How Much Is This Keychain?

Well, that was a big timesuck.

Congress’s supercommittee has failed to figure out how to reduce the national deficit. Not only did they fail to reach their actual goal, which I think was $1.2 trillion when all the dust settled… they didn’t even come up with a consolation prize. I don’t actually think that was allowed in the rules, because it basically would have guaranteed a consolation prize and we all would have been left holding a Capitol keychain and nothing else.

Now we don’t even get the keychain.

Wait, I forgot – a few days ago, President Obama issued an executive order that put an end to swag for federal agencies because it’s silly to spend so much money on pens and mugs to give out at event tents. So we wouldn’t have gotten the keychains either way. Stop asking for a keychain. Jeez.

This committee of 12 was charged with doing what the entire Congress couldn’t, apparently because the rest of the Congress figured these folks would probably be nicer to each other or at least more traceable and accountable. If the supercommittee failed to meet its deadline with its goal, painful across-the-board cuts would kick in in 2013, giving Congress only 13 months to accomplish something most of them will want to do: change the triggered cuts. But President Obama has already said several times that, at least until January of that year, he will veto any bill that rescinds Congress’s obligation to adhere to its own trigger rules.

Back in July, I posted a very angry but still entirely rational rant against Congress. I’m told several members read it. Or none of them did. I don’t remember. But now, at the risk of not being angry enough (and aside from just being really tired of this whole national nightmare), I’m willing to allow for the possibility that there is a real, abiding, deep philosophical divide about what would be best for the country. There are those who really truly believe that having the very wealthy pay more in taxes would be bad for the country. There are those who really truly believe that cutting spending without finding new revenue would be bad for the country. And neither one of them wants to take the chance on compromising and being wrong in a time so dire.

Can’t blame them, really. I wouldn’t want to take that gamble, either.

So basically… we’re screwed.

But hold on. What of these across-the-board cuts they were supposed to be so scared of to begin with? Let’s take, for example, the cuts to the Defense Department’s budget. I learned in the last two days that the triggered cuts come from projected spending over the course of the next ten years. That means nothing gets cut from the DoD’s current $520 billion budget. No. Rather, if Congress finds a way around that triggered cut for the Pentagon, the spending increases by 23% over the next ten years.

If the cuts do go through, the Pentagon’s spending increases by 16% instead.

Oh.

So… we’re still spending a lot more in the future. Just not as much more.

That information came from freshman Republican Rep. Rand Paul of Kentucky, the one who wrote a budget plan earlier this year that got a lot of talk. Tea Party darling Rand Paul, who basically said, “Hey. The Pentagon is not going to suffer, here.”

Interesting.

Know what else is interesting? A letter written by Republican Senator Tom Colburn of Oklahoma to Senator Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, who head up a national commission on fiscal responsibility and reform. The letter was dated May 18, 2010, and cited several points taken from the Pentagon Inspector General’s recent report about how the Pentagon spends its money. Among the facts:

  • The Pentagon’s “internal controls,” meant to track spending, are not operational
  • The Pentagon regularly employs the use of “unsupported” numbers to balance its books
  • The Pentagon does not know how much money the Treasury has in the DoD accounts
  • The Pentagon does not know when it overspends an appropriation

Holy– what?! It doesn’t know when it overspends an appropriation? This “budget” we speak of is basically what Congress says the DoD can spend, and the DoD just says, “Thank you!” and wanders off spending whatever the hell it wants anyway?

Seriously. You can read Coburn’s letter citing these Pentagon Inspector General’s findings here. The above facts are on page five.

The Pentagon knows how much it costs to build an F-22 or a tank or a naval carrier, and it knows what it pays soldiers and officers, so that stuff is covered. But it doesn’t know to whom it owes money or how much it owes. And clearly it doesn’t much care. And also it apparently may or may not be stealing money from the federal government because who really needs Congressional appropriations anyway? So this “budget cut” for the Defense Department might be as completely meaningless – and inconsequential to the Defense Department – as its alleged budget that it apparently doesn’t even pay attention to.

Can I be the Defense Department? Christmas is coming and the union is about to take a big quarterly chunk out of my paycheck for health insurance.

Now, by no means am I saying that this failure to cut the federal deficit and spending is no big deal. It is a big deal. It just doesn’t seem to affect the Defense Department, even though they’ll shout from the rooftops that it hurts like hell. And it actually might be a good thing for President Obama. Stay with me.

There are plenty of pundits who believe that the president, and the Democrats, will get a big boost from this failure of the supercommittee. Since the president still has the ultimate bully pulpit, he can tell the country that the Republicans just care so much more about their own bank accounts than they do about the country that they hung everybody else out to dry so that the 1% (or actually, as President Obama noted in a post-failure address on TV last night, 2%) could keep their vacation houses in the Hamptons. And he can do it while he’s campaigning for reelection. There are 12 months between now and the presidential election, which coincides with the congressional election. And the president doesn’t have much to campaign on domestically. The administration has actually accomplished a lot that they don’t brag about much, but most of it was in the previous Congress, which was controlled by Democrats. Now, the economy is stalled, unemployment is holding very steady at around 9% nationally, and the president has a campaign problem. So being able to blame the failure to cut the deficit and spending on Republicans might be a favor. I’m not saying for sure that it was planned. I’m just saying it might be good news, in the end, for the president.

I know. Sucks, doesn’t it?

So here we are, with a belly full of frustrated cynicism, a stack of bills on the table and not even a keychain to show for our troubles. We could say it’s up to us to throw the bums out come November, but most of us figure that just lets new bums in. We don’t know how to fix the problem either, so it’s not like “regular folks” could do the job better. Not really. But maybe if we remember that it doesn’t cost nearly as much to defend our country as we think it does, we’ll be willing to pay the price when the chips are down, and we’ll elect real leaders who will pay it, too.


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6 thoughts on “How Much Is This Keychain?

  1. This is thought provoking, and spot-on. There’s plenty of blame to go around on this issue and I am just disgusted with our electred representatives. When will someone have the cojones to vote the reality that the government has got to stop spending our money like drunken sailors???

    • I think – and I could be wrong – that we are in a quandary that truly no one can fix, and that, at this point, the bind is due to spending in days past rather than projections in days to come. We can’t undo what’s been done and it’s threatening what’s ahead now. The truth, I believe, is that we really do have to cut Medicare and Social Security in real, substantial ways, and nobody wants to be the bearer of that bad news, partly because it’s deadly and partly because they know it will leave people stranded. I have no idea whether I’m right, but it’s my sense.

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