Sequestration?

Be honest now.  How many of you dear, intelligent readers know what would have to have been done in order to avoid the blunt axe budget cuts of the  2013 sequester we are now facing?  I’m looking for some specifics here.  Yes, I know the repubs would have to agree with the dems on something, but what is it that they needed to agree on?  Yes, I also know that it has to do with budget deficits, but what exactly needed to be done, by whom, when?

After asking all the smart people I know, and spending untold hours inquiring of the source of all knowledge, I was about to conclude that, while opinions were many, facts were scarce.  No one knew.  No one knew the specific act that would have put the looming sequester asunder.  No one knew who was supposed to do what.  And few knew specifically what problem was being presumably solved.  Most agreed that the sequester was bad insofar as they understood it, but when pressed for specifics on exactly how much it would affect the budget this year or next, people tended to clear their throats and look the other way.  When asked what departments of government would have to cut how much, and when…eyes rolled.  Some mumbled, er, ah about two percent, but of what and when they knew not.

I must say, I find this more than a little odd.  The airways have been filled with prognostications of doom. Pundits of all stripes have pontificated myriad of theories about who’s to blame.  Yards of column inches in news publications in cyberspace and here on planet earth have been filled with yammering and guffawing on the sequester.  All of this and the vast majority of the body politic knows exactly nada.

Now, you can rest easy.  I’m not going to give you a learned (or otherwise) discourse on the fine art of government budget obfuscation, but some basics are in order.

First, the word itself.  To sequester as a verb means to isolate or hide away, and as a noun the meaning is “a general cut in government spending”.  In the case at point, I think both are accurate.  Its etymology is either from the middle english sequestren, the anglo-french sequester or from the Latin sequestrare.  So you can see this word was confused from its beginning.

Ok, you all remember of Budget Control Act of 2011, don’t you.  Of course you do.  It was that wonderful piece of political pandering and miscalculation that presumed twelve of our finest elected representatives could agree on a package of cuts in spending and increases in revenues that would result in a reduction in our deficit of $1.5 trillion (yes that’s trillion with a T).  Further, in a blinding flash of insight, the law mandated that when the committee of twelve did not succeed, $1.2 trillion of future budgets would be “sequestered” over a period from 2013 to 2021.  Well, it’s really not $1.2 trillion when you deduct for interest payments that would not have to be paid on the lower level of borrowing required. To save you the math, it equates to a total of about $894 billion or $109 billion per annum.  No hill for a climber you say.  After all, that’s only about 2.3% of the federal budget.  Hell, anyone can do that.  Watch the shells move and find the pea.  The sequester, in the infinite wisdom of the congress, only applies to that amount of the budget that is “discretionary” or about thirty percent of the total budget.  So two percent of one hundred percent translates into ??% of thirty percent.  That’s ok, I can’t figure it out either, but it’s a lot more than 2.3%.  If you do a deep dive into the details, other than getting a massive headache, you will find some areas, including the department of defense, will have to cut into the bone to meet the requirements of the law.

To say that this whole mess is insane, misses the mark.  Insanity implies a medical condition which precludes normal behavior.  A better descriptor would be inane…you know, silly, senseless, stupid.  If needed, this whole process is proof positive of the inability of our political parties, as they are currently constructed, to govern for the benefit of the those to be governed. It certainly reinforces my sentiment of not wanting to vote for any politician who wants to be elected.

I will, forthwith, proceed with my project to create a new political party in America.  I haven’t found quite the right name for it yet, but I know it’s slogan.  “Let’s throw the b#@*!^ds out whoever they are.”

ps.  How many of the “Supercommittee of Twelve” who were charged with coming up with a plan that would have avoided sequestration can you name?  Can you just name one?  I thought so.

It’s Gotta Get Better Than This

I’ve seen some screwed up organizations, but nothing is in the class of our United States Senate. Why is it that way? How did it get that way? What can be done about it? Ah, the eternal questions

Most of you know that I am of the progressive persuasion politically.  It would even be fair to use the L(iberal) word about me, but this is not about partisan politics or political ideology.  This is about chaos in our political institutions.  It is chaos that is devolving to the level of a jejune food fight, and I’m disgusted.  I’m talking about the United States Senate, of course.  I know there are substantial differences in the agendas of the respective parties, and yes, I get it that getting and staying in power is a critical objective of all political animals….but what about the business of the people, what about the needs of the country, and what about getting something worthwhile done while you’re there?

So I asked myself what could be done to make things better.  How could an environment be created where the business of the people would be the highest priority.  You’ve guessed it.  I’ve got some ideas.

1. Rescind Rule 22 of the Rules of the Senate.  Be patient.  I will explain.

2. Remove seniority as a determinate for chairmanship of House and Senate committees.

3. Pass a federal law prohibiting states from allowing straight party voting.

4. Stop the practice of selecting judges by popular vote.

The odd thing is that we still do all of these things in the face of substantial evidence, including polls, that these things should and must be changed.  I’m afraid I would strain your patience by dealing with all four of these at one gulp, so I will focus only on the first two.  I’ll save the last two for another day.  I will add that my recommendation prohibiting straight party voting almost ended an otherwise delightful relationship with my wife of now almost forty six years.  Ask me and I’ll tell you the story.

Senate Rule 22

This mostly arcane rule has to do with cloture (ending debate on a pending bill) and filibuster (continuing…ad nauseam …debate on a pending bill as a way of defeating, or at least delaying the bill).  The Senate originally did not have such a rule and was, therefore, able to debate to death any bill, but in 1917 they adopted a cloture rule with the support of Woodrow Wilson who was trying to overcome a filibuster (debate) of a bill which would allow allow merchant ships to arm themselves against the German u-boat onslaught.  The original rule, as adopted, required 2/3 of those voting and present (or present and voting) to force cloture.  The rule was later amended in 1975 to require 3/5 of the Senate to force cloture.  Talk about splitting hairs.  What’s at stake here is the intention of our founding fathers to allow for unlimited debate in one of our legislative bodies against the reasonable desire to be able to find a way to get about the business of the people, and provide some relief from a small minority willing to stay up all night spouting nonsensical stuff in the well of the Senate.

Filibuster, the weapon of choice for those who won’t win a majority vote on an issue, is rooted in the mystery of European legislative history, and the word itself is derived from the Dutch for “pirate”.  Appropriately so, it seems.  In practice, since the 80’s, and increasingly so, one doesn’t actually have to engage in filibuster in order to filibuster.  Got that.  All one has to do is to threaten to “invoke the threat of filibuster to filibuster.  Hence, we no longer have to endure Senators such as the illustrious Huey Long of Louisiana reciting Shakespeare and intoning his “mama’s recipes for gumbo” when trying to defeat civil rights legislation.  Instead we have Senators such as John Kyl of Arizona threatening to filibuster because he ostensibly has a better idea than the administration and the majority in the Senate about how to make America safe from nuclear holocaust and deal with the Russians.

There is no doubt that Senate Rule 22 (about which nothing is said in the Constitution) is being abused more and more by whatever party is not in power.  I guess I wouldn’t mind so much if we were dealing with reasonable people (Senators) in ordinary times, but we have neither.  Senate Rule 22 is being used to make sure that the people’s business is not being attended to and it needs to go.

One might say, “why not change the rule”, and that surely is a reasonable question.  Oddly, a change of the rules of the Senate only requires a majority vote, but that vote could be precluded by filibuster and only brought to the floor if you had the 60 votes to get cloture.   Huh?  A pretty good example of a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside and enigma.

I offer for your consideration my three most notorious examples of filibuster (for better or worse).

1. Strom Thurmond, (D) and (R) West Virginia, holds the record for the longest, and arguably the second most distasteful filibuster as he lobbied against the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for 24 hours and 18 minutes.

2. Harry Byrd, (D) Virginia, filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by holding the floor for about 18 hours saying among other things, “I shall never fight in the armed forces with a negro by my side….rather I should die a thousand times, and see old glory trampled in the dirt….., than to see this beloved land become degraded by race mongrels…”.  Wow.  Words to live and die by I guess.

3. Jefferson Smith, party affiliation and state unknown, (actually Jimmy Stewart) uses a filibuster to defeat the forces of evil in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  I include this fictional filibuster because it’s the only example I’ve found of a filibuster being used to good effect for a worthy cause.

Seniority System

Although my remarks herein are pointed toward the Senate, seniority as a guiding principle is a pox on both our houses of national legislation and most state houses as well.  Let’s be clear at the outset, seniority is not mentioned in the Constitution nor the rules of the House of Representatives nor the Senate.  It’s just the way they do things….most of the time.

I say most of the time because even though committee and sub-committee majority and minority chairman are determined by seniority, the Speaker of the House and Majority Leader of the Senate are elected by their respective caucuses (or is it caucusi?).  Clearly what’s sauce for the goose is not necessarily sauce for the gander.  (I’ve always wanted to use that, but could never figure out how to work it in).

I know some of you will be p.o’d by my quoting The NY Times, but I take the risk to support my point.  In December 1970 they editorialized as follows:  “The congressional seniority system is the last and most important stronghold of a near mid-evil system of fealty.”  BTW (I had to look this up to be sure) fealty is the fidelity owed by a vassal to his feudal lord.  I’m not sure how this fits here, but it sounds good.  Clearly seniority as practiced by Congress places power in the hands of men only because they stay in power  longer than anyone else.  Its kind of Darwinian if you think about it.  It concentrates power at the top and emasculates the power of those at the bottom.  It insures that new or newer members are relatively impotent compared to those of long tenure, and thus less likely to survive and gain power. In the  corporate world we call this “pay for breathing”.  They call it power for staying in power.  My new best friend and political scientist of note Scott Burns opined that, “of all the institutional failings of America’s government, the seniority system is the most serious.

Let me give you the gives and gets on the seniority system:

 Gives.

1. It promotes incompetence so long as it’s old incompetence.

2. It gets us guys like the aforementioned Harry Byrd as Chairman of the Appropriations Committee for ten years as a reward for having founded the KKK, and then he’s rewarded by his like-minded constituents with unending terms in office.

3. It makes it hard for new blood to be injected into a system that desperately needs new blood.

4. It does not recognize competence and ability…only time in office.

5. It rewards old guys (and presumably at some point) and old girls for being merely old (read long-tenured for old).

Ok, I know I’m repeating myself, but I’m pretty worked up about this.

Gets:

There are no gets.  Well, some people claim that seniority appointments provide a measure of stability.  These tend to be the same people who claim that having 2200 nuclear bombs makes us safer than having 1500.

So why do we do it?  Surely you know the answer to that.  It’s like the rich guy who says (with a straight face) that the first obligation of wealth is to keep it.  The politician says the first obligation of political power is to keep it.  This is their way of keeping it.

It’s been said that Congress is a legislative body designed for and by 18th century rural gentry.  It’s not too surprising that it doesn’t work too well today.