Thursday, October 3, 2013

Piecemeal: that's actually the right way to do things

It's unlikely anything positive--from the perspective of the nation at large--will come from the current shutdown of the Federal Government (aside from the fact that the NSA won't be able to monitor every phone call of every American, for a few days anyway). It's just as unlikely that anything truly awful--again, in terms of the nation--will come from it. The pundits droning on and on about the shutdown, about its consequences, are largely speaking about political repercussions (at least the honest ones), because that's really the only arena that could possibly see any serious repercussions.

But it won't.

Why? Two reasons. First, because the collective memory of the nation--notwithstanding the internet--just isn't that long. Plus, there will be other events between now and whatever election we might be talking about that will obscure the story of the 2013 Shutdown. And second, because many of the principals involved in all of this--the Republican "extremists," to use the President's ill-considered and petty words--are in secure districts and are, in fact, doing exactly what they promised their constituents they would do.

This last little factoid is escaping the great majority of the mainstream press and therefore much of the more clueless American public. As hard as this may be for some--of the benighted sort--to understand, there are actually Republicans in the House whose seats would be in greater jeopardy if they hadn't gone down this road, if they had stood idly by and not tried everything possible to stop Obamacare. That is, after all, the core issue many of them ran on, that and curbing government spending. And if a shutdown does anything at all, it does the last.

Nonetheless, the shutdown is still a futile and largely pointless exercise. And it does impact good, hard-working, decent men and women whose jobs happen to be with the Federal Government (such creatures really do exist, trust me). But I say "largely pointless" because there is a lesson buried here, one that I think few will recognize and fewer still will admit.

The Federal Government shutdown specifically because the House and Senate could not agree on a spending bill for the President to sign that would keep funding the Federal Government through the end of the year (or thereabouts). And this was because the House--where all appropriations bills must originate--sent a bill to the Senate specifically stripping Obamacare of funding (not an exactly original or unheard of move, but I don't want to go down that road right now). The Senate restored that funding and sent the bill back to the House.

It is as this point that the House attempted to "compromise" (a rereading of my piece on Ayn Rand and compromise is now in order). Rather than stripping out the funding for Obamacare, the House instead added two provisions: one that would delay the implementation of Obamacare (the individual mandate portion) for one year and another that would deprive Congress and their staff of special treatment under Obamacare (there is a defense of this out there wherein it's not really special treatment, but it's nonsense). The Senate treated this bill the same as the first: it removed both provisions and sent it back to the House. The House repeated itself, putting both provisions back in, returning the bill to the Senate, and adding a request to negotiate with Senate leadership. And the Senate then repeated itself, once again removing both provisions and passing on the idea of a sit-down.

What followed? Shutdown.

It's at this point that something truly interesting happened. The House began to pass limited funding bills, one after the other, to fund specific functions of the Federal Government. It passed bills that fund the National Parks Service, the National Institutes of Health, and finally one that would allow the District of Columbia to continue to operate in full. In the case of the first two, a number of Democrats in the House joined the Republicans (23 and 25, respectively). In the case of the last, it was passed by voice vote, so no Democrats had to go on record in opposition (this was a major carrot granted to the House Democrats, by the way, one that is receiving little attention).

The response to these bills from the Senate has been a resounding "no thank you." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has been clear that he will not allow the Senate to even entertain them, that it's "all or nothing."

Source: Dave Pear's Blog
And therein lies the lesson: we've allowed what should be the right way to do things to become the "crazy way" to do things. For if there was ever a way to limit Federal spending, to minimize pork, and to control the growth of bureaucracies, this would be it. A piecemeal approach to funding the government would mean specific monies for specific functions, no blank checks. It would mean bills with pork laid bare, allowing the President an easy opportunity to veto such garbage and force Congresscritters to publicly explain why it was there in the first place. And it would prevent automatic step-ups in the size of bureaucracies, as it would require public justification for such things, as well.

Then why isn't this the norm? Why is it over-the-top-crazy to approach funding the government in such a manner? Here's a secret: it used to be the norm, it was the way things were always done in DC for a long time. But now, the use of omnibus-type spending bills is the norm, bills that cover everything at once and provide a safe haven for pork and graft.

When did things change? Well, to understand the "when," one must take into account the size and growth of the Federal Government. Two hundred years ago, a real "omnibus" kind of spending (or appropriations) bill was an impossibility. It was not until after the Presidency of FDR and the growth of the Feds under the same that such bills would make any kind of sense. Still, the Federal Government was substantially smaller, even then. But it in the sixties and seventies, under Johnson, Nixon, and Carter, there was a "boom" in government agencies, both in number, size, and scope. And it was under Reagan that the modern omnibus bills began to become all too common.

Reagan famously blew up at Congress for sending him such monstrous bills, threatening to veto any such bills in the future. Congress relented for a time, but soon returned to omnibus packages as a matter of course. Now, they really are the norm, bills thousands of pages long that need to be passed before we can even know what's in them (as Pelosi once said). Some are general spending bills (like the current one), others are special spending packages (like the Stimulus Bill), and still others are huge programs that cut across multiple Federal agencies (like Obamacare and the Patriot Act).

All of these bills represent growth of the Federal Government, growth of its size, its range of powers, its debt. They are, as a matter of course, antithetical to the concept of limited government. And they provide more opportunity for government malfeasance and waste, as well. Make no mistake here, this is not a Democrat/Republican thing at all. Under Bush (the last one) and Clinton, Republicans were happy to pass these behemoths, happy to sneak in plenty of pork. And both Bush and Clinton signed these bills. That said, the current denizen of the White House is not only willing to accept these things, he's also responsible for creating them. Obama doesn't just accept them, he calls for them, he supposes they are the right way to do business (for obvious reasons).

And as the current "crisis" indicates, most Democrats and many Republicans (in the Senate) appear to be on the same page. This may not be the best moment to highlight this issue, the problem with huge omnibus-style bills (spending or otherwise), but it deserves to be noted in my opinion. The refusal of the Senate and the President to entertain a piecemeal approach to spending and appropriations says something significant about the state of our government and about our future. And it's not good, regardless of how the shutdown plays out.

Cheers, all.


  1. I have no problem with piecemeal funding bills, but why the Parks department? Why did they feel that was the single most important department that needed funding over all the other ones? Probably because that one was giving them some bad PR. I like parks, don't get me wrong, but it doesn't help the millions of Federal workers out of a job unless the Republicans just think we need a place to relax and not think about our bills.

  2. Absolutely, the choice was PR-inspired. So too the bill to fund the NIH.

    That said, the Senate's (Reid's) response--echoed by the Admin--is telling. They don't such bills, period. They want the big omnibus ones. And again, so do some of the Repubs, there's no question about it. Why? The answer is obvious, I think: because of what such bills let them get away with.