Drips and Dribbles: How Congress Spends Money
My computer is a relentless taskmaster. Sometime ago, I created an alert instructing me that it was time to write a new blog post and I set it to recur every two weeks. I must have thought at the time that I would be so inspired by something at least every fortnight to write about it. This system has not worked for me or for those who read this blog. Indeed, I find that more often than not, I will write a note about something [Notæ.app] or send an email to my Congressman Ken Calvert (R-49) about his more recent votes in the House. So, by the time my reminder for a blog post appears in the upper right corner of my screen, my impulse to write has diminished to the point of "Oh, well. I'll write one soon." Today I feel that my own behavior seems, unfortunately, very akin to our federal government's way of doing or not doing the people's business. Congress wants to fund just enough of federal expenditures to make the public feel "oh, well. That wasn't so bad afterall."
Perhaps I am old-fashioned to think more highly of my government's ability to legislate and cause things to happen for the sake of my life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Oh, how naïve I must be! In 2009, the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY) declared his sole objective for his legislative efforts was to ensure that President Obama would be a one-term President. Nice. Second, following the SCOTUS ruling in Citizens United, extremely conservative individuals, corporations and private, non-profit (IRS Code 527) advocacy groups fed massive amounts of cash to candidates articulating the Tea Party line of extremist, anti-federalist ideology. The result was that the House of Representatives changed from its Democratic Party majority to a Republican Party majority. The stated purpose of this freshman class was to get rid of the Affordability Care Act of 2010 that had passed into law just prior to the election. The earliest attempt to repeal the ACA came with the 2011 response to the Treasury's request to raise the debt limit so that the federal government could continue to pay its current bills, including interest payments to its bond holders. The negotiations between the Executive and Congress were so nasty and cliff-hanging that the 'controll-all-the-world's' bond rating agencies on Wall Street downgraded US Treasury bonds for the first time in recent history. The rationale was that, though the debt limit was raised sufficiently, the unpredictable nature of the process should give pause to those individuals and entities who considered purchasing future bonds.
Leading up to the 2012 federal and state elections, more money from extremist donors poured into the campaign coffers of Tea Party and Libertarian candidates. An aging billionaire, George Soros tried to counter these donations with his own for progressive candidates and causes within the Democratic Party with minimal effect. Surprising many pollsters, however, President Obama was re-elected as were a majority number of Democrats in the Senate races. At the state level, more conservative Republicans were elected governors and Tea Party candidates consolidated their positions in the House of Representatives. Pollsters concluded that the President's victory was due to the ACA, but significant numbers of voters disliked the continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drain on the economy and the lackluster rate of recovery from the Great Recession of 2008.
In 2013, the political battles in Washington effectively stopped all meaningful attempts to improve the economy by initiating new jobs programs, funding of better educational opportunities and immigration reform. The first brick into the cogs of government activity was the Sequester, a Congress-created sanction devised in 2011 should Congress fail to pass a federal budget by a certain date. The Sequester called for an across-the-board withholding of ten percent of funds already allocated to federal activities, including non-combat Defense Department projects.
By this time, however, President Obama had ended the Iraq War and the number of combat troop levels was lowered to task force status to train the Iraqi forces and to protect especially sensitive American bases. Further, President Obama began a strategic surge of combat operations in Afghanistan to consolidate the Afghan national government's territories and to defeat both Al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents. By Presidential order, Sheik Osama bin Laden and American-born Sheik Zacharia were assassinated, thereby eliminating the two most prominent leaders of the Southwest Asian and North African international coalitions of Al Qaeda. Further, in a distinct departure from previous Middle Eastern foreign policy, the President did not commit American forces or release significant weaponry to insurgents whose aims were to overthrow existing dictatorships in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria during the "Arab Spring."
In Libya, the US and France instituted a 'no-fly' zone to eliminate Qaddafi's air force's ability to strike against the revolutionaries. In Egypt, the Egyptian Army joined with the people to overthrow Mubarak and to host national, democratic elections for a new president and legislature. Tunisia was not a significantly important interest, apparently, for any American involvement other than diplomatic. In Syria, the nature of US interests were insufficiently clear for the President to intervene with support of any identifiable insurgent group, which had yet to coalesce within that country's rebellion against Assad.
In an effort to overcome the President's post-election strength vis-a-vis Congress, the Al Qaeda raid on our Benghazi consulate, causing the death of our ambassador and three others, drew fire from a variety of critics. Some critics demanded a swift, armed response against Libya, yet at the time it was unclear which terrorist group was behind the attack. Other critics blamed Obama's Secretary of State Hilary Clinton for inadequate security at US embassies and consulates throughout the parts of the world where unstable local governments put our diplomatic personnel at risk. After numerous hearings and a commission, no significant changes resulted in diminishing the President's power as Commander-in-Chief. Secretary Clinton did resign some months later and Senator John Kerry replaced her. His primary focus seems to be on Iran and its nuclear weapons development potential as well as its continued support of Shi'ite and Alawite forces fighting in Syria. [The intrusion of the Russians into Syria's inhumane policy of using chemical weaponry for controlling dissent will be addressed in another posting--perhaps.]
Since the current House members were sworn in on January 4, 2013, the House has initiated and passed at least 43 bills to repeal the ACA and each bill has been voted down in the Senate or tabled into the netherworld of committees. Then, the House decided to use the debt ceiling deadline of October 17th to hold its approval contingent on defunding the ACA. Their tactic has been ineffectual with the Senate and, for obvious reasons, with the White House.
The result has been a combination of a sequestering, an across-the-board 10 percent cut in all federal departments and, since October 4th, the shutting down of most federal government operations--ah, with some exceptions. In its consensus, Congress and the President agreed that certainly the combat support activities should be exempt as would Homeland Security, the FBI, flight controllers, the Houses of Congress (but not federal employees who maintain their environment), some Executive Department functions, with notable exceptions such as Veterans Affairs, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Then there are the "dribbles and drabs" such as re-opening of some vital tourist destinations around Washington, DC, some federal programs in the Defense Department favored by certain legislators, and so forth.
One would think that instead of picketing in front of various locations in Washington such as the WW II memorial, the White House and the Capitol, Tea Party extremists would be pleased that they had halted the spending of federal monies due to their firm stance in the House. But, not only are they demanding the re-opening of government facilities and memorials to the public, Sarah Palin and Senator Ted Cruz have the intellectual dishonesty to picket today in protest of the closing they championed. One might conclude that all they want is some more publicity, regardless of their demonstrating hypocrisy, eh?
Other critics of the Shut-Down (I guess it's worthy of capitalization) condemn the President for not leading the government out of this mess. Those critics, it seems to me, are a product of an elementary education that did not include Civics as a required course. Some schools actually deleted civics courses from their curriculum during the 1980's and 1990's. To them I say, "the role of the Congress is to initiate and pass legislation. Bills approved by both the House of Representatives and the Senate are sent to the President for signature or veto. The Constitution does not give the President the power to tell Congress what to do. In fact, the House is being disingenuous by trying to force the President to ignore legislation, the ACA, that Congress approved and was signed into law in 2010. What if the President ignored legislation that falls under Title 38 and refused to spend any funds for veterans programs? Can you imagine the howls? Our Founding Fathers wisely chose not to repeat England's choice of parliamentary when they chose a bicameral model for the United States.
One cynical, Conservative commentator provided his reasoning for a bicameral system of checks and balances: St. Augustine's conceptualization of Original Sin. That is, a human being will sin if allowed the opportunity by nature, thus God revealed this to humanity in the Garden of Eden and shamed humanity into devising some means to counter this Original Sin.
I'm glad that we have checks and balances. Imagine the House of Representatives being able to pass legislation into law without any meaningful check. Or, for that matter, the Senate. So why should extremist opponents to this President chide him for not taking a leadership role within Congress when it is the President's signature that concretizes legislation into law? To be true to their Luddite ideology, should not the Tea Party demand there be no exceptions to the expenditures of federal tax revenues? Such a clear cut event would enable the Treasury to by back all outstanding US Treasury bonds, repay the Social Security Trust Fund, and eliminate our national Accounts Payable.
Anyone familiar with adult living in this country knows that it is the very rare person who incurs no liabilities, especially if that person is raising a family or taking care of an ill relative. Even the billionaires have liabilities--otherwise, they have no hedges against volatility in the stock market. Only a very naïve person believes that the federal government can operate efficiently without incurring debt. Congress created this debt in the first place. Well, say
the critics, we have more debt than cash to pay it off. And who
created that debt, one might ask the critics? Congress did, of course!
Our federal government agencies cannot spend any money that does not have its
disbursement authority in legislation, in laws on the books (legally, that is.)Anytime a contractor receives a federal contract, for instance, no one pays that contractor until the deliverable is accepted by the government. Nevertheless, Congress had to allocate funds by law so that the federal contracting office could issue the Request for Proposal and resultant contract.
But, what if the President tells the Treasury to spend money that Congress has not authorized by legislation? What happens is the story of budget chicanery of the Bush II administrations spending on a trumped up war in Iraq and an ill-managed war in Afghanistan. By design, the Bush/Cheney Administration pursued those wars using money "off the books" and, therefore, not revealed in the federal budget and consequent allocation of funds through the Congress.
I am writing about facts, not some political make-believe of a liberal. When President Obama's people drew up its budget recommendations for Congress, the amount of off-the-budget war expenditures were included for the first time in the 2010/11 recommendations. So, when someone in Congress or a conservative commentator expounds about the amount of debt that the Obama Administration has created since January 20, 2010, I am prone to dismiss their statements out of hand; their polemics are not based in fact. If one cares to do it, one can download the 2013-2014 Federal Budget Proposal from the Obama Administration. I did earlier this year, so do not believe someone who states that the Administration has yet to provide a budget recommendation to Congress.
Meanwhile, during the Shut-Down, several states have decided to take on the financial burden of opening and maintaining federal parks, including New York's decision to reopen the Statue of Liberty. Private parties have done the same to mitigate the absence of federal programs. Is this the effect of a decentralization of government envisioned by the 10th Amendment? I do not think it is. I believe these states will be the first in line with their hands out for reimbursement of costs incurred once the federal Accounts Payable reopens. If these states doing this takeover of federal responsibilities have enough spare revenues to afford to continue maintaining federal activities and programs, I want them to prove it to the public. Otherwise, these states are prolonging the Shut-Down by mitigating its effects on the public and, thus, are deceiving the public about who can pay for what. I doubt that many non-profit groups or individuals will seek reimbursement for their efforts to help people in dire need of support during this Shut-Down.
This Sunday morning's cogniscenti on the network talk shows seemed convinced that there would be an agreement to reopen the government and to raise the debt ceiling by this coming Wednesday midnight. Go figure: within the House, the leadership must bring the extremists into consensus on a bill that will enable the Senate to create an equally enabling bill to be sent to the President for signature into law. If that happens over the next two-plus days, why could this entire exercise in buffoonery and chicanery not been done in 2011, 2012 or 2013? This whole charade has been manufactured by the vagaries of American politics and is without any substance at its basis.
And now the American public knows it.