Saturday, April 9, 2011


Possibly inspired by last month's NCAA madness, party leaders in Washington pulled through last night and compromised just in time to avert a government shutdown; the political equivalent of a buzzer-beater. However, the compromise was reached at the end of a long and contentious negotiation process. So it was less like Christian Laettner's 1992 jumper, and more like Chris Farley's reenactment:

In fact, as negotiations proceeded and each side conceded more and more the differences being debated in the face of a government shutdown became almost comedic (that is they would have been comedic if not for the seriousness of the issue).

According to a New York Times article, the dollar difference was below $2 billion dollars. A large number, but very small in the context of the federal budget and small when compared to the approximately $28 billion dollar discrepancy between the proposals of each party going into the negotiations ($33 billion and $61 billion).

The New York times article said Virginia Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat, was embarassed that arguing over a relatively small sum might force the government to shutdown. the article quoted him as saying, "People across Virginia cannot understand why we can’t get this done."

The final way in which the budget agreement resembles a buzzer-beater is that, although both sides support the agreement reached last night, the actual legislation won't go through until sometime next week (after the buzzer). The government will keep running until Thursday, thanks to a short-term resolution. The budget agreement will be translated into legislation and passed in the meantime.

On a positive note, after all the ridiculousness and last minute drama, the government will not shut down and Democrats and Republicans demonstrated that it is at least possible to compromise.

A real compromise allows both sides to save some face but ensures one is entirely pleased with the end result. So let's look at how Washington did:

Representative Boehner had his chance to appease tea party republicans by demanding outrageous cuts from Obama and opposing compromise until the last minute. But in the end republicans didn't get the ridiculous budget cuts they wanted and had to give up on targeting groups like Planned Parenthood for especially harsh cuts.

Democratic leadership and President Obama were able to protect important government institutions and programs as much as they could in the face of Republican demands and fiscal realities. However, Democrats had to agree to cut more than they wished and will have tough job trying to help impoverished Americans when so many programs facing large budget cuts.

So both sides, eventually, made the effort to compromise.

We are in a difficult time when the economy has yet to fully recover and the federal budget is being strained by defense spending, failing entitlement programs, and a number of other factors. The Republicans have decided to respond by attacking the public sector and trying to eliminate any government program they can (at least the one's they disagree with). This has put Democrats on the defensive as they try to preserve vital programs that help the poor, sick, and disadvantaged in our society.

This trend has progressed to each side scoring political points instead of addressing real problems. The way to address problems when no one party has an overwhelming majority is to compromise, which this latest crisis has shown to be very difficult but possible.

Hopefully Republicans and Democrats can reach more compromises in the future and eventually come together on issues with less unnecessary squabbling.

Otherwise, our government might as well have shut down for all they'll manage to get done.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Case for Government Shutdown

Let me be clear. I hope desperately, that some TRUE compromise can be reached on the budget before time runs out. But Republicans, from the very beginning, have sought to use this threat to shove their agenda down our throats. They have proposed massive cuts that significantly hurt the low income families who need government the most. They have targeted Planned Parenthood in an outrageous overreach of the abortion debate. They have targeted NPR and PBS, the last standing beacons for educational media. They have proposed slashing the EPA budget, because they have forgotten that our clean air and water is one of the few remaining things that separates us from a third world country, since our income inequality does not. And throughout it all, they have avoided military spending, a constantly ballooning source of debt.

This isn't "budgeting". This isn't "fiscal responsibility". This is an agenda being driven through a budget and carried out under threat of shutdown. To see the full extent of the policy changes being proposed through the Republican budget click here.

A few months ago, we faced a similar stand off on the expiring Bush tax cuts. The Republicans said there, as they have said now, it is our way or no way. Obama backed down at that time and chose to give them their tax cuts in order to obtain unemployment benefits. But truly, compromise under threat is not compromise, it's extortion. At some point we have to stand up for what we believe in and be prepared to make sacrifices for that cause. As progressives, we believe in a government that helps the people who need it most, not just the top 1%. I still believe in Obama, and I believe he wants to do good things. But as President he has allowed the Republicans to get under his skin. Right now, he has a chance to stand strong again. If the government must shutdown for a few days in order that Republicans come to the table with real compromise, then so be it.

In this matter, I must admit to having a TV-based source of inspiration. While the show the West Wing, is most surely fiction, the issues it raises are in fact all too real. The Obama White House has had several moments of similarity with the Bartlett Administration, but none have been so eerie as this. In the clip below, from the end of the episode "Separation of Powers" you will see the attempts of a young, more radically conservative, Speaker to extort the President in the 11th hour negotiations around the budget. (For those who want to see how the crisis is eventually resolved, watch the episode "Shutdown" where Josh Lyman pulls out some absolutely brilliant political moves.)

There's an eerie similarity between the fictional Speaker Haffley and today's Republicans. In the words of Harry Reid, “We’ve been more than reasonable. More than fair. We meet them halfway, they say no. We meet them more than halfway, they still say no. We meet them all the way, they still say no.” They have truly become the party of no, and they believe threats hold more value than compromise.

So I ask, is Obama prepared to say "shut it down"? I hope so. Because like Bartlett, I wonder, "What next?" This is not the first showdown, and it will not be the last. We cannot afford to set a precedent of fake compromise. We must prepare for real sacrifice and a real fight. Republicans have shown that they have a whole lot of bark, but I think if we force them to act, we'll see they're still growing baby teeth.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Playing Catch-Up

I've sort of been paralyzed by indecision lately (so much to write about, so little time!) and the result has been complete silence on a number of really important issues. In an effort to fix that, in this post I'm going to address a few things that have been happening in our crazy country lately. Bear with me.

First: Freedom of Speech v. Freedom of Information
Some really disturbing news came out of the labor rights controversy last week. Conservative Michigan Think Tank Mackinac Center for Public Policy used the Freedom of Information Act to demand the emails of a handful of professors at Michigan public universities. In Wisconsin, the Republican Party demanded the emails of prominent scholar William Cronon, who challenged Governor Walker's attack on union rights. I understand the legal right to access information about public employees, but it's undeniable that these measures are a blatant form of political bullying. The GOP is seeking to create an atmosphere of fear and repression among scholars and vocal challengers. Rachel Maddow tackles the issue in the clip below, and while she tends towards the dramatic, she makes some great points about "big intrusive government conservativism" and it's implications.

Second: Good News (Finally!) for the EPA
There's plenty to be upset about when we take a look at the environment (tsunamis, leaking radioactive material, news broke that the ozone level thinned by FORTY percent this winter). I'm going to focus, though, on two positive developments for a change. Senate Democrats defeated a bill to ban the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases this week. The bill, which was backed by Republicans Mitch McConnell and James Inhofe, will reappear in the House later this week and will probably pass, unfortunately, but the White House has vowed to veto. I'm encouraged, though, simply by the fact that Democrats are saying no to the party of no.

In other news, at the Phillies season opener last Friday, fans witnessed the first "green fly-over." The Air Force debuted an F-15 fighter jet powered in part by fuel made from plant oil. The fuel was 50% plant product, primarily camelina, a weed considered more fuel efficient than ethanol. While still financially unfeasible, the Air Force is actively developing cheap, eco-friendly fuel, and has proven that this fuel is capable of powering the fastest jets in the world. The military's interest in green energy is an incredible gesture of hope and progress.

Finally, the very opposite of progress. I can't ignore the prospect of a government shutdown, but financial entanglements frustrate and confuse me. I'll leave the ranting to Jon Stewart, and just say this. The prospect of a shutdown absolutely terrifies me. The economic and political repercussions are far more expensive than a few concessions by either party. Let's all cross our fingers that this crisis is averted, and with minimal damage to the programs that define our country.