Getting out … of a shutdown and a presidency

The Thinker by Rodin

The missus and me are getting ready to bug out of the United States for two weeks. Saturday we are off to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. While in the Galapagos, we’ll spend four nights on a yacht out of range of all Internet and cell phone towers. We’ll be diving into the ocean and seeing species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, in an area that is largely untouched by the scourge of man. Somehow we’ll have to survive for a while cut off from all media, particularly those four nights we spend on a yacht island hopping. But we’ll be wondering if there will be any TSA or CBP agents still on the job to let us back in on January 18th.

As vacations go, this one will be a departure. In theory, there is no jet lag to worry about, as Ecuador is in our time zone and the Galapagos Islands are basically on Central Time. There are no international flights to the Galapagos; you have to go through Ecuador. So we will spend a few nights in Quito breathing the rarified air at 10,000 feet up, seeing the cloud forests and putting one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern. You can do that in Ecuador, which is basically on the equator. It will be the first time I will have ever been in the southern hemisphere. Still, there will be jet lag of sorts: rising around 4 AM for a flight to the Galapagos Island is equivalent to a red eye to Europe. But we’ll survive these trials and have a lot of fun.

So don’t expect much posting from me over the next couple of weeks, but I do hope to document our journey to this rarely visited area of the world, albeit belatedly. It all depends on how much time I have to write and if I have Internet access. We’ll be kept pretty busy.

Still, I imagine our thoughts will frequently be of home and how much wackier our country has gotten since we left. Democrats now formally control the U.S. House, which means that our crazy government is about to get a lot crazier. Our national parks are overrun with litter and our museums are closed. Those asylum cases underway: postponed; no money has been allocated to pay the judges. Something has to break so you have to wonder how it will break and when.

A couple of Republican senators seem ready to cry uncle, specifically senators Susan Collins (ME) and Cory Gardner (CO), both up for reelection in two years in states swinging blue. House Democrats are swiftly passing bills to reopen the government, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is refusing to consider them if they are not acceptable to Donald Trump. There is another meeting tomorrow at the White House that probably won’t change the dynamics. In any event, it’s hard to see how a Democratic House with forty new and mostly progressive members can be convinced to add funding for a border wall, since most of them campaigned against doing just this. Speaker Pelosi is pursing a logical strategy of trying to pass individual appropriation bills, but she has to convince people who are not thinking logically.

Divided government requires compromise but it’s hard to see how it will happen. It will probably happen when the pain gets too bad to endure. I’m betting that Trump declares victory to make it all go away. Today’s tweets suggest he’s already preparing his supporters for this out: because of the new NAFTA treaty, Mexico will somehow pay for the wall, so problem over! Of course the treaty is not ratified, Congress has not agreed to allow a wall to be constructed, and there are no revenues there that will be paid by Mexico to the U.S. government that can be used for a border wall even if the treaty is signed. In the end though this probably won’t make much difference to his supporters: they will dopily follow Trump anywhere. If Trump says black is white, they’ll believe him. Mostly they want to see him stand up and fight for something, and mostly he’s been full of bluster instead of action.

If Democrats want to concede something symbolic, then how about a small wall near Tijuana? A nice, outwardly arching wall would obviate the need to throw canisters of tear gas across the border. I’d like to see Democrats propose to open the government by throwing the border wall issue to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service to study. I doubt Trump would go for it, but it would defer the issue for another day and inject some honest research into the topic.

In reality, Trump has much bigger fish to fry. The subpoenas from House Democrats are going to come fast and thick. Hearings will be ramping up; Trump’s tax returns will be demanded from the IRS that must supply them by law. And of course we can expect Mueller’s report at some point, and it’s unlikely to be flattering to Trump.

Some posts ago I suggested that Trump won’t escape justice this time, but there is a way. It requires a deal, not with Congress or Mueller, but with Mike Pence. It is simply this: Trump agrees to resign if Mike Pence will pardon him for any crimes committed against the United States. He’d still have to deal with potential state crimes, but there is some hope that the Supreme Court will rule that states cannot prosecute people pardoned for similar federal crimes. This approach though assumes that Trump’s narcissism can abate long enough for him to execute something smartly in his self-interest. He’s obviously feeling the pressure, as his daily tweets get continually more unhinged. It’s clear he hates being president. He just has to figure out a way to justify his resignation. If he does resign, he will blame the deep state, Democrats and obviously anyone but himself.

And there is the 25th amendment route that Pence could choose, if he can get a majority of what’s left of Trump’s cabinet to agree. As an acting president, he could at least reopen the government. If it came to it, it wouldn’t be hard to find some top-notch psychiatrists to testify that Trump is dangerously mentally ill. I’m not holding out much hope on this. Pence is likely too much a coward, Trump’s base is too loyal and he would be seen as a turncoat.

It would be nice if it were all over when we return. But I’d best not hold my breath.

Shutdown dumbness

The Thinker by Rodin

There are lots of good things about being retired like me, but if you are an ex-federal employee like me, there is one truly great thing: not having to deal with yet another furlough from yet another government shutdown. These shutdowns became something of a regular thing during the last half of my career. They were always aggravating and pointless, as this current partial shutdown underway proves yet again. That’s not to say that they are easy to endure. Lots of federal employees live paycheck to paycheck, so even if they eventually get repaid it doesn’t mean that they aren’t suffering. The ones who suffer the most are probably those required to work anyhow, the “essential” ones like your TSA agents. Lincoln freed the slaves but not the essential employees during a government shutdown.

Some people actually lose money, principally federal contractors. Most of them cannot work unless federal employees supervise them, and in that case their contract usually does not allow them to bill hours. Eventually though there is a whole host of connected people and businesses affected: childcare providers, local businesses, transit systems, the traveling public and those tourists who just want to visit a national park. The longer it goes on the more painful it gets. Sitting on your ass at home is really not much fun, as I discovered. There is a lot of angst to being furloughed as you have no idea when it will end and whether your bank account will hold out until then. And many federal employees were like me: very mission focused, anxious to simply do our jobs.

For me this is now moot. Somehow I will still get my pension payment on time. I guess that and delivering social security checks are considered essential. Chances are though if they weren’t, it would spur both Congress and the President to make choices neither wants to make.

So there is no such thing as a smart shutdown, but there are dumb shutdowns and dumber than dumb shutdowns. This current one is one of the latter. It happened because only at the last minute Trump changed his mind. He apparently was watching Fox News and found out he was being criticized for not being tough enough on his border wall. Suddenly the continuing resolution passed unanimously by the Senate that he had approved was no longer acceptable. It was put up or shut up time for Trump, or at least for a few shrill people in the media whose support he craves. This shutdown has the feeling of one that is going to linger a long time, which might make the 1995 shutdown look like small potatoes.

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? We’re about to find out. Most likely it won’t end well, or quickly. Now that Trump is out on a limb, he has no way to back down without losing face, something a bully cannot do. Lose face and you look impotent.

He complains that it’s a Democratic shutdown, but until January 3 Republicans control all branches of government. And Congressional Republicans have decided to punt the whole leadership thing. When Democrats gain forty seats on January 3, they are unlikely to be in an accommodating mood. And since all spending bills must originate in the House, a Democratic House is not likely to add funding for a border wall.

The Senate could add it back in, but they didn’t feel it necessary last time, and if they send it back to the House with border wall funding it probably won’t pass. Meanwhile, the productivity of millions of federal workers and contractors are lost, while the “essential employees” continue to work without pay. How long before essential employees go on strike? Why show up for work when you have no income to give to the landlord for the January rent?

If the shutdown were about something that mattered, maybe it would be worth the price. But it’s about a border wall that two-thirds of Americans don’t want and that a Republican Congress has repeatedly refused to fund. Moreover, it’s for a wall that won’t even solve the problem that Trump is so concerned about. As Anne Applebaum points out, the number of people crossing the southern border illegally has fallen 90% since 2000. The real scofflaws? Those overstaying their visas, who mostly fly in, 700,000 of which are Canadians. Trump has not proposed building a wall along our border with Canada, so clearly the issue has much more to do with the color of the scofflaw’s skin than anything else.

As a method of keeping people out though a wall is a terrible idea. There are much cheaper ways to accomplish border security and they are working pretty well. One of the best ways is to invest in the countries sending these people, like Honduras. Given them safety and economic opportunity where they live and there is no reason to head north. Of course Trump is now threatening to take away what little aid we give these countries, exacerbating the problem.

Yesterday Trump threatened to shutdown the whole southern border. It’s not clear that he can do that but it would certainly get attention, as about half a million people cross the border legally every day. Considering the amount of trade that goes on between the U.S. and Mexico, including lots of produce and auto parts, doing this for any sustained period of time would be disastrous. If you are looking to tip an economy officially into recession, this should do it.

All this so Trump’s narcissism can be sated a bit. You have to wonder just how dumb his supporters are. Did they really believe all the bullshit he was claiming? If nothing else then perhaps this shutdown will finally reveal the fraud behind the curtain.

It’s unclear how this will all end. Will one side blink? I do suspect if it drags on long enough, Congress will find the wherewithal to override Trump’s veto. The Senate needs 20 of 53 Republican senators to overturn a Trump veto. With 40 new Democrats in the House, 55 out of 199 Republicans would have to vote against Trump, or 27% of the caucus. I think it’s doable if the pain gets bad enough. If Congress does it though it would set a good precedent by making Trump increasingly irrelevant. Here’s hoping.

Trump and the price of being a bullshit artist

The Thinker by Rodin

So basically our government is shutdown because of bullshit.

At midnight today much of the government shutdown again, but this time it was because Trump got caught in his own bullshit. For years he had been talking about a great, big, beautiful wall on our southern border to keep the “illegals” out. It was going to have a great big door, the best of course. I guess gates aren’t allowed on this border wall. And most importantly Mexico was going to pay for it. He said it over and over again. If there was anything about his 2016 campaign that will be remembered in the history books, it will be all the relentless repetitions on this theme:

So you would think that if he really wanted to deliver on his signature promise, it would be pretty simple: order the U.S. Marines to occupy Mexico’s National Palace where its treasury is located and loot the place of the $50B or so needed to build Trump’s beautiful wall and door. Take the money back to the U.S. and build the wall. He’s commander in chief and doesn’t need the approval of Congress to send in the Marines. Or he could order a small thermonuclear weapons to be used on a suburb of Mexico City to show the Mexicans we’re serious … they need to pony up the dough for the wall now.

But no. Apparently what he really meant was that if Mexico refused to pay for it, Congress has to pony up the money instead. He is now spouting the line that the shutdown is the Democrats’ fault, even though until January 3, 2019 Republicans still control Congress.

I guess reinforced fences aren’t enough. It’s got to be a wall, a wall that somehow won’t get tunneled under like happens now. It’s got to be a tall wall to keep the drugs from coming in, as if they won’t continue to come in the way they already have: tunnels under the border, hidden inside trucks and in airplane cargo, or by speedboats. It’s going to have to be a hell of a tall wall to keep a catapult from throwing drugs over the wall, assuming smugglers want to try such a brazen method. With over two thousand miles of border, it wouldn’t be too hard to find a spot to toss some of it over.

Here’s the saddest part: Trump never really wanted the wall. The wall was a means to an end: to get elected (which surprised him) but really to get the crowds at his rallies riled up. It gave him the adulation that he craves more than anything else. Trump as usual wanted to have his cake and to eat it too. Apparently Trump loves the “illegals”; at least he loves to hire them. Apparently the maid who cleaned his toilet at Mar-a-Lago was undocumented. Trump doesn’t want to pay pull price for anything, so of course he will have his managers look the other way to bring in the cheap help.

Anyhow, he apparently he did a good job of selling this wall thing with his base. Now they actually want him to build it. His base is only 25% of the public, but he’s convinced that somehow with this base happy he will win reelection, although a majority of Americans don’t want a border wall. Congress at least understands it’s kind of pointless: why spend $50B to build a wall that won’t even solve the problem?

In fact, if ever constructed it would make things a lot worse. It would be an eyesore for sure. It will get breached repeatedly. Like any other public infrastructure, it will require patching and maintenance. If Republicans’ willingness to spend money on highway infrastructure is any clue to how it will play out, the undamaged portions wall will simply deteriorate from neglect. Some migratory animals wouldn’t migrate anymore, not that this would bother them. Most importantly, the cheap labor we’ve depended on from the south to keep the economy humming might slow down, leading to our economic decline. I mean are you going to volunteer to clean all those airport toilets? Are you going to volunteer to pick crops in California and Arizona?

That won’t happen. But what will happen in time is that sufficient numbers of guest worker visas will get approved anyhow. Agribusiness won’t allow Congress to pull these visas anyhow; heck, Trump’s many resorts and winery depend on these special visas. Those from Central and South America who want to come here will do it the old fashioned way: on a tourist visa whose expiration date they will ignore. For the most part they will have to fly in, which is not cheap. Perhaps we’ll get a higher class of “illegal”.

This pointless shutdown is all about saving face for Trump. Someone pulled the mask of the old Lone Ranger. Ironically, Tonto did it.

Republican anarchists try to shut down the government

The Thinker by Rodin

Seven years back, I wrote about a simple truth: that the government of Iraq was not a real government because it could not govern. It’s no less true today, with sectarian warfare in Iraq about as bad as it was when we occupied the country during the worst of it. Iraq is a country in name only.

Here’s another simple truth: a large number of Republicans currently in Congress, perhaps a majority, are anarchists. Just to make sure, I checked the definition of anarchy on merriam-webster.com:

a :  absence of government

So here is what will happen on October 1st unless Congress passes a bill to fund the government and the president signs it (or it is overridden by both houses of Congress): the government shuts down. In that event, there will be an absence of government, i.e. anarchy. Granted, not all government will shut down. “Essential services”, whatever they are defined as, keep going on although the people who carry them out will not be paid, at least not until after the shutdown ends, which could take months. The way some Republicans are talking, a shutdown lasting months is fine if that’s what it takes for the Senate and the president to stop funding the Affordable Care Act. This despite that it is a valid law largely upheld by the Supreme Court.

Here is the oath members of Congress take when they are sworn into office (emphasis is mine):

“I, (name of Member), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God” (5 U.S.C. §3331).

If you haven’t read the U.S. Constitution lately, it says that all laws passed by Congress and signed into law (or where the president’s veto is overridden) are legal. They remain legal unless the law is repealed or a court declares all or part of a law unconstitutional. The Affordable Care Act meets these criteria. By swearing to uphold the U.S. Constitution, senators and representatives implicitly are swearing that they will uphold the laws of the land “in true faith and allegiance”. They are required to fund these laws until such time as they are overturned or amended.

By shutting down the government then, large parts of the government simply cannot govern. You’ve seen some of these in past shutdowns. What usually gets the press is when national parks are shuttered. But there are more serious issues. Not paying the military is a very serious issue: we expect the military to defend our country but will leave them and their families without income even while they risk life and limb for our country? Small business loans are not made. New drugs are not approved. The Security and Exchange Commission stops investigating securities fraud. Much of the work of the judiciary stops. And members of congress who publicly swore that they would uphold the constitution and its laws from all enemies, foreign and domestic aided and abetted this.

It’s amazing that our domestic enemies include many Republican members of Congress. By taking an oath of office, they are taking upon themselves the duty to work in good faith toward legislation to fund the government. To the extent they do not, they are being anarchists. By taking the oath of office, they are essentially required to follow the legislative process in order to fund the government. Compromise is not negotiable. It is required if that’s what it takes to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same” and it needs to finish before authority runs out for the government to execute its laws.

What is even worse is that many of these same legislators are threatening to not extend the nation’s debt ceiling unless their demands are met, putting the good credit of the government in jeopardy. Most experts believe that if default did occur, it would introduce catastrophic financial consequences for the country, likely plunging it into a recession or depression. If you were trying to kill a government, this would certainly go a long way!

It may be against their ideology, but when members of Congress take actions that shut down the government, and do so as a matter of principle because they think the government is too big or they don’t like a particular law, they are practicing anarchy. They are also being unfaithful to their oaths. Their acts are essentially treasonous. At a minimum they should be removed from office. More likely, they belong in prison.

Republicans, if you want to reduce the size of government, you have to do it the constitutional way. You have to repeal these laws. There is no shortcut, no escape clause, no Corbomite Maneuver, at least none that are constitutional. The closest escape clause is a constitutional convention, which would need two thirds of the states, because Congress is unlikely to call for a convention. Shutting down the government by refusing to fund it is not only unconstitutional; doing so violates their oaths of office and is arguably illegal and treasonous.

Republicans, why do you hate America? Why are you such lawbreakers and oath breakers? Would you break your vow with your wife for a floozy? Why would you do the same for the country you love and the flag you salute?

Spoiling for a government shutdown

The Thinker by Rodin

Here inside Club Feb (the federal government) the incessant question is “Will the government shut down on March 5th?” That’s the date when, unless a new continuing resolution is passed or the Senate and House can agree to an omnibus spending bill acceptable to the president, much of the federal government “shuts down”. In that event, as a federal employee who is likely to be deemed non-essential, I will most likely go home having no idea when I might come back to work.

I suspect this won’t bother much of America, since federal employees have for the most part not been touched by the recession that is still impacting the country. (The same cannot be said for state and local workers.) The thinking will probably be something like, “Well, good. They should feel what the rest of us are going through.”

Maybe we feds will, or maybe we won’t. Fifteen years ago when the last shutdown occurred, non-essential employees eventually received back pay for their furloughed status. This is considered less likely this time. So perhaps I should use my furlough time to stand in line at the unemployment office. At least I would be using my time to generate some income.

For people like me, a shutdown is likely to be an inconvenience and maybe a moderate financial hit. My family has plenty of savings that should ride us through this time. It would take a few months being furloughed for us to feel a lot of pain, although I am sure I will feel more anxiety the longer it goes on. My wife remains employed in the private sector, albeit for considerably less than my salary, so we will have some income. While it lasts, I will be financially prudent and husband cash. I won’t be paying anything on my mortgage beyond what the credit union demands. I won’t be taking any vacations. I may boycott restaurants for a while and defer most optional spending. If I do any extra spending it will be for paint. Paint is cheap and there are always rooms that need repainting.

For many other federal employees down the GS ladder, a furlough of any duration will hurt. Contrary to the public perception, government jobs do not come with lavish salaries. The principle benefit of federal employment is consistency: checks are electronically deposited every two weeks like clockwork. Many federal employees live paycheck to paycheck like their private sector friends. They will be hurting if a shutdown lasts more than a few weeks.

Ironically, the people the shutdown will hurt the most will be those not in the public sector. As I mentioned over eight years ago, the number of federal employees understates the true federal employment picture because it conveniently ignores contractors. The employers of these contractors may dole out salary while their contracts are suspended, or may not. In my building, those likely to go without pay include cafeteria workers, janitors, the housekeeping staff, the grounds crews and a fair portion of the security force. They, of course, are the most visible of those directly affected. Contractors working off site will also be affected. Some with national security contracts and other “essential” contractors will keep humming along. All these affected people will likely be spending less money. Restaurants such as Starbucks in D.C. will likely be impacted, and these reduced sales will affect what they order from suppliers. So there will doubtless be a multiplier effect. Clearly, a shutdown of any significant duration will undermine our economic recovery. Deficit spending may be undesirable, but it is still spending. It keeps people employed and the economy humming.

Politicians will be busy trying to win a war of perceptions. It is likely that Republicans will lose this one. The real pain may begin around March 10, when the first set of social security checks may not go out, although according to NPR the primary impact with Social Security will be enrolling new registrants. In 1995, checks to veterans were suspended, which made for terrible PR. Perhaps President Obama could declare these functions to be essential, but there is little reason for him to do so, as it only gives Republicans more leverage. Expect very public closures of national parks, including prominent places like the Smithsonian and the Statue of Liberty. Other essential functions should keep humming along. Do not expect TSA employees to stop working. In many cases, it remains murky whether those who are essential will be paid. In my agency, “essential” people are required to work but there is no way to pay them. Can any employer require someone to work with only a promise of payment at some murky time in the future? If it goes on long enough, it feels a bit like slavery.

There are some additional things that could be done to move negotiations along. Perhaps President Obama could order the Treasury not to pay members of Congress, which may not be possible. What will happen during a furlough is that a representative’s or senator’s staff would be furloughed. History suggests that if  social security payments are stopped, everyone will sober up, but suspending veterans’ pension payments could do the trick. The wildcard of course is that we have eighty-seven new House Republicans, most of them aligned with the Tea Party, who do not seem amenable to any sort of compromise. The public will doubtless be regularly polled to see which side they agree with. At some point, one party may realize obstinacy is counterproductive to their reelection, and cave.

In the fifteen years since the first government shutdown, doubtless the bureaucracy learned some lessons as well. My current job is in many ways a direct response to the last shutdown, since it resulted in making our data publicly accessible. The strategy worked, to the tune of twenty million or more web pages served per month just for the system that I manage. Should serving this data to the public be deemed not essential, a growing and possibly vociferous community of people and organizations that depend on our data would note its absence. While I expect most phone calls that Congress will receive will come from frightened senior citizens and veterans, government provides a lot more services than it used to, and many are now available on the Internet 24/7/365. The effect may be to raise the pain threshold, but that may be useful if it leads to a quicker resolution of the conflict.

Here inside Club Fed, there is a certain nervousness about a shutdown, but also a certain resignation. Some things are simply beyond our ability to control. As prudent stewards, however, we must be prepared to act if the government is shutdown. Right now, this preparation is taking significant time and resources. Perhaps in the grand scheme of things it is good if it results in an end to deficit spending. Right now, all this necessary preparation means we are doing less of our primary mission. In that sense, it adds to waste in government.

I am betting it’s going to happen. The House seems to be spoiling for a fight. I might as well head to my local Lowes and start buying paint and rollers.