Five Years In The House

A few days ago the Webner House blog celebrated its fifth anniversary. Our first post appeared on February 1, 2009.

It’s hard to believe it’s been five years. Five years ago President Obama had just been inaugurated and began his first term in office, and the Affordable Care Act was just a gleam in his eye. Five years ago Eric Mangini was the head coach of the Cleveland Browns, and there have been three head coaches since then. Five years ago no one had heard of a Tea Party, or George Zimmerman, or Ted Cruz. For reasons like these, five years seems like a long time.

During our five years we’ve published 4,718 posts that have generated 289,076 views and 4,082 comments — all of which were welcome. We’ve made some new friends and found some blogs we like to check out, too. We’ve written some bad poetry, taken some bad photographs, and followed the Chronicles of Penny.

It’s been a fun five years. What better way to commemorate it than to post David Bowie and Arcade Fire performing the song of the same name — a song which begins one of the great rock albums ever recorded: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars?

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The IRS ‘Fesses Up — Sort Of

The Internal Revenue Service admits that its agents engaged in “inappropriate” targeting of certain conservative political groups and has apologized — but there seems to be a lot more to the story.

Some people in the IRS decided that groups with “tea party” and “patriot” in their names should be given additional scrutiny, to see whether they were acting in ways inconsistent with their tax-exempt status.  About 300 groups received the scrutiny.  The IRS says that low-level employees were responsible and that, when more senior officials learned about it months later, the practice was stopped.  However, it now appears that the IRS simply adopted new criteria that focused on “political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding Government, educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights, social economic reform movement.”  That doesn’t really seem much better, does it?

This story is disturbing on many levels.  First, when individual IRS agents can target groups because of their politics, that should be troubling to everyone — regardless of their political views.  When people are given the authority to act on behalf of the IRS, we expect that authority to be exercised responsibly, not politically.  If IRS agents can agree to look at groups that have “patriot” in their names, what criteria might they use under the next Administration?

Second, where were the supervisors?  How much unbridled discretion do individual IRS agents possess?  Didn’t some manager notice a pattern in what the agents were doing and realize they were targeting groups on a political basis?  The actions of the agents seem to contradict the statements made by the former IRS commissioner, Douglas Shulman, in testimony to Congress, and the IRS response contends that knowledge of what was happening was limited to people multiple levels below Shulman.  So, the IRS defense seems to be that it is so bureaucratic that the Commissioner isn’t told about what is actually happening on the ground!  That’s not very comforting, either.

In his recent remarks at the Ohio State University, President Obama encouraged graduates to reject cynicism and decline to listen to “voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems.”  This IRS story is precisely the kind of story that breeds such cynicism.  When IRS agents can target groups for political reasons, the IRS Commissioner denies that such targeting is occurring, and the IRS defends the truth of those denials because the agents involved were too far down the chain for the Commissioner to notice, perhaps a little cynicism is in order.

A Pox On All Their Houses

I’ve consciously refrained from writing anything about the “fiscal cliff” because I knew anything I had to say would come out as a vitriolic screed that wouldn’t accomplish anything.  But now that we’ve reached the last day before the automatic spending cuts and tax increases take effect and no deal has been struck, the time for the pointless yet heartfelt screed has come.

I say a pox on all their houses.  By that I mean the White House and both Houses of Congress; I mean the President and Congress, Republican and Democrat, “progressives,” liberals, conservatives, and “tea partiers.”  Congratulations to you all!  You’ve maneuvered us into a situation where tax increases and spending limits that were consciously designed to be so foolish and draconian that they would force a compromise look like they might actually take effect unless a lame duck Congress and a disengaged President strike some poorly thought out, last-minute deal that the American public has no opportunity to consider or voice an opinion on — just like the deal that got us into this stupid “fiscal cliff” predicament in the first place.  Your little plan about a “supercommittee” to reach a grand compromise failed, you frittered away the intervening months raising money from your pet interest groups and electioneering without doing anything to make meaningful progress on the tax policy changes and spending reductions that every conscious American knows must occur to avoid enormous impending debt problems, and now you are frantically trying to avoid the imminent, painful consequences of your years of stupid politicking, indolence, and irresponsibility.

What’s sad about this is that the President and the Republican and Democratic leadership probably all think they’ve got the other guys just where they want them; they likely think the opposing side is bound to knuckle under today and give them a huge, last-minute victory.  Here’s some news for you all:  we shouldn’t be governing through a process that sees us lurching endlessly from crisis to crisis.  Your failures to do things like propose, debate, and pass meaningful budgets, hold hearings on spending, tax and budget proposals that allow citizens to comment and thoughtful changes to be evaluated, and engage in the standard activities of government as our Constitution contemplates reflects badly on you all.  Even if an eleventh-hour deal is reached and everyone declares they won, you’ve achieved no victory.  The American people have come to realize that, unfortunately, we have no real political leaders — just political hacks, buck-passers, and pipsqueaks who don’t have the sense or courage to put the interests of the country ahead of their personal political interests and the narrow perspectives of the pressure groups that contribute to their campaigns.

I know most of the people reading this will say “hey, it’s not my guy’s fault!”  Supporters of President Obama will say it is the no-new-tax-pledge intransigence of the tea partiers that have brought on this ridiculous crisis; tea partiers will say it is the President’s and the Senate’s unwillingness to make meaningful spending cuts that is to blame; and everyone will point the finger elsewhere.  My response is that it is everyone’s fault.  In the past, when large problems have loomed, American politicians have managed to reach compromises that have allowed the country to move forward.  The difference is that, in the past, our political leaders included real statesmen.

There is a reason why there was a huge fall-off in the number of Americans who voted in the most recent election.  Naive notions about hope and change and broad social movements to achieve fiscal responsibility have given way to disgust and outrage at the continuation of politics as usual.  The “fiscal cliff” crisis will just exacerbate those feelings.  Having a disillusioned, disgusted, and angry electorate is not a good thing for our country.

Newt And Freddie

It’s amazing that Newt Gingrich has been able to depict himself as a “Reagan conservative” and surge to the top of the Republican field.  After all, soon after he left public office he began to do “consulting” work for Freddie Mac, the mortgage giant at the center of the housing crisis that crippled our economy.  Freddie Mac paid Gingrich’s consulting firm at least $1.6 million from 1999 to 2008.  It’s not the kind of resume that you would expect to find in a Tea Party favorite, given the Tea Party’s disdain for the cash-soaked, insiders culture of Washington, D.C.

Gingrich’s firm has now released one, but only one, of its contracts with Freddie Mac.  The contract covers only one year, which is curious.  Has the Gingrich Group really misplaced the other lucrative contracts?  If so, what does that tell you about Gingrich’s managerial abilities?  And if he really has misplaced the other contracts, why not just get copies of them from Freddie Mac and produce them all, so we can see what the entirety of the arrangement was?

The article linked above reprints the one contract that Gingrich’s firm produced.  It’s not scintillating reading — few contracts are — but it reveals that Gingrich’s firm reported to the Freddie Mac Public Policy Director, whom the Post article identifies as a registered lobbyist.  The firm was paid a retainer of $25,000 a month, which means its compensation wasn’t tied to how much work it actually did.  The description of what Gingrich’s firm was supposed to do is found in Exhibit 2, which states only that the firm was to provide “consulting and related services, as requested by Freddie Mac’s Director, Public Policy.”

However, Section 2(b) of the contract says that Gingrich’s group was to submit “an invoice that includes a detailed description of the Services performed” in order to get paid.  I hope a reporter somewhere is using public records requests and other methods to try to get those invoices, which might shed light on whether Gingrich really acted as a historian, as he states, or as a lobbyist and influence-peddler, as his opponents contend.  Interviewing the people that Gingrich reported to, and who requested the “consulting and related services,” would be a good idea, too.

I suppose it is possible that Freddie Mac paid more than $1.6 million for Gingrich to serve as a kind of historian.  After all, Freddie Mac was not exactly a paragon of fiscal responsibility, so it may well have spent $25,000 a month for unspecified historian duties even though its business involved mortgages, not histories.  Or, perhaps, Freddie Mac paid the former Speaker of the House to do other things.  It would be nice to know where the truth lies.

Let Them Protest — It’s The American Way

Protesters have been camping out and protesting in the Wall Street area of New York City for the last few weeks.

Some participants are protesting “corporate greed,” others object to the role of corporations in politics, and still others appear to be venting general anger and frustration about our economic problems.  Similar protests have occurred in other cities, too.  (The story linked above says “A group in Columbus, Ohio, also marched on the capital city’s street” — which makes our fair city sound like a one-horse town.  Hey, AP!  For the record, we’ve got more than one street in Columbus.)

I don’t blame people for protesting.  In my view, the Wall Street protests are a flip side of the Tea Party protests that started in 2009 and spawned significant grass-roots politicking.  The Tea Partiers dressed in colonial garb and the Wall Street protesters dress as corporate zombies, but both are expressing a deep concern, shared by many Americans, that the country is heading in the wrong direction.  The economy sucks, jobs are scarce, and nobody seems to be doing much about the problem.  The two groups’ proposed solutions to the problems are different, but the deep-rooted anger about the problems in the same.

The great thing about America is that the First Amendment allows the anger and frustration to be vented through peaceful protest, and the act of protest allows the protesters’ message to reach a wider audience.  If the protest strikes a chord with a sufficiently large segment of the population, as happened with the Tea Party, then stray protests can become a movement.  It remains to be seen whether the Wall Street protests have that kind of broad impact or staying power, but we’ll find out soon enough.  Until then, I say let them protest, and applaud their exercise of their First Amendment rights.

A Union Leader’s Thoughts On Labor Day

Today Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. revved up a crowd for President Obama as a Labor Day rally in Detroit, Michigan.  He said the “tea party” had declared a “war on workers” and added:  “President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march. Let’s take these son of bitches out and give America back to an America where we belong.”

I don’t mind the vulgarity and martial imagery — anybody warming up a crowd at a union event on Labor Day can get carried away, I suppose — but I’m not sure what “war on workers” Hoffa is referring to.  Presumably he is talking about the efforts to limit collective bargaining rights for public employees in states like Wisconsin and Ohio.  For the most part, however, the agenda of the “tea party” — if such an entity can even be said to exist — seems to be a pro-worker agenda.  The “tea party” element wants to restrain the growth of government, keep taxes low, avoid unnecessary regulations that restrict economic growth, and let private enterprise develop and create jobs.  What is so “anti-worker” about that?

Many union leaders, like Hoffa, apparently equate a “pro-worker” agenda with a “pro-union” agenda.  Anybody who pushes a “pro-union” agenda necessarily supports government spending, government growth, and government regulation, because public employees have been one of the few growth areas for unions in recent decades.  If you follow a pro-worker agenda, on the other hand, you want to see jobs created, whatever those jobs may be.  How many more people — Teamsters included — would be employed on this Labor Day, for example, if our government hadn’t imposed a moratorium on certain oil drilling and imposed restrictions on our ability to exploit our reserves of oil and natural gas?

That Depressing And Degrading Downgrade

Standard & Poor’s downgrading of the United States’ credit rating, from AAA to AA+, is an embarrassment to our country — but it is a lot more than that.

The downgrade is a tangible reminder that our profligate spending and borrowing ways have yielded some of our sovereignty over our own affairs to others — be they ratings agency analysts, or bond traders, or foreign governments that hold large chunks of our debt.  When you borrow money, you inevitably give your creditors an element of power over your affairs.  They can raise your interest rate payments or tell you you can’t buy that new car.  Our staggering federal debt is giving entities like Standard & Poor’s or countries like China the ability to set their own benchmarks for our performance and to threaten further downgrades or higher interest rates if those benchmarks aren’t met.  These developments should be deeply troubling to anyone who is paying attention.

I’m afraid that the downgrade also will be another example our government’s ostrich-like ways.  Downgrades and higher interest rates are an entirely predictable result of our spendthrift budgeting, but those consequences were ignored.  We can hope that, with the shock of a downgrade, our government will start to behave responsibly — but so far the signs aren’t good.  Our Treasury Secretary argues that Standard & Poor’s got its math wrong, and our political leaders are just blaming each other for the problemSenator John Kerry — that well-known paragon of balanced budgeting and fiscal responsibility — even goes so far as to call it the “Tea Party downgrade,” as if the brand-new legislators who were elected on a platform of reduced spending and who insisted that the recent debt ceiling increase include some spending reductions were responsible for our trillions of dollars in accumulated debt.

We are not only burdened with unsustainable debt, but also with an inept gaggle of “leaders” who view every crisis as just another opportunity for political spin.