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“The Polar Express”: It’s A Wonder Anything Ever Gets Done In Congress

This is the season of Extreme Politics. Everything’s exciting. Mitt Romney paid taxes! Joe Biden just bought a 36-pound pumpkin! Paul Ryan is campaigning with his mom again!

Oh, and Congress is ready to go home to run for re-election. I know you were wondering.

“I haven’t had anybody in West Virginia tell me we should hurry home to campaign,” protested Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat.

This might be because Manchin is approximately 40 points ahead in the polls. He could probably spend the next month in a fallout shelter without anybody noticing. Nevertheless, he is so fearful of alienating conservatives that he refuses to say who has his support for president. There are only about five undecided voters left in this country and one of them is a senator from West Virginia.

The good news is that our lawmakers spent their last pre-election days in Washington working to pass a bill that would keep the government running for the next six months. This is sometimes referred to as a “continuing resolution,” and sometimes as “kicking the can down the road.” Personally, I am pretty relieved to see evidence that this group has the capacity to kick a can.

Let’s look at what else they were up to. This is important, partly because the last things you take up before going back to the voters shows something about your true priorities. Also partly because it will give me a chance to mention legislation involving 41 polar bear carcasses in Canadian freezers.

The Senate had a big agenda for its finale. Kicking the budget can down the road! Passing a resolution on Iran designed to demonstrate total support for whatever it is Israel thinks is a good idea! The Sportsmen’s Act!

O.K., the last one was sort of unexpected. It’s a bunch of hunting-and-fishing proposals, ranging from conservation to “allowing states to issue electronic duck stamps.” Also, allowing “polar bear trophies to be imported from a sport hunt in Canada.” A long while ago, some Americans legally hunted down said bears, happily envisioning the day when they could display a snarling head on the study wall, or perhaps stuff the entire carcass and stick it in the front hallway where it could perpetually rear on its hind legs, frightening away census-takers.

But then the United States prohibited the importation of dead polar bears, and there have been 41 bear carcasses stuck in Canadian freezers ever since.

Free the frozen polar bears! Well, not before November, since the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, dug in his heels, claiming the whole hunting bill was only coming up to help its main sponsor, Jon Tester of Montana, in a tight race. McConnell, who publicly set his own top policy priority as making sure Barack Obama didn’t get re-elected, hates naked partisanship.

The House, meanwhile, declined to take up two major bipartisan bills from the Senate. One was the farm bill, which Speaker John Boehner admitted he just couldn’t get his right wing to vote for despite pleas from endangered rural Republicans.

The other was aimed at reviving the teetering U.S. Postal Service, which is about to default again. “I hear from our Republican colleagues they didn’t want to force their folks to make difficult votes,” said Tom Carper, a lead Senate sponsor.

Really, there’s no excuse on this one. By the time a difficult issue has been turned into a bipartisan Senate bill, it’s no longer all that difficult. People, if you see a member of the House majority campaigning in your neighborhood, demand to know why the Postal Service didn’t get fixed.

Although on the plus side, the House did agree that the space astronauts should be allowed to keep some flight souvenirs.

One thing virtually nobody in the Senate considered a pre-election priority was spending hours and hours arguing about a proposal from Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky to eliminate foreign aid to Libya, Pakistan and Egypt. However, in the grand tradition of the upper chamber, Paul had the power to hold up the crucial kicking-the-can bill hostage by threatening a filibuster if he didn’t get his way.

“He can keep us here for a week and a half if we don’t let him bring it up,” grumbled Senator Charles Schumer.

Rand Paul does this sort of thing all the time. Who among us can forget when he stalled the renewal of federal flood insurance under the theory that the Senate first needed to vote on whether life started at conception?

The majority leader, Harry Reid, pointed out repeatedly that he has had to struggle with 382 filibusters during his six years at the helm. “That’s 381 more filibusters than Lyndon Johnson faced,” he complained. Obviously, Robert Caro is never going to write a series of grand biographies about the life of Harry Reid.

It’s a wonder anything ever gets done. Although, actually, it generally doesn’t.

By: Gail Collins, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, September 21, 2012

September 22, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Benjamin Franklin Would Gag Today”: If Congress Can’t Fix The Postal Service, It Can’t Fix Anything

Most Americans know that the U.S. Postal Service is a mess. What they also ought to know is that Congress is largely responsible for this once-competent institution’s bad rap.

This is the same Congress that is going to have to bring Medicare back from the brink of insolvency, find a way to fund Social Security as it becomes top-heavy with retired baby boomers, and pay down trillions in federal debt without short-circuiting the whole economy. Compared with all that, fixing the Postal Service is easy. Yet Congress dithers, cultivates decline and allows festering problems to become worse.

The Postal Service has been making headlines again because it just defaulted on a $5.5 billion payment due to the U.S. Treasury to fund healthcare costs for future retirees. Another such default is likely at the end of September. The details are technical and boring, and for now, the mail will still show up in the mailbox. So the members of Congress perpetrating the default—mostly House Republicans—act like it’s no big deal.

But it is a big deal because the recalcitrance of political leaders shows an alarming willingness to dismantle the basic machinery of the economy. The Postal Service isn’t some dispensable outpost doing research on cow pies or freshmen mating habits. It’s an elemental part of the government that has been around since before the Constitution. Benjamin Franklin, the seminal American, was the first Postmaster General. He’d gag at today’s handling of the Postal Service.

Here’s the basic background: In 1971, Congress reorganized the USPS as an independent agency that’s supposed to pay for its operations through stamp sales and other forms of revenue, like a normal company. But the catch is that Congress still holds sway over strategic decisions, and most Postal Service employees are treated as members of the federal workforce. So at best, the Postal Service is a hybrid organization that’s as vulnerable as ever to political meddling.

That’s what is holding up reform plans now. The Postal Service itself has detailed a plan to eliminate Saturday delivery, consolidate processing centers, close underperforming post offices and make other cuts to adapt to a technology-driven economy that is obviously less dependent on physical mail delivery than in the past. Hundreds of regular companies have changed their business models and made similar adjustments to survive. Those that didn’t—Eastman Kodak, Borders, Lehman Brothers—paid a brutal price.

The Senate has even passed a bill that would fix some of the Postal Service’s problems and buy time to sort out others. That brings us to the House, where sensible legislation goes to die. There is a House bill meant to fix the Postal Service, but House leaders won’t bring it up for a vote. Nor will they vote on the Senate bill. House leaders like Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor won’t say why, exactly.

Most likely, there’s not enough support in the House to pass any bill, so holding a vote would be an embarrassing setback for the GOP leadership. Opposition to reform seems to come from some usual suspects, such as rural lawmakers who don’t want postal facilities in their districts closed. Others (including Republicans) object to provisions that would allow the Postal Service more freedom to lay off unionized postal workers. Then there are Tea Party types who would prefer to privatize the agency, or who seemingly want to starve it of cash, so that … well, it’s not clear what purpose that would serve. What makes this standoff infuriating is that there are plenty of proposed solutions, including studies by at least three well-known consulting firms that execute corporate turnarounds for a living. There’s no need for further analysis, there’s only a need to make a decision and do something.

But the problem can be put off for a little longer, even if that makes the ultimate solution more expensive and encourages big mailers like Amazon and other retailers to look for other delivery choices. So Congress does less than the bare minimum and the Postal Service drifts toward ruination. Maybe the House will get to it in the fall, after their customary six-week August vacation. Maybe next spring. Maybe never, in order to show those impudent postal employees and their arrogant customers who’s really in charge around here.

Meanwhile, at the end of this year, Congress needs to come up with a deft way to forestall billions in tax hikes and spending cuts that will induce another recession if allowed to fully go into effect. By early next year, it will have to come up with a way to extend the government’s borrowing limit while also weaning Washington off its desperate borrowing habit. Then come some huge decisions about how to reform Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and the long-term defense budget. If the handling of the Postal Service is any indication, we all ought to be terrified.

 

By: Rick Newman, U. S. News and World Report, August 1, 2012

August 6, 2012 Posted by | Congress | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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