The GOP’s Phase of Adolescent Rebellion

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The government shutdown is a superb example of what happens when a bunch of law-and-order Republicans don’t agree with a law, in this case the Affordable Care Act. They’ll cause a national meltdown before complying with it. These are the people who think Edward Snowden is a traitor and ought to be executed because he broke the law; who believe you go to war when the president wants you to, whether the war is Constitutional and justified or not.

Ah well, there’s nothing novel about hypocrisy in politics. What is rather different here is the willingness of the Tea Party wing of the Republicans to ignore history as recent as 1995 and believe that, somehow, the blame for this catastrophe will devolve to President Obama and those who merely want to follow a law duly passed by Congress and signed into effect.

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The shutdown is a catastrophe. It may not have immediate economic effects of a dire nature, but it is a hard punch to the midsection of governmental services. Let’s look at it, as President Obama seems to have done, from the standpoint of a federal employee. We’ll need to go back in time.

Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan: privatize or bust. Bust.

“Gumment,” Ronald Reagan declared, is not the solution, but the problem. It has to be lifted “from the backs of the American people.” Repeating an already tired old joke, he said the most terrifying nine words in the language were, “I’m from the gumment and I’m here to help.”

No one should have expected better from the man who also fabricated the existence of the Cadillac-driving Chicago “welfare queen” and left it to voters to find the right crayon for her skin. But here he was, invoking the cheapest trick of demagoguery: find a common enemy. The twist was that he made the enemy the American people: our government of, by and for the people, in the words of the greatest Republican ever.

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Reagan and every president since has exempted the military establishment from the scathing words, all the while lowering recruitment standards and keeping military pay and post-service benefits low while rewarding defense contractors with ever more warbucks. But for the civilian side, at least since Reagan’s openly contemptuous words, the verbal assault has done nothing but escalate, leaving perhaps a majority of Americans believing the government worker to be a tyrant at worst, a bloodsucking parasite on the economy at best.

Meet Fred. He works for the federal government, somewhere in the Department of Agriculture, connected with the meat-inspection program. Like most of his colleagues, he wasn’t a good fit in the private sector, not because he wasn’t a worker, but because he required motivation other than money. He needs to feel that what he is doing needs doing. He needs to feel that he serves humanity.

For at least the three decades of his own service, Fred has experienced the condescension of his neighbors who believe their private-sector employment is more honorable than his. He has seen the budgets for non-defense discretionary spending on a steady decline, leading to the fulfillment of the charge that the federal government is dysfunctional. He has heard all the pep talks about “doing more with less” delivered by managers who don’t believe a word of it to employees who are left only to wonder what carnage comes next.

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He’s seen the leaders at agency after agency twist the meaning of their traditional missions, claiming that, all along, what they were really doing was supporting Pentagon or FEMA work. Because that’s where the money is.

Fred’s own agency didn’t go that humiliating route, at least, because everybody seemed to understand that meat inspection was one fundamental governmental function that had to go on. Turns out he was mistaken. He finds that now his own department plans to turn meat inspection over to the industry. Privatization: what a great idea. The honor system, in other words, for people who kill pigs for a living.

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overpayment-percentage
A chart from POGO, the Project on Government Oversight, showing the waste,
by percentage, in overpayments for outsourcing of work.
(Click to enlarge.)

In fact, Fred is aware that privatization in its various forms, and deregulation as well, have a perverse result: the taxpayers get screwed. It costs more because contractors have an insatiable desire for profit, and it works less well because those contractors don’t really care that much about quality. It’s how Snowden and Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter, got through the safety net. Clearances were contracted out, the contractors got behind, and they performed, in each case, a “dump,” rushing clearances through just to catch up.

One of the reasons to privatize, Fred realizes, is that it has become politically more palatable to pay more taxpayer money to contractors in profits than to pay government workers a decent wage. Thus the government, through contractors whose low bids depend on shafting employees, has become the largest low-wage employer in the land.

Still, the law of the land is Reagan’s OMB Circular A-76, which pretty well mandates increasing privatization of government services by effectively placing the burden on government to show that government, and not the private sector, should do anything at all. For three years, the Obama administration and Democratic allies in Congress, notably Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), have successfully maintained a moratorium on A-76 studies, correctly arguing that it is costly and biased in favor of contractors. But A-76 hasn’t gone away.

And despite a discredited A-76, the attitude among Republicans has become worse. Now the Republican mantra concerning government functions they don’t like — or which their pimps would like to take over for profit — is the “yellow pages test.” If you can find it in the yellow pages, then the private sector can do it, and, ipso facto, should do it instead of the government. Now there is even a congressional Yellow Pages Caucus, led in the Senate by John Thune of South Dakota and in the House by John Duncan of Tennessee.

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As Fred knows, you can find pretty much anything in the yellow pages. Water-quality testing, for example, and flood-inundation modeling. He also knows that these functions are profitable only in certain circumstances, and that if you leave them to the vagaries of the market, then those are the only circumstances in which the functions will be performed.

In the instant case, the fight is over whether to leave health care entirely to the profit-driven. Even Medicare and Medicaid can’t fix that mess.

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But then, Fred realizes, we’re dealing with people who’d like to destroy the entire system of American public education. Leave it to business. Privatize prisons. Privatize public libraries. Privatize the Post Office and much of the military. Privatize Social Security, which is to say destroy it. Privatize government credit programs, because the private sector has done so much better (Lehman Brothers, AIG, etc.) Right.

Fred’s pretty much at the end of his rope. His morale is on the rocks, like that of most of his colleagues. He deeply appreciates the president’s kind words. He also realizes that the only genuine expression of a government’s priorities is the government’s budget, and that this Congress can’t even discuss a budget. When they do, the noose will tighten some more. Count on it.