Saturday, February 28, 2015

Shut It Down!

Last night the House of Representatives passed emergency "patch" legislation, also passed earlier in the day by the Senate, to fund the Department of Homeland Security for, um, one week. Funding for the department was set to run out at midnight. In last year's lame duck session Republicans specifically picked this fight by agreeing to fund the department only until early this year. (Yes, this was planned in advance, as a matter of strategy.) In return, Republicans deigned to allow the remainder of the government to operate through the end of the current fiscal year, which runs through September. The renewed fight over Homeland Security funding commenced a few weeks ago, as scheduled.

The sticking point on the department's funding is that Republicans attached a provision to the funding bill reversing President Obama's executive orders on immigration. Democrats consider attaching an immigration policy provision to a funding bill to be unacceptable. Republicans figured they could cram the whole package down Democrats' throats because department funding was "must pass" legislation. Democrats called their bluff, saying they would only vote for a "clean" funding bill. Thus the current game of chicken.

The one-week extension presumably gives time to work out and pass longer term funding, which some reporters now say will happen via a clean bill next week, exactly as Democrats have demanded. Most commentators have long predicted that this would be the ultimate outcome. Many have wondered why Republicans sought this fight in the first place, since it's one they cannot win, and it crowds out other initiatives early in this new congressional session in which they control, for the first time since 2007, both houses of Congress. If Republicans had hoped to take on important new legislative projects (such as, say, tax reform), they've made a very bad start of it.

In other words, Republicans are showing yet again that they are incapable of governing. This was so in the first six years of the Obama presidency, when Republicans waged a particularly destructive form of scorched-earth opposition, including threats of debt default and a weeks-long full government shutdown. And it will be true in Obama's final two years, when Republicans were supposed to magically pivot from hostile minority to governing majority.

With respect to the current spat showing once again that Republicans can't govern, the less important indicator is that they pick political fights they can't win. Much more important is that their destructive impulses are consistently true to form. Their instinct is always to blow things up, and their political toolbox is devoid of statecraft, compromise, and reason.

The illogic of the current standoff is especially maddening. By what warped train of reason is it imagined that shutting down the Department of Homeland Security will somehow punish the president for his immigration transgressions? How, exactly, is that supposed to work? As always, the victims of this insanity are not the president, but the American people, who are the beneficiaries of the services provided by the department—not to mention government employees who will be either furloughed or (for the majority deemed "essential") required to work without pay. This is the very definition of hostage taking, and the hostages are the American people and the innocent public servants who work at the department.

Democrats are correct to resist. As a matter of principle, one doesn't give in to hostage taking because doing so begets more hostage taking. Holding innocents hostage in order to get your way can't be allowed to work. And this is so regardless of whether or not you think Obama's immigration order was correct or constitutional. (The executive order dispute is a question of law, and it is currently before the courts. That was supposed to give Republicans an "out", but they chose to not take it.)

If your partisan allegiances lead you to suggest that, no, this time it's the Democrats who are playing the shutdown game, think about it this way: The current impasse came about as a matter of considered Republican strategy when the Congress was deciding last fall whether or not to fund the entire government for the remainder of the fiscal year. Some Republicans wanted that to be the moment when the fight was joined over the president's executive action, with funding the government being their point of leverage. The deal worked out back then was to fund all of government except Homeland Security (because it contains immigration enforcement) for the rest of the year, and to revisit Homeland Security funding in the new congressional session when Republicans would control the entire Congress and presumably have an even greater ability to impose their will. So from the beginning, as a matter of intentional political strategy, Republicans envisaged a fight over keeping the department funded (or, conversely, shutting it down) as their way to force Obama to relent. At no time have Democrats plotted holding any part of government hostage to further their political ends. All Democrats have done is refuse to play the game. Democrats aren't demanding anything other than a clean funding bill.

The entire mess is rich with absurd irony. Should a shutdown actually manage to keep the department from doing its work (it mostly wouldn't, but who knows at the margins?), that would also mean enforcement agencies inside the department such as the Border Patrol would be sidelined. Smart, huh? Republicans would therefore be "punishing" the president's immigration order by keeping him from performing immigration enforcement—something they actually think he should do more of. As it happens, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is funded largely from fees, and is therefore mostly immune from funding standoffs.

Even more incongruous is the idea that the Department of Homeland Security—created by a Republican Congress and Republican administration as a response to the September 11 attacks—would find itself fighting for funding at a time when terrorist concerns are newly heightened. Even a little bit of sand in the gears is unhelpful.

It's all you can do to realize that this is the way Republicans think; trying to make sense of it is hopeless. The Republican brand will be tarnished yet again, but not as much as you'd imagine. After all, Americans should have realized before now that Republicans can't be trusted to govern, yet here we are with a new batch mucking things up. Sadly, Republicans benefit from a largely uninformed populace that only vaguely understands what's going on, a widespread breakdown of critical thinking, and a right-wing media which undergirds the entire enterprise. One can only wonder how, when, or if our country will get past this dismal phase in our experiment with self-government.

Copyright (C) 2015 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Sentence

We humans do make judgments of simultaneity and sequence of elements of our own experience, some of which we express, so at some point or points in our brains the corner must be turned from the actual timing of representations to the representation of timing, and wherever and whenever these discriminations are made, thereafter the temporal properties of the representations embodying those judgments are not constitutive of their content.

—Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, p. 166
This can be pretty rough going while reading in bed under a soft light and nibbling on a melatonin tablet. Sometimes it does hurt to think. It looks a little better in the light of day, but not much. (No, I don't want you to tell me how the book ends.)

Copyright (C) 2015 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Friday, February 13, 2015

Not Good Enough

I recently submitted the following letter for publication in The New York Times; as expected, it was silently rejected. The Times, of course, has very high standards, but This Here Blog® is not so constrained. I therefore reproduce the letter here for the public's kind consideration.


In his Sunday column, Ross Douthat gently picked at President Obama's remarks before the National Prayer Breakfast as both somewhat appropriate and somewhat self-serving. Obama's message—the one he delivered, or the one he should have delivered—is always a tough sell in these United States of America, where we tend to see our system of governance and especially ourselves as particularly virtuous, with almost no hint of irony, incongruity, or self-awareness.

I recall comments long ago by the late Tony Blankley, sitting as panelist on The McLaughlin Group, that America, at least, had never engaged in "ethnic cleansing." The claim was made at a time when the Bosnian conflict was still a fresh memory. I gaped in stunned wonderment at those remarks as I contemplated the wholesale destruction and relocation of native Americans in the nineteenth century.

Thomas Jefferson, an enlightened man and a slaveholder, wrote with eloquence about how all men are created equal. He understood the contradiction personally (as did George Washington), and was not happy about it. But Monticello would not have been possible without slave labor. Our slaves were freed almost a century after Jefferson's Declaration, but were still restricted to their own water fountains, toilets, and lodging for yet another century after that. All the while we worked mightily to exclude them from the ballot box. In twelve southern states there were thousands of lynchings of black people between the 1870s and the 1950s. If there is innate virtue to be found here, it reveals itself slowly and painfully.

America the righteous stole most of its non-Louisiana western territory from Mexico, in warfare that was waged for that very purpose, to fulfill a "manifest destiny" supposedly ordained by God. I am not proposing that we give it back, but a clear-eyed understanding of how we got it is essential.

Ross Douthat surely understands there's no need to reach back to the Crusades, or to the Inquisition, to find the God of Christianity dabbling in distasteful activities. Northern Ireland in the late 20th century will do just fine.

It seems Obama was, or should have been, suggesting that our making moral comparisons with other nations and other religions is a fatal conceit. That doesn't mean there are no moral judgments to be made, or no moral actions to be taken—just that they should be approached with a humility commensurate with an honest understanding (too often obscured by flags, ribbons, lapel pins, and smug self-righteousness) of ourselves. Amen to that.


Copyright (C) 2015 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Friday, February 06, 2015

Going Around, Coming Around

I found it simply dumbfounding that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell assured everybody that, with the Republican takeover of the Senate, the obstruction would end, the logjam would break, and things were finally going to get done. McConnell, after all, has spent the past six years conducting a running clinic on how the minority can completely bollix up the works in the Senate—and he did so with a ruthless determination that stunned and dismayed many observers. (Including prominent political scientists. See, for example, It's Even Worse Than It Looks by Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein.) Did he think Democrats weren't taking notes?

Under McConnell's leadership, Republicans made every piece of Senate business (short of naming post offices) subject to a sixty vote super-majority. For six years! Senate rules were single-mindedly exploited to ensure that all business took as long as possible to wend its way through that already slow and deliberative body. The operative goals were maximum delay and outright obstruction. Much legislation never had a chance of pulling free of the procedural tar pit, which largely explains why the past two congressional sessions have been the least productive in modern U.S. history. (The Republican-controlled House also gets a good bit of the credit.) The apparent Republican motto has been just say no. To everything. The tactic was employed from day one of the Obama administration. The principal reason for Obama's early success was Democratic control of the Congress for his first two years, including a brief sixty-vote Democratic majority in the Senate.

One reason McConnell's petulant strategy was so disheartening is that it established a new Senate precedent that might be hard to reverse. Tit-for-tat retaliation is an unfortunate but undeniable aspect of human nature. Senate rules have always allowed a determined minority to bring everything to a halt, but the sheer destructiveness of such an approach has kept its use more or less in check. It has never before been employed as a matter of routine. Did McConnell think Democrats would not be so ruthless, despite his enduring example, when their turn came to operate in the minority?

The audacity of the implied message is stunning: Give Republicans control of the Senate, and we'll show you how everybody can work together for a change—after all these years of our making sure nothing gets accomplished. Isn't that just another way of saying Republicans refuse to participate in governing unless they're running things? Isn't it just another kind of Republican hostage taking, to go along with government shutdowns and threatened debt defaults?

In modern times, Democrats have always been more cooperative than Republicans when they're in the minority. See, for example, the Bush tax cuts, the Iraq war, Medicare Part D—all of which received substantial Democratic support. Democrats, it seems, just have a stronger sense of governance than Republicans. It will be interesting to discover to what extent Mitch McConnell has managed to beat that impulse out of them.

(Consider, as a prominent example of mindless opposition, that the stimulus bill passed in the first month of the Obama presidency got exactly three Republican votes in the entire Congress, despite the fact that the country was in the midst of a horrifying economic meltdown. Another: The Affordable Care Act, which is essentially a Republican health care plan, got not a single Republican vote in either house of Congress. Not one. Is that even possible without a concerted strategy of obstruction in a toe-the-line conference?)

McConnell is getting an early taste of what the next two years might be like, although I frankly don't think Democrats have it in them to be churlishly disruptive as a matter of principle or of tactics. But in the matter presently at hand, Senate Democrats are blocking passage of funding for the Department of Homeland Security because the bill contains provisions that would rescind President Obama's recent executive actions on immigration. Republicans only have 54 votes in the Senate but, as Mitch McConnell has demonstrated so masterfully, they need 60 votes to get anything passed—in this case, Homeland Security funding. What goes around comes around.

And no, Democrats aren't playing the "shut it down" game that's second nature to Republicans. They're just rejecting the notion that the majority can attach anything it wants to a funding bill, on the assumption that it's "must pass" legislation. Democrats will happily pass a clean bill funding the department if one should come along. If Republicans wish to take action on immigration—something Obama has frequently urged them to do, and which, by his own admission, would obviate his executive action—that legislation will have to stand or fall on its own merits and political support, as is proper for policy legislation. Compare what Democrats are now doing to the shutdown of 2013, when Republicans demanded that the continued functioning of the entire government be contingent upon (or, more bluntly, hostage to) the repeal or delay of a duly passed law (the Affordable Care Act) that they happened not to like.

Mitch McConnell now has, finally, what those who know him say has always been his dream job. His highest lifelong aspiration has been majority leader of the Senate. Now he's achieved it. It's a shame he has spent six year tearing down the institution he now wants to lead.

Copyright (C) 2015 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved