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.

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?

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.