying little weight with the House majority that their millions of dollars in campaign contributions helped build and sustain.”

Realizing that they are part and parcel of the tools used to build the 21st Century edition of Frankenstein’s Monster, the story goes on to observe:

“Their frustration has grown so intense in recent days that several trade association officials warned in interviews on Wednesday that they were considering helping wage primary campaigns against Republican lawmakers who had worked to engineer the political standoff in Washington. ”

Well that is certainly a seismic shift in attitude toward the years of dollar-funneling in support of political campaigns, representing the most conservative “lawmakers.” But I suppose even entities with interests that run counter to the health of the American worker see this indefensible legislative squatting for what it really is: a threat to the collective livelihood of everyone. How democratic.

The Times piece, however, was written a week ago. Since then Republican leaders have flirted with the possibility of a reasonable, balanced solution to the government shutdown/debt ceiling standoff. At the moment when a weekend compromise finally seemed possible, they then pulled the football away, Lucy-style, just as a tentative Democratic caucus (definitely the Charlie Brown of this analogy) was ready to kick it.  What was the result?

Writers Annie Lowrey and Nathaniel Popper write a fresh Timespiece, World Leaders Press the U.S. on Fiscal Crisis that widens the net of recorded business community frustration. It represents an area no smaller than, you know, the entire planet.  The article begins:

“Leaders at World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings on Sunday pleaded, warned and cajoled: the United States must raise its debt ceiling and reopen its government or risk ‘massive disruption the world over,’ as Christine Lagarde, the fund’s managing director, put it.”

Let it never be said that the IMF, former superfans of austerity, are in the pocket of liberal, Keynesian economists like Paul Krugman.

But here’s my favorite section of the Lowrey and Popper piece:

“Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, painted a bleak picture of the days ahead if there is no resolution. ‘As you get closer to it, the panic will set in and something will happen,’ Mr. Dimon said …’I don’t personally know when that problem starts.’ He added that JPMorgan had been ‘spending huge amounts of time and money and effort to be prepared.’”

People, when the pleas of the vaunted Jamie Dimon, Wall Street kingpin and “London Whale” trading loss shepherd, go unheeded, we have entered a new era.

An era when a small minority of terrorists (I care not that Democratic leaders have tried to soften their language. It’s getting them nowhere.) stand for nothing, care for no one, above and beyond getting their own way. I’m not sure people on the right know what that even means anymore. Is there anyone left who can articulate and defend the maneuvers of these crackpots?

The business community has finally gotten hip: you were pawns. Pawns with a lot of money. The Tea Party intends to bring you down along with the rest of us. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.