Charity begins at home

Sen. Deb Fischer has asked for federal money to bail out ranchers hit by this month's snowstorm.

Sen. Deb Fischer has asked for federal money to bail out ranchers hit by this month’s snowstorm.

Little-noticed in the blizzard of news out of Washington early this month was a very real blizzard that swept northwestern Nebraska and western South Dakota.

Driven by winds of 70 mph,  a freak snowstorm Oct. 5 and 6 killed tens of thousands of cattle in South Dakota and Nebraska.

Unseasonably warm temperatures meant that many cattle were caught unprotected on summer grazing grounds. Most had not developed winter coats yet. They froze to death, were driven to exhaustion by the unending winds or suffocated under five-foot snow drifts.

As state emergency officials struggled to bury ton after ton of dead cattle,  no one bothered to call the federal government. It was closed.

Even worse, the federal program that compensates producers for losses from livestock disasters had expired, and the passage of a new Farm Bill was nowhere on the horizon. Were the livestock producers of South Dakota and Nebraska to fend for themselves?

Nebraska’s delegation is stuffed with fiscally conservative Republicans and, as the government reopened, all vowed to continue the fight for less spending, lower deficits and smaller government. (Obamacare, the cause of the shutdown, was no longer a GOP bargaining point.)

Given the chance to prove her fiscal tight-fistedness back home, junior Senator Deb Fischer chose not to lower the hammer on the ranchers in western Nebraska — even though she voted against disaster recovery funds to the human victims of Hurricane Sandy.

Fischer has asked Farm Bill conferees to retroactively include the few thousand cattle or sheep lost in four northwestern Nebraska counties — estimates of dead cattle in South Dakota run from 10,000 to 30,000. And that assistance would be on top of the tax dollars spent to bury the carcasses, replace fencing and rebuild shelter belts.

“As you move forward with the 2013 farm bill conference deliberations,  I request that you consider the livestock losses impacting the lives and operations of many Nebraska producers,” Fischer said in a letter to those members of Congress in charge of hammering out the differences between House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill.

“Specifically, I ask that you ensure that coverage of these livestock losses is included as part of the Livestock Indemnity Program (LIP) within the farm bill conference report.”

Apparently federal spending is pork only when it goes to some other state.

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Update: Nine northwestern Nebraska counties became eligible for federal emergency loans subsequent to the storm. Ranchers need to apply before June 30 to the U.S. Farm Service Agency for loans to replace lost livestock and damaged buildings, fences or equipment.

Government in bits and pieces

As constituents begin bringing the heat to Washington lawmakers about the government shutdown, the Republican majority in the House tried Tuesday to re-open pieces of the government they closed hours earlier.

First, House leaders sought to reopen such  Washington tourist attractions as the National Zoo, Smithsonian Institution and the memorials to Presidents Lincoln and Washington, veterans of the Vietnam and World War II , Holocaust victims and other sites.

Second, they tried to reopen the flow of federal funding to the District of Columbia. DC residents pay taxes like all Americans but, because the federal government does not pay taxes on any of the DC real estate it occupies, it sends money to the district to pay its share. During the 1995-’96 shutdowns, garbage collection in DC was one of the first casualties, and the capital soon became a stinky mess.

Finally, the House attempted to restore funding so veterans’ benefit would continue.

All three measures failed because, rather than following normal procedure that allows them to pass bills by a simple majority, House leaders chose to bring them to the floor using a procedure that requires the approval of two-thirds of the members. Republicans hold a majority, but they need the votes of Democrats to reach that higher threshold, and the Democrats have so-far objected to funding government in bits and pieces.

Less than a full day into the shutdown, Washington had already become an ugly place. A planeload of World War II veterans, the  85- and 90-year-old remnants of America’s Greatest Generation was turned away from the World War II Memorial because all National Park Service sites have been closed. They were fortunately “rescued” by a group from Capitol Hill that moved some of the barricades so they could enter.

The barriers were replaced first-thing Wednesday morning, but the closed memorial and the more planeloads of elderly veterans arriving later on “honor flights” from the states was too fine of a photo-op for Republicans to miss. A group of far-right members of Congress, including Rep. Michele Bachman, joined the Republican National Chairman there as he unveiled a check to pay for five security guards to protect the 7.4-acre memorial during the shutdown.

In another largely symbolic move Tuesday, House Republicans selected what are called “conferees” to negotiate with the Senate to resolve their differences on H.J. Res. 59 and reopen the government. Traditionally, conflicts in budget bills are hashed out in meetings between members of the House and Senate. Those conferences are typically held early in the year, however, so Congress can pass a complete budget during the Spring.

But House Republicans had already poisoned that well by declining 18 earlier invitations from the Senate to meet. Besides, there is no budget pending to keep the government open for a full year. The current resolution would only keep the government open through Nov. 15 — a mere six weeks. The only conflict preventing continuing government operation is the Affordable Care Act. Both sides are taking an all-or-nothing stance on Obamacare.

What that means for Nebraskans is that they should step away from the mail box.  Mail will continue to be delivered, but no one in Washington is working to process your passport application, tax return,  security clearance or Small Business Administration loan. If you do business with the federal government, there will be no new contracts to bid on and no checks processed to pay for the work you’ve already done.  You can’t even start planning your family vacation to Yellowstone next year because most federal websites have closed, too.

Why all the problems? Because killing Obamacare is more important to some Republicans than keeping the government going.  Republicans have spent the past three decades gerrymandering congressional districts to the point where they don’t have to worry about re-election. In most districts, there is no way a Republican congressman could ever lose anyone other than another Republican candidate. If you don’t vote for them, there are plenty of others who will.

And you thought it was only federal employees who were non-essential.

Don’t hate on Obamacare

Why is Obamacare so unpopular with Washington Republicans that they continue their obviously futile maneuvering to kill or delay the Affordable Care Act?

First, some members of Congress hate the President so much that they automatically hate everything he likes.

Second, there are members who oppose Obamacare because of the traditional Republican opposition to  “big government.” (Put it in quotes only because no one has ever defined “too big.” They can’t describe it, but they know it when they see it.)

But there is probably a third, even greater, reason why so many Americans are telling Republican members of  Congress that they don’t want Obamacare. It’s because people  hate insurance in general.

We buy it, but we don’t like buying it. In some cases, it’s money we spend to protect ourselves from catastrophes that aren’t likely to happen. We buy property insurance even though the statistical likelihood that our house will burn down or disappear down a sinkhole is very small.

We buy auto insurance to protect ourselves from our mistakes and the mistakes of others. Logically, we know we need it, but when we cruise down the street we don’t glory in the excellent coverage we have. If we glory it all, it’s because we have a hotter or faster car than the guy in the next lane. No one turns their head to stare when a well-insured driver goes by.

Are you going to wind up wrapped in your deliriously happy spouse’s arms if you beef up your life insurance? Would you get a better response if you brought home  that big-screen TV or a jewel-encrusted necklace?

Who even reads their insurance policies? Most Americans take those over-sized envelopes that comes in the mail and stuff them  into the same drawer where they keep all the other the information they may need someday, but in all likelihood will never again see. Like all those years’ worth of back income tax returns and the warranty for the washer and dryer.

But the much, much bigger reason that people hate insurance because it often sucks — no matter how much we pay for it.

The idea behind insurance is that the carrier pools our money with a lot of other peoples’ money. Not everyone’s house is going to burn down this year. Not everyone is going to be in a car accident or get sick. By pooling money from lots of people, the insurance company can pay claims and still make money.

The reason insurance sucks is that  it doesn’t work that way in reality.  When we turn in a claim on our car, we know that our rates are going to rise until we have paid  back every last nickel the insurance company paid to have our car fixed.  That’s not insurance in the classic sense  — it’s a short-term loan from the insurance company!

Who hasn’t had a bad experience with insurance?  Your rates go up when you do nothing wrong and somebody hits you! Your rate will likely go up if you move into  a zip code where the insurance company thinks the drivers are worse than in your old neighborhood. If your credit rating goes down, your insurance rates go up. You may not think your old bills have anything to do with your driving skills, but the insurance carriers don’t agree.

Even worse are the surprises that come with medical bills. Deductibles, co-pays, lifetime caps that are reached in the midst of cancer treatment. Coverage that is denied due to a pre-existing condition.  Who knew that stomachache you had in 2008 was actually the birth of a gallstone? A $5,000 cap on mental health services? What do you do when your kid needs $30,000 worth of drug rehab?

The problems with pre-existing conditions and lifetime caps will be ended by Obamacare.  The dependence on insurance being provided by your employer goes away too, which means that people who are 10 to 15 years away from Medicare won’t have to hang onto their jobs by their fingernails, just for the  insurance.

What’s wrong with Obamacare? Even most Republicans don’t want to repeal all of it. They want to keep the parts that people already know and like. In addition to the end of pre-existing conditions and lifetime caps, the Affordable Care Act also allows parents to continue paying for their children’s coverage until they are 25, and it eliminates the  “donut hole” in seniors’ prescription drug coverage.

So maybe it’s time for Americans — even Republicans — to ask themselves just what it is about Obamacare that they hate. Could it be that you really don’t hate the Affordable Care Act? Could it really be just the insurance industry that you hate? Isn’t it true that just thinking about insurance gives you a headache?

Everyone past 40 has  had at least one bad experience with the current insurance system, but who’s  had a bad experience with the Affordable Care Act? Why not give it a shot?

We may not like the individual mandate, but Americans deal with mandates all the time. Your mortgage company mandates full coverage on your house.  The state mandates a certain amount of auto insurance even for the safest of drivers.

And who doesn’t burn just a bit over the extra money we have to spend to protect ourselves  from un- and under-insured drivers? Why aren’t those people more responsible?

By making affordable health insurance available to everyone, and by requiring everyone to have it, it makes “those people” more responsible for themselves. How is that bad?

America was built on individual responsibility. Historians called it “rugged individualism.” Isn’t it time to give it a try with health insurance?

Washington Drama Queens

Legislation to continue funding the federal government after Monday, continues to ping-pong between the House and the Senate.

In Sunday’s wee hours, the House passed a new version of H.J. Res. 59, the Continuing Appropriations Resolution 2014, with a poison pill potent enough to ensure its rejection by the Senate.

By a vote of 231-192, the House agreed to send to the Senate a measure that would keep the government open for another six weeks, until Dec. 15, but would delay the roll-out of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, for a year and would delay contraceptive coverage for women from employer-paid health insurance policies.

All three of Nebraska’s members of Congress, Lee Terry, Adrian Smith and Jeff Fortenberry, voted for the measure.

Just two days earlier, the Senate stripped out a similar attempt to kill Obamacare and passed a “clean” funding measure on a vote of 54-44, with both Nebraska senators, Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer, voting against the clean bill.

Although the Republicans control the House, Democrats control the Senate. With the votes of just 51 of the 54 Democrats in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid could essentially kill the House’s version of the resolution. That would only add pressure to Speaker John Boehner to come up with a spending measure that does not defund the Affordable Care Act.

Sen. Reid has assured Boehner that a provision to kill or delay Obamacare will never pass the Senate and, even if does, it faces a certain veto from President Obama, and Republicans lack the votes to override that veto.

Altogether, it means a government shutdown at 12:01 Tuesday, the same day Americans now without health insurance can start shopping for coverage. The full roll-out of the Affordable Care Act begins Jan. 1.

The House’s move to delay Obamacare for a year seems to be just a set-up for continuing chaos in Washington. Twelve months from now, the House will still be controlled by the Republicans, the Democrats will still control the Senate, and President Obama will still be president. Because the Republican measure funds the government only until Dec. 15, the likelihood of a government shutdown over the holidays would continue to loom large.

The House also passed a provision Sunday that would keep paychecks flowing to the military personnel in the event of a shutdown, but some 7,000 other government employees would be without paychecks for the duration.

Also looming on the horizon is the additional drama that will come in October from raising the debt ceiling. House Republicans now plan to hold an increase in the debt ceiling hostage to a laundry list of GOP priorities, including a year-long delay of the ACA and approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Raising the debt ceiling has nothing to do with future government spending. It merely gives the government the authorization to pay the bills that Congress has already incurred from previous budgets. By not raising the debt ceiling, Congress ensures that government bills will go unpaid.

Defaulting on financial obligations has much the same creditworthy-crashing effect on our government as it would on any household, only the impact on world markets would be 300 million percent larger.

More chaos. More drama. When does it stop?

Banana Republic Budgets

By tradition, Congress passes 12 bills every year that make up the annual federal budget. Normally, the bills are passed in mid-April, well before the start of the government’s new fiscal year on Oct. 1.

For the past four years, however, Congress has failed to pass a budget and the American government has been financed through a legislative device known as a continuing resolution. Continuing resolutions  authorize the government to continue spending at current, increased or decreased levels for a specific period of time.

The current budget crisis is the result of the expiration of one continuing resolution on Sept. 30, the last year of the government’s fiscal year and the Congress’ failure to pass either a new budget or a new continuing resolution that would fund the government starting Oct. 1.

With no spending authority from Congress, the government must shut down all non-essential operations. Hundreds of thousands of government employees will not report for work and will not be paid during the shutdown. The military, border patrol and Coast Guard will continue operating, but the men and women in those services will likely not be paid until the government reopens.

The United States government went through a government shutdown for 21 days in late 1995 and early 1996. The effects were limited because Congress had already passed some of the 12 budget bills. This year, however, Congress has passed none of the bills, so the effects of shutdown would be widespread.

Budget-by-continuing-resolution has created a series of crises over the past few years more befitting a Banana Republic than a superpower with the world’s largest economy. The same could be said for the chaos involved in raising the nation’s debt ceiling.

Congress, however, has chosen chaos over order because Republicans believe last-minute brinksmanship over the budget or debt ceiling gives them greater negotiating power with the Democratic president and senate.

The country of Egypt is in chaos because factions within Egypt do not like the president that was democratically elected. The situation there is not unlike that in Washington, where factions within the Republican Party do not like the democratically elected American president. Compromise and negotiation are the American way, the democratic way, the way this democracy has worked for more than 200 years.  If you are tired of the drama, tell your congressman and tell your senator.

The must-dos

With 13 people dead and another eight hospitalized after Monday’s shooting at the Washington Navy Yard, expect another round of gun control legislation to pop up on Capitol Hill.

Congress, though, will have to do some heavy lifting this fall just to get through its list of must-dos: Passing a budget, raising the debt ceiling, and tackling the Farm Bill.

Gun control was a hot issue early this year after a shooting at a Connecticut elementary school killed 26 people. That legislation went nowhere, however, and the question now is whether any of the other serious issues now before the House will go anywhere, either.

House Speaker John Boehner is having no luck building consensus among the various factions of conservative Republicans. Last week, bipartisan legislation to create the position of an unpaid, honorary national science laureate had to be pulled from consideration because of conservative opposition.

A science laureate, an expert who would travel the country and speak to Americans about the importance of science,  seemed like an innocuous proposal that would sail through the House. According to the Huffington Post, though, the bill was pulled after objections by the American Conservative Union, which saw the position as a potentially propagandist vehicle for the White House.

The House gallery should be one of the hottest tickets in town when debate starts on its long list of must-dos. So, far though, none has made it onto the House calendar.

Washington in Lockdown

The legislative day came to an early and abrupt end Monday morning after a gunman at the Washington Navy Yard opened fire and killed at least 12 people. It was not immediately known how many more were injured. The gunman is also dead, although it was unclear whether he shot himself or was killed by police.

The Senate was under lock-down for for less than 90 minutes. Confirmation votes on two judicial nominees were rescheduled. The House is on a three-day weekend and not scheduled to meet again until Tuesday.

Monday’s violence was the deadliest mass shooting in the United States since 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Crunch time in Washington

With only a few working days left until the start of a new fiscal year Oct.1, the U.S. House of Representatives may be burning the midnight oil this week to avert a government shutdown.

Tea Partiers, having taken the de-funding of Obamacare hostage as a condition for the passage of a new budget, leave no clear path toward a resolution of the budget. The House has only this week to resolve issue because it will be in recess again the following week.

If a new budget isn’t passed by Sept. 30, all but the most essential government offices will go dark on Oct. 1.

Also facing Congress is the need to raise the debt ceiling in the next few weeks. Raising the debt ceiling would allow the government to continue paying its bills, but there is strong public sentiment against it.

The debt ceiling involves only money previously spent — it has no link to future spending — but fiscal hawks and a confused public seem to think that not raising the debt ceiling would allow lawmakers to rein in future spending.

In 2011, with Congress at a similar impasse over raising the U.S. debt ceiling, the American credit rating was downgraded for the first time in history.

A low credit score makes household borrowing more difficult and expensive. Similarly, not raising the American debt ceiling could make borrowing more difficult and more expensive because it would make investments seem riskier and more prone to default.