Monday, September 30, 2013

Musical Monday - Fuck You by Lily Allen

This song is dedicated to the members of the 113th Congress. More specifically, it is dedicated to the members the 113th Congress who are also members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and even more specifically to the members of the House who are "Tea Party" Republicans, who are getting set to be proximately responsible for shutting down large portions of the Federal government, including the part for which I happen to work.

Under our Constitutional system, the U.S. government is prohibited from spending money unless authorized by a law passed by Congress and signed by the President (as process one of my sadly departed colleagues frequently described as "Bicameralism and Presentment"). Agencies may only spend money after funds have been appropriated by law. Spending money without an appropriation would violate a law known as the Anti-Deficiency Act (31 U.S.C. § 1341) which says:

(a)(1) An officer or employee of the United States Government or of the District of Columbia government may not—
    (A) make or authorize an expenditure or obligation exceeding an amount available in an appropriation or fund for the expenditure or obligation;
    (B) involve either government in a contract or obligation for the payment of money before an appropriation is made unless authorized by law;

Note that it is not only the Federal government affected here - the District of Columbia government will also be shut down in the event there is a lapse in appropriations. Another fact that is important here is that the Federal fiscal year begins on October 1st, and runs until midnight on September 30th. This means that as I am writing this, it is the last day of fiscal year 2013 for the Federal government.

To fund the government, Congress must pass spending bills on an annual basis, setting the government's spending priorities for the next year. This is the most important function of Congress. In some years it is the only thing of any importance that Congress does. It is, in effect, their one real responsibility. Traditionally, Congress would pass thirteen bills, funding the government in large chunks, and every year thirteen bills are proposed. In recent years, Congress has not normally actually passed thirteen bills. Instead, Congress has dithered and bickered, and usually passed some sort of omnibus bill a couple of months late. Last year, Congress couldn't even do that, and instead passed a bill that told agencies to just do whatever they had done the year before.

But if the appropriations bills are late every year, you may wonder why the government doesn't shut down every year. The reason is that Congress usually passes short term stop gap legislation that tells the government to keep spending money to stay open for a couple of days, a couple of weeks, or a couple of months. These laws are called Continuing Resolutions, are are more or less intended to just keep the government operating until the real appropriations laws can be passed. The difference between previous years and right now is that Congress has been unable to even agree on a Continuing Resolution, and as a result, Federal agencies will have to shut down because they cannot spend money without a funding bill.

The disagreement is over funding the Affordable Care Act, colloquially called "Obamacare", which is due to go into effect tomorrow on October 1st. (As a side note, anyone who, prior to this point, has talked about the problems caused by the ACA is lying. The ACA isn't in effect until tomorrow, so it can't have caused any problems yet). The Republicans in the House, having voted several dozen times to repeal the law, and having failed to get such repeals past the Senate and even to the White House (which would veto them anyway), have decided to throw a hissy fit and try to "defund" the ACA by including language in the Continuing Resolution that would do just that. One problem with this idea is that it is kind of silly - the ACA will remain law even if it is "defunded", and all of the requirements it imposes upon citizens will still be in place. The only thing that defunding the ACA will do is prevent the government from meeting its obligations under the law. As an example, a "defunded" ACA would be unable to provide subsidies to low income individual to purchase coverage under the Health Care Exchanges that are already funded and which will go into action when the ACA takes effect (i.e. tomorrow). Those low income individuals, however, will still be required to purchase coverage. In short, "defunding" the ACA will mostly just make life harder for ordinary Americans by keeping all of the burdens of the ACA, without any of the offsetting benefits that would make the law beneficial.

Another problem with the idea is that it is dubious whether the President could even agree with the proposition that the ACA could be "defunded". The ACA is law. The President is required by the Constitution to faithfully execute the duly enacted laws of the United States. Even if the ACA were to be "defunded", it would still be law, and the executive branch would still be obligated to enforce it. The executive branch would just be prevented from using funds to operate it. But you, good citizen, would still be expected to abide by the law, because it wouldn't be repealed, just defunded. Not only that, much of the ACA simply cannot be defunded this way - the legislation funding its implementation already passed, and nothing that is put into this Continuing Resolution will change that. The whole process is just grandstanding on the part of a select group of House Republicans who can't seem to grasp the fact that their ideas have lost decisively before the electorate. After all, if the American public wanted to repeal the ACA, they could have elected Mitt Romney, who promised to do exactly that. But they didn't. They voted for Obama and returned a Democratic Senate to power. And a majority of voters were in favor of a Democratic House - the Republican party only controls the House due to the way Congressional districts are determined. When polled on the provisions of the ACA, the American populace is overwhelmingly in favor of it. The Republican members of the House are, in effect, running uphill to try to do something that is incredibly unpopular.

But the real point here is that a Continuing Resolution is a terrible place to try and wedge this sort of provision. Neither the Senate or the White House are going to accept a Continuing Resolution with this sort of provision in it, and the House Republicans know it. Their proposals have no chance of being enacted. Instead, the government will shut down and the national economy will be sabotaged. Ironically, one of the talking points that the Republican Party has pushed for repealing the ACA is that it will cause economic disaster if it ever comes into effect. I don't happen to agree with them - there is simply too much countervailing evidence that the ACA will be neutral or somewhat beneficial for the economy - but that has been their public stance up until now. On the other hand, one thing we do know will cause economic malaise is a government shut down. How do we know this? Because every time that the government has shut down, an economic downturn has followed. The certainty of an economic downturn is so apparent that even the threat of a shut down, such as the one that took place in 2011, is enough to cause an economic contraction. In short, to prevent what they say are economic troubles that they claim may result from the implementation of the ACA, the House Republicans are willing to cause an event that they know will cause economic troubles. And they will do so pointlessly, knowing they have no chance at getting what they want.

The upshot of all this is that unless Congress can agree on a Continuing Resolution by midnight tonight, the Federal government will partially shut down. The only portions that will continue to operate are those that preserve human safety, such as air traffic controllers, and those that are funded by trust fund and other non-annual funds, such as Social Security. But those air traffic controllers who are expected to show up to work? They won't be paid until the shut down is over. And Social Security won't be doing much other than cutting benefit checks. Most government websites will more or less go dark during a shut down, so if you wanted to go to the Social Security Administration's website to find out how to apply for benefits, you'll be out of luck. And even if you do get an application in, the people who would process your claim won't be working, since they, like all other "nonessential" government personnel, will be sent home without pay until the shut down is over. Between seven hundred thousand and one million Federal employees will be furloughed and sent home without pay for the duration of the shut down. Another couple hundred thousand "essential" employees will be expected to come to work without pay. Government contractors will not get paid. Most non-emergency services will be stopped. The national parks will close. Some services will remain open for a few days or a few weeks, but their money will run out - school lunch programs, food stamps, the State department are all in this category. And all because Congress is incompetent at their one critical role.

And lest you think that this will help the budget get balanced - it won't. Shutting down the government and then restarting it later costs a lot of money. Contracts that have lapsed have to be reinstated. Planning that was done for the upcoming fiscal year has to be redone. Termination or cancellation fees for government contracts that the government didn't honor during the lapse will have to be paid. The last time the government was shut down in 1996, the government incurred hundreds of millions of additional costs as a result - the Congressional Budget Office estimated the total cost to be about one point four billion dollars. In effect, not only is this conflict going to cause problems for the U.S. economy, it is going to cause the government to spend more money than it would have otherwise to do it. And this doesn't even get to the human cost that will be imposed if the shut down lasts for any appreciable length of time. In the past, furloughed government employees have been paid retroactively once the shut down was over, but there is no guarantee that this will happen again. And even if employees are paid retroactively, they won't be paid during the shut down. If the shut down lasts until Friday the 11th of October, hundreds of thousands of Federal employees will not be paid. These are people with children, mortgages, and other financial obligations that they will be unable to pay, but who stand ready and willing to work and are being prevented from doing so by a government that refuses to honor its financial obligations because an intransigent minority in the House of Representatives - the so-called Tea Party Republican Caucus - that won't gets its way no matter how this ends, is throwing a temper tantrum.

So, to this Congress, and especially to the "Tea Party" Republicans, I say fuck you.

Previous Musical Monday: Get the Party Started by Shirley Bassey
Subsequent Musical Monday: The Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin

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  1. You requested my book, QUANTUM ROOTS. It's in the mail.
    I have one question, "Is Lily Allen busy tonight?" Kyle Keyes

    1. @Anonymous: That would make you Kyle Keyes. As for Lily, she's married and has two kids, so I'm going to guess that she's pretty busy every night.