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The Rational Center | Commentary by John Zaring
| Tuesday, Feb 26, 2013

johnzaring2012With a near party-line vote Tuesday of 58-41, former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel was finally confirmed by the U.S. Senate to succeed Leon Panetta as the United States’ next defense secretary.

In the end, only four of Hagel’s 47 fellow Republican colleagues voted for his confirmation, so essentially it took a plurality of Senate Democrats to install a two-term Republican senator into President Obama’s cabinet.

On Wednesday morning, when Hagel walks into the Pentagon, he’ll do so with shrapnel still lodged in his chest from his service as an Army infantryman in Vietnam. It will probably hurt less than the confirmation process he just survived.

Hagel’s hearings provide a perfect illustration of what’s wrong with politics today. This “party before country” mantra not only delayed Hagel’s nomination; it has also paralyzed Congress, divided Americans, and delayed America’s recovery from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

And it’s just a warm-up to this Friday’s sequestration ax.

In anticipation, President Obama has been criss-crossing t he United States for several weeks to explain why the blunt cuts of sequestration are bad for everyone. Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday that senators should “get off their asses” and pass something, which prompted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to say, “It isn’t our chamber that needs to get off of its posterior.”

The heart of the divide is the president’s desire to eliminate loopholes in the tax code – things like deductions for private jets and yachts for billionaires, and unnecessary tax breaks for companies like Exxon and Chevron that are earning record profits – in order to add some revenue to the cuts, something Republicans refuse to grant.

For weeks, Obama has been personalizing the pain in an attempt to convince Americans to pick up the phone and call their congressional representatives to say, “Hey idiot, do something.” Many others in his administration have taken to the airwaves, as well, warning of the potential consequences of the meat-cleaver approach of sequestration – from Attorney General Eric Holder warning that Americans will be less safe, to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood (a Republican, by the way), warning that lines will be longer at the airports and waits will be longer on the runway because there will be fewer TSA agents and air traffic controllers on the job, perhaps even resulting in less safe skies. Even the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff went before Congress to warn that sequestration will negatively affect military readiness.

Still, while everyone in Washington expects the sequester to happen, immediate pain won’t come Friday or Saturday or even next Monday. Social Security won’t be touched. The Veteran’s Administration and military pay won’t be touched. Medicare and Medicaid won’t be touched. These politically explosive issues are protected because that’s not discretionary spending, so essentially the president is just trying to remind everyone that Congress is a dysfunctional group that will end up hurting middle-class Americans because they can’t handle their business.

The president is gaming this out politically in anticipation of the next looming crisis, a battle over funding the federal government, which will happen in just weeks. The president and leaders of both parties know they have a week or two to work it out before any real pain begins, and Republicans are gambling they can withstand a loss of the PR war in order to exact deep cuts to social programs they so despise.

The current political calculus is that everyone is going to suffer a little pain and bleeding before a compromise can be worked out. So, prepare to bleed.

There are some federal programs that will start losing funds on Friday – the beginning of an $85 billion reduction over a seven-month period. The first to feel it will be the 2 million Americans who are currently receiving long-term unemployment benefits, as their benefits will be cut by up to 9.4 percent, and each recipient could lose more than $400 in benefits. When they start seeing less in their checks will depend upon how long it takes their states to reprogram their computers, but given that the cuts will be retroactive to March 1, the pain is coming.

Unless Congress crafts a deal, over the next few months, damaging cuts to the social safety net will also take effect. Up to 70,000 people will be prevented from entering Head Start; there will be 4 million fewer home-delivered meals for senior citizens; and up to 300,000 women and children will lose federally funded food aid. Forced spending cuts will also cost jobs, with 2.1 million federal workers furloughed and 46,000 temporary or contract workers losing their federal jobs.

Meanwhile, Sec. Hagel will need to take command immediately and guide the Pentagon through $46 billion in cuts. A total of 800,000 workers are anticipated to be furloughed, and states reliant on the defense industry will experience even greater impact. Here in California, 64,000 civilian defense employees are facing furloughs, second only to Virginia, where 90,000 jobs will be lost.

On Monday, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke warned Congress that sequestration will reduce the still-sluggish U.S. economy by up to 0.6 percent and as a result, the slowing recovery will lead to less deficit reduction.

Even if we assume some of this is just “the sky is falling” exaggeration, I think almost everyone can agree that absolutely none of this actually needs to happen.

For Americans in the Rational Center, that’s the most frustrating part. We’re sick and tired of watching Congress lurch from crisis to crisis to crisis, none of which are real, and as a result, we are all left feeling disgusted by Washington. Of course, our votes sent these morons there, so I guess we can’t complain too much, right?

A recent Pew Research Poll showed 45 percent of Americans blame Republicans in Congress for this mess, while 32 percent blame the president and 13 blame both equally. Knowing that the American people are largely on his side, President Obama spoke Tuesday to workers at a naval shipyard in Newport News, Va., and chastised Congress for taking what he called “the dumb approach.”

But seeing blood in the water, this time he went even further and singled out Republicans in Congress for their constant obstructionism, their unwillingness to compromise even one little bit, for putting party before country. Said Obama: “I’ve run my last election. I’m not interested in spin. I’m not interested in playing a blame game. At this point, all I’m interested in is solving problems.”

Too bad there aren’t more adults in Washington he can work with.

John Zaring describes himself as a reformed Republican turned moderate Democrat who believes democracy works best when its government actually functions because its leaders are working together. He serves on the Castaic Area Town Council’s Land Use Committee, Castaic Middle School’s Site Council, the Hart District’s WiSH Education Foundation, and he is the West Ranch High School representative on the Hart District’s Advisory Council. A self-proclaimed “New Democrat” a la Bill Clinton, he lives in Castaic with his wife of 21 years and their daughters, Fiona, 16, and Kylie, 12. His commentary publishes Tuesdays.

 

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