No Way To Run A Railroad

It’s hard to believe — but then again, maybe it’s not so hard to believe.  Our divided, dysfunctional government was unable to reach agreement, so $85 billion in “automatic” sequestration cuts occurred yesterday, after President Obama signed an executive order putting them into effect.

President Obama called the cuts “dumb” and “arbitrary.”  He’s right — and in fact, you could use even stronger terms, like imbecilic and ludicrous.  So why did the President and the White House play a central role in devising the idiotic “sequestration” concept to begin with, and why wasn’t he able to do what was necessary to avoid the cuts from taking effect?  The President, of course, immediately blamed congressional Republicans for their intransigence and refusal to consider additional tax increases, and maybe the public will decide that the Republicans should be the whipping boys this time, as they have been in the past.  At some point, however, I think most people will come to accept that some of the blame must fall upon the President.  Rather than working steadily toward a solution, he seems to enjoy playing chicken, waiting until the deadline looms immediately ahead, and then trying to work out a last-minute deal when he thinks the pressure is all on the other side.  This time, obviously, his tactic didn’t work, and the chickens have come home to roost.

I’m blaming everyone for this fiasco — Democrats and Republicans, President and Congress — but I also think the President needs to be held accountable by the media and the public.  It’s incredibly stupid to make blunderbuss cuts when some programs should be eliminated and other programs should be left untouched.  I’m convinced that, if the President and members of both parties simply did their jobs, they could identify $85 billion in rational cuts to replace the “automatic” sequestration cuts.  The President’s inability to lead the way to a reasonable solution so that we don’t lurch from budget crisis to budget crisis falls on his shoulders.

It’s another embarrassing day for our government.

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One Program At A Time

One other point about the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.  I am afraid that the impending specter of that committee will cause Congress to stop doing its job (to the extent that Congress has been doing its job) and simply wait to see what the Joint Select Committee comes up with.

I hope the Republicans in the House of Representatives, at least, reject that do-nothing approach and put their money where their mouth is.  They’ve talked bravely about cutting federal spending.  I hope that they move forward and cause the House of Representatives to do what Congress is supposed to do:  hold hearings, take testimony, and make legislative decisions through the proposal and amendment of bills, one program and one agency at a time.  One of the problems with the debt ceiling compromise is that it locks in already inflated spending and programs that we may not be able to afford during this time of huge deficits.  I would rather see targeted, carefully considered cuts, arrived at transparently in committee meetings held after open hearings, than some kind of blunderbuss, across-the-board approach that affects all programs equally.

Let’s see the House Republicans play some “small ball” and decide whether, for example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration programs for funding advertising campaigns against drunk driving and in favor of seat belt use should continue to be funded.  I’d rather we eliminated entire non-essential programs that Congress decides we can’t afford in the current budget climate, with the corresponding reduction in the federal payroll, than see programs that help the truly disadvantaged or fund crucial defense efforts suffer unthinking reductions.

Speechifying

The debt ceiling remains unraised.  Talks between the sides have broken down.  The Republicans in the House have submitted a proposal, and the Democrats in the Senate have done likewise.  All the while, the days before the August 2 deadline slip silently past.

So, what to do to try to end this apparent impasse?  Why, give a speech, of course!  President Obama will address the nation at 9 p.m. tonight to discuss the debt ceiling issue, and Speaker of the House John Boehner will present the Republican view immediately thereafter.

I’m all in favor of a good speech, but what is giving a speech a few days before an important deadline supposed to accomplish?  It’s an opportunity for each side to trot out their spinmeisters, of course, but aren’t we awfully far down the road for that?  Is highlighting the parties’ differing positions supposed to reassure the jittery markets?  Are the members of Congress supposed to focus on the polling numbers after the speech to decide how to vote on this issue?  If the numbers say Americans liked the President’s speech better than the Speaker’s, or vice versa, does that carry the day?

This all seems like political posturing to me, as each side tries to set the other up to take the blame, rather than a legitimate effort to bring an end to what has often been a pathetic and embarrassing process.

Not Distracted By The Debt Ceiling Fan Dance

A week has gone by, the August 2 default deadline creeps ever nearer, and still the antic debt ceiling political dance continues. 

It’s like an old fan dance, where the flashing fans of the dancer seek to tantalize while hiding what lies beneath.  The Senate has contributed the ill-defined “Gang of Six” proposal.  The House Republicans passed “cut, cap, and balance.”  President Obama continues to insist on a “balanced approach.”  Everybody uses every opportunity to trumpet that everybody else is behaving abominably and making outrageous proposals.  And the latest report is that the President is sitting down with House Republicans to try to cut a deal

Is real progress being made?  Who knows?  Appallingly, everything is done behind closed doors, with no public input.  How can anyone be comfortable with politicians making deals in private on this huge issue?  And most of the purported “savings” and “cuts” and “revenue enhancements” seem to be vague, generic promises to delegate the task of making actual changes to the same congressional committees that have, for years, proven themselves unable to restrain spending, exercise prudence, and govern responsibly.

I’m not going to be distracted by the waving fans.  I want this embarrassing dance to produce some real changes to how things are done.

Time to Put Matthew Lesko Out Of Business

If you’ve watched TV at odd hours, you’ve seen Matthew Lesko.  He is the hyped-up guy wearing a suit covered with question marks who hawks books about how to get government money so that you can realize your dream of becoming a French chef.   One of his books is called Free Money For EverybodyHis webpage includes testimonials about how people used the information in his books to finance activities through money they obtain from government agencies.  One testimonial is from a New Jersey folk singer who used Lesko’s information to get federal and state money to fund his performance of historical songs in schools.  Another is from a New York dairy farming family that got $12,000 from a local government to put in a gravel walkway for their cows.

No doubt Lesko is a savvy businessman who has done a good job of identifying governmental programs that hand out cash and making information about those programs available to everyone who will plunk down the money to buy one of his books.  However, the title of his book Free Money For Everybody aptly captures a real problem with modern America.  There really can’t be “free money for everybody,” of course, and the money that is being shelled out for gravel cow paths and historical folk singing is most certainly not “free” — it is being borrowed from governmental creditors, at a price.

One area of this kind of governmental largesse is job-training programs.  Those programs are politically attractive to support, because no one wants to be viewed as opposing efforts to help displaced workers learn new skills.  A recent report, however, has shown that those programs are largely ineffective and are riddled with waste.  At the federal level, there are 47 job- and employment-training programs administered by nine different federal agencies, as well as another 51 federal programs that have some form of job-training focus.  In short, there inevitably is duplication and inefficiency.  The report notes that these programs cost $18 billion annually and are, almost without exception, ineffective in helping unemployed workers find jobs.  Moreover, the report recounts examples of waste, fraud, and mismanagement in how the federal funds are spent.

Both President Obama and House Republicans have said they want to cut spending and make government run more like a business.  One way to do that is to end the notion that there is “free money for everybody” by terminating federal programs that shell out money for purposes and projects that really aren’t essential.  In this era of huge deficits, the time has come to put Matthew Lesko out of business.