Indefinite detention

Our constitutional scholar-president, who promised to shut down Guantanamo within a year of taking office, is about to sign an Executive Order that gives him the right to hold detainees there indefinitely, and that the administration alone will do any reviews of the prisoners’ status.

[T]he order establishes indefinite detention as a long-term Obama administration policy and makes clear that the White House alone will manage a review process for those it chooses to hold without charge or trial.

Obama no longer even pretends that he values the law or the constitution and seems to think he has imperial powers.

The dysfunctional Congress-2: Practice

In yesterday’s post, I described the way the budget process should run in the Congress, with the twelve appropriations committees in each chamber passing a spending bill, reconciling it with the bill passed by the other chamber if there are differences, and then passing a single reconciled bill that is sent to the president for his signature. All twelve such bills are supposed to be passed before the August recess, to be signed into law by the president to take effect with the new fiscal year starting October 1.

Congress and the White House also have the option of using Supplemental Appropriations. This is meant to provide a way to deal with unexpected major expenditures that could not have been anticipated in the budget process, such as catastrophes like hurricanes and earthquakes. (In the past few years, however, this option has been heavily exploited to fund expenditures that are not emergences, like the never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other countries. For example, in 2008 about $200 billion, about 17% of the total discretionary budget, was allocated to the so-called ‘Global War on Terror’ using supplemental appropriations. By not using the regular budget for these expenditures, the government can disguise the true cost of those wars. See this site for what the real costs of the wars are and how they are hidden from us.)

It all sounds very orderly, as one would expect from a government that has had over 200 years to develop a smooth working structure.

But what actually happens? “In 26 of the past 31 years (FY1977-FY2007), Congress and the President did not complete action on a majority of the regular bills by the start of the fiscal year (see Table 2). In eight years, they did not finish any of the bills by the deadline. They completed action on all the bills on schedule only four times: FY1977, FY1989, FY1995, and FY1997.” (My italics)

In the current year as of today, already three months into the fiscal year, the Senate has not voted on a single one of the twelve appropriations and the House has voted on only two of them (Military/Veterans and Transportation/HUD). In an effort to obtain a budget, Congress tried as a last resort to pass all twelve separate appropriations bills by rolling them all into one gigantic $1.2 trillion ‘omnibus’ bill. But that attempt failed on December 16th because the Senate Republicans blocked it.

(Note: The total government expenditure (using the 2008 budget figures) is around $3.0 trillion. Of this, about $1.8 trillion consists of mandatory spending that Congress cannot tinker with (such as Social Security payments, Medicare, Medicaid, interest on the national debt, etc.), leaving the Congress with just $1.2 trillion of so-called discretionary spending to cover all the rest of government. It is the allocation of this money that Congress has control over. The recent tax deal that was signed into law reduced revenue and increased expenses to the tune of $858 billion, about three-quarters of the discretionary budget, and yet it sailed through Congress because it benefited the oligarchy.)

So given that not a single appropriations bill has been passed and the omnibus bill failed too, the country is operating without a budget.

So how is the government functioning? By using the option of ‘continuing resolutions’, which allows the Congress to pass stopgap appropriations that are based on the previous year’s expenditures, plus a few ad hoc changes to meet any contingencies that were not present the previous year. This means that almost all government agencies will be able to continue doing what they did the previous year.

In 2010, the first continuing resolution was passed on September 29, just before the beginning of the new fiscal year, that continued funding until December 3. Then just as that expired, a new continuing resolution was passed on December 4 extending the spending until Saturday, December 18. On Friday night, they passed another continuing resolution that lasted through December 21. Another continuing resolution was passed yesterday that extends this form of temporary funding until March 4, 2011.

So we now have a situation where the Congress will have to start the process of planning the budget for fiscal year 2012 before it has even passed a budget for fiscal year 2011. Is this any way to run the world’s biggest economy, living hand-to-mouth by passing temporary spending authorizations that can last as little as just a few days?

It costs an enormous amount of money (over four billion dollars) to pay for both chambers of Congress. You would think that they would be obliged to complete the most basic task required of them, which is to pass a budget. It is an absolute disgrace that they have not passed a single one of the twelve appropriation bills so far, and that there seems to be no sign of them doing so in the near future. If members of Congress were treated like any other employees, they would have been fired for gross incompetence, instead of being allowed to bloviate over non-essential matters and preen before the TV cameras.

The dysfunctional Congress-1: Theory

Much of the criticisms aimed at Congress have involved the high-profile legislative stalemates on some issues involving filibusters and the like, that have stymied progress on those issues that did not involve the interests of the oligarchy. What all that hoop-la has obscured is a far more serious criticism, the fact that the government has stopped carrying out the most basic of its functions.

The most essential function of government is to make sure that its institutions function smoothly. At the very least, this requires that the government pass a budget that allocates money to those institutions so that they know what they can and cannot do. It is shocking to realize to what extent the Congress has abdicated that fundamental responsibility.

A quick investigation reveals that the appropriation process by which the government allocates money has a straightforward and logical sequence.

  1. The President gives his State of the Union address at the end of January in which he lays out his general goals for the coming year.

  2. He is required to submit to Congress by the first Monday in February a budget for the fiscal year beginning on October 1.
  3. By April 15 the two chambers of Congress are supposed to pass a non-binding budget resolution that provides guidelines for taxes and appropriations for the next five years and this serves to provide a framework for both bodies to debate and allocate funds for the various agencies under their purview.
  4. In Congress, the budget expenditures are divided into twelve major appropriations categories:
    • Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies;

    • Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies;
    • Defense;
    • Energy and Water Development, and Related Agencies;
    • Financial Services and General Government;
    • Department of Homeland Security;
    • Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies;
    • Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and
      Related Agencies;

    • Legislative Branch;
    • Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies;
    • State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs; and
    • Departments of Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies.

    The twelve appropriations committees in each body farm out the work to its own specialized sub-committees to work on the budget for their agencies and report back to the committees, which then has to vote to submit their appropriation package to the full House or Senate, which has the option of proposing amendments to the committees’ recommendations.

    (Technically, there is just one Appropriations Committee in the House and the above twelve are subcommittees of that body which have their own sub-sub-committees, but that gets confusing. There is also some difficulty in figuring out how money is allocated because the president’s budget proposal is specified according to agencies and not split up according to these twelve categories. They do not seem to provide a summary spreadsheet of allocations, with the closest that I could find being here.)

  5. If the two chambers pass appropriation legislation that disagree (as often happens), a conference committee is set up to smooth out the differences and the jointly agreed-upon conference report is then sent to both chambers for voting. They two chambers cannot amend the conference report in any way but can only vote to accept or reject it. If it is rejected, it goes back to the conference committee for further work.
  6. The 12 appropriation resolutions are supposed to be presented to both full chambers and approved by the August recess, so that a final budget bill can be sent to the president.
  7. “After Congress sends the bill to the President, he has 10 days to sign or veto the measure. If he takes no action, the bill automatically becomes law at the end of the 10-day period… If the President vetoes the bill, he sends it back to Congress. Congress may override the veto by a two-thirds vote in both houses. If Congress successfully overrides the veto, the bill becomes law. If Congress is unsuccessful, the bill dies.”

This whole structure is set up so that all government agencies know well in advance how much money they have been allocated for the coming year and how it should be spent so that they can transition smoothly when the new fiscal year begins on October 1. It allows them to plan what new initiatives to undertake and what old programs to end.

In theory, this should result in a smoothly running government.

Tomorrow: How the reality compares with the theory.

Dream ticket

This blog has been Sarah Palin-free for some time because I have little patience for the kind of obsession the media seem to have with breathlessly reporting her every utterance and tweet, however inconsequential. But for my own amusement I have been idly speculating as to whom she might choose as her running mate in the unlikely event that she becomes the Republican presidential candidate in 2012. Who could possibly match her in the looniness factor? Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachman is a possibility since she is surely nutty enough.

But we now have a clear winner! John Bolton is considering running for the nomination as well. Yes, John Bolton is so crazy that he thinks the country is looking for someone like him to lead it, which makes him a perfect match for Palin.

Palin-Bolton in 2012. Who could ask for anything more?

Time magazine’s choice for Person of the Year

Although the magazine’s online poll resulted in an easy win for Julian Assange with 382,026 votes (with Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan a distant second with 233,640 votes), to no one’s surprise they ignored their own poll and gave this utterly pointless marketing gimmick title to Mark Zuckerberg, who came in 10th with a measly 18,353 votes.

Over at Saturday Night Live, we get Assange’s reaction.