Getting From the Swampy No to a Functional Yes

SwampWith all due respect to my fellow liberals and progressives — and with this introduction you know the criticism is about to pour forth — enough ink and pixels have given their all in the effort to analyze, explain, or otherwise explicate the ‘problems with the Republican Party’ specifically those who’ve been elected to the House of Representatives.  Enough. It doesn’t matter all that much.

It doesn’t really matter, for example if one adopts the “Neoconfederate” model [Salon] or the “two foundings” explanation [Salon], and we can argue if the ‘two foundings’ in question were the Continental Congress and the Federal System, or the Early Federal Period and the U.S. Civil War.  It’s interesting, it’s academic, and as amusing and thought provoking as the argument is it’s not very useful at the moment.

It doesn’t matter too much if the origins of the present dysfunction are religious, social, racial, psychological, pathological, psychiatric,  or a combination of all the above. What matters is that something is very fundamentally wrong with the way the people’s business in conducted in the Congress of the United States.

Getting To No

As of January 6, 2013 there were 48 members of the Tea Party Caucus, all Republicans.  Of the 435 voting members of the House, 234 are Republican, 199 are Democrats. Two independents caucus with the Democrats.  218 votes are needed to pass legislation. If all the members directly affiliated with the Tea Party Caucus refuse to join their other GOP caucus members, the GOP leadership can control only 186 votes.

In short, the ultra-conservatives in the House of Representatives do not have anywhere near the number of votes necessary to enact the agenda of their choosing, but they have more than enough votes to prevent the leadership from enacting legislation cobbled together with Democratic support.

This is the perfect recipe for NO. No action. No real pragmatic politics. No major legislation. No long term solutions.  The high wire act in the 113th Congress is more conducive to (1) short term stop gap measures to alleviate large problems, (2) interim short term budget appropriations and resource allocations, and (3) periodic breakdowns.

Little wonder then the Absolutely Do Nothing Congress has passed only 34 “ceremonial” bills and “108” substantive bills so far. [WaPo] However, if governmental gridlock is the desired result then the 113th is doing splendidly.

Getting Nothing Done

One of the problems with polarized politics is that hyperbole replaces reasoned discussion, and all too often things become A CRISIS!  There are a couple of ways a crisis can occur. First, and most obviously, there is a situation, unforeseen, which arises from a natural or man-made disaster or catastrophe.  Floods, tornadoes, an attack, an unpredictable infrastructure failure might all qualify as a crisis.

The second crisis category is manufactured.  There appear to be two forms of manufacturing of late. One manifestation is the “political crisis” in which a problem of long standing has been ignored or left unresolved for enough time to create an overwhelming backlog — the Veterans’ Administration issues in regard to wait time for medical services is a classic, as is the number of refugee children who have arrived unattended from Central America — a number that’s been increasing since October 2013.

The other form is more ephemeral and depends upon the Crisis, or Scandal du Jour.  For example, the Benghazi attack in 2012 has generated 25,000 pages of documents submitted in 13 hearings. That the documents have done nothing but reinforce the initial reporting, and that the hearings have generated nothing but easy copy and headlines, is immaterial.  The Congress is ‘dealing with the crisis…’

Meanwhile

While Congress fritters and frets its way to the end of the 113th session there are some issues which may fall into the first manufactured category — the backlog swamp.

Infrastructure: Residents of Los Angeles were recently reminded that 92 year old water pipes cannot be expected to last forever, and when they fail they have no regard for sacred public spaces — like Pauley Pavilion. Over 170 school buildings and 165 bridges in New York were constructed over a century ago. The average age of the 6,800 water lines in New York is 69 years, and 2/3rds of them are susceptible to internal corrosion and failure. [FutNy]  One out of every nine bridges in this country falls in the structurally deficient category, and the average age of a U.S. bridge is 42 years.  [2013RC] We have a early 20th century power grid which is supposed to keep us going in the 21st century. Failure to address aviation needs is costing the U.S. economy valuable revenue as a result of congestion and delays.  [2013rc]

Civil Rights:  The Civil Rights Act, and the provisions safeguarding voting in America are overdue for review. Voter intimidation, suppression, and curtailment are no longer the sole province of the old Confederacy.  We continue to put this issue on the back burner at our peril as a democracy.

Public Health and Safety: Heart disease and cancer continue to be the main causes of death in this country, but Alzheimer’s is climbing up the tables.  An aging population will require more health care services in a wider variety of settings than our current system can address.  We kill 34,677 of us every year in traffic accidents, but we continue to defer highway improvements because of budget constraints.

We kill off 26,631 individuals annually in firearm accidents, another 19,766 in firearm related suicides, and yet another 11,101 in firearm homicides. [CDC]  Still we wrangle about requiring universal background checks and how we might prevent straw purchases.  We can’t even seem to agree that stalkers and spousal abusers shouldn’t have immediate access to firearms.

Whether it’s Alzheimer’s or assault rifles, we’re still operating with entirely too many Medically Under-served Areas, there are 297 such reports for Nevada, and a search of neighboring California turns up 2,065 records. [HRSA]

Immigration: We have a mess going in this department.  It’s hard to ignore the fundamentally racist rantings of the Deport’em Now crowd, who never seem to have much to say about the northern border.  However, we will need to tune them out, or at least down,  if we are going to attract the best and brightest scientific and technical minds we’ll need for a 21st century economy.  We’ll need to figure out how to invite in those who have joined our Armed Forces, willing to die for this country, only to discover later there are voices demanding that they mustn’t  live here. Something rational needs to be done to meet the needs of children who came here as toddlers and have known no other country, and those who have one native born or naturalized parent and another who is not.  Comprehensive immigration policy reform would help. So would adequately funding the judicial, social, and educational components of our immigration policy — security is the easy part — it’s the larger, more complicated portions of the problem we’re delaying.

Might we add more to this list? — items which if we let them progress on their own long enough we’ll find ourselves in a “crisis” situation — climate change, income disparity and inequality, educational funding and curriculum development, and the regulation of capital markets to improve stability.

Our Bottom Line

One of the more egregious practices of failing businesses is the Run To Ruin mentality.  Got an aging delivery truck? Never mind, just keep depreciating it without putting any funds in replacement and capital improvement accounts, and when the thing finally gives up the ghost go out and get another loan to cover the cost.  Delaying serious proposals for maintaining our national safety, health, economy, and infrastructure is tantamount to adopting the Run to Ruin model on a national scale.

Another highly questionable business practice which will lead directly to bankruptcy court is the Disposable Asset Theory of Management  wherein all facets of an enterprise are ultimately disposable, including personnel.  Low wages and paltry benefits yielding high employee turnover? No problem, just hire more and cheaper labor. With 3 job seekers for every position available there will always be somebody.  Eventually those training and retraining expenses will add up, predictably levels of service will decline… and those adherents of the DAT management style should be looking for a buyer sooner rather than later.  Deferring the issues of hiring and retaining well trained and competent public employees is, again, like trying to run the country on the cheap (DAT) and then expressing surprise when “things don’t get done.”

By far one of the most predictable ways to go out of business is to ignore the changing circumstances and economic atmosphere around a firm.  Ever so redundantly speaking — Rule Number One: If you have an increasing share of a declining market you are in very real trouble. Think Kodak.

Let’s be optimistic and believe that eventually we will move from dependence on fossil fuels and toward renewable energy sources.  In old fashioned retail terms this means fossil fuels will be a declining market.  So, WHY are we subsidizing an industrial sector which we know to be on the way out?  Again, if we take a short-term defensive approach to energy policy we’ll be violating Old Rule Number One in ways that will not be helpful in the future — or we can wait for the Crisis in which the oil sector sputters out and takes a chunk of the economy with it.

Avoiding the Run to Ruin, Disposable Asset Theory, and the Ostrich Stance mistakes means we are going to have to stop lurching from crisis to crisis, and start doing some serious public policy planning.  We need to stop talking about running government like a business, and start doing precisely that — running it as a long term, asset rich, enterprise with public service as its core.

Instead of the Doctrine Of No, how about functioning based on the belief that Harry Truman was right: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

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