As war between President Bashar al-Assad and various rebel forces raged across Syria, as the Obama administration and the CIA armed rebel factions of their liking while continuing an air campaign against the militants of the Islamic State (ISIS), as Russia entered the quagmire with its own airstrikes, and as millions of Syrians fled for their lives amid untold violence, a Connecticut congressman decided to do something.
October 17, 2013
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<p>On a damp Friday morning 11 days into the government shutdown, a “few dozen” truckers took to the Capital Beltway in a demonstration with the Twitter hashtag #T2SDA (Truckers to Shut Down America). They wanted to tell lawmakers they were angry, launch an impeachment campaign against the president, and pressure Congress to end itself.</p><p>They were on a “ride for the Constitution,” <a href="http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/10/10/truckers-washington-beltway-protest/2962045/" target="_blank">protesting</a> big government and yet the <a href="http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/MSNBC/Sections/A_Politics/_Today_Stories_Teases/Oct_poll.pdf" target="_blank">opinion polls</a> were clear. In fact, the numbers were stunning. One after another, they showed that Americans opposed the shutdown and were hurting because of it. At that moment, according to those polls, nearly one in three Americans said they felt personally affected not by too much government, but by too little, by the sudden freeze in critical services.</p><p>In reality, that government shutdown was <a href="http://nationalpriorities.org/en/blog/2013/10/01/government-shutting-down-what-you-need-know/" target="_blank">partial and selective</a>. Paychecks, for example, kept flowing to the very lawmakers who most fervently supported it, while the plush <a href="http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2013/10/08/2748461/members-only-congressional-gyms-deemed-essential-remain-open-during-shutdown/" target="_blank">congressional gym</a> with its heated pool, paddleball courts, and flat-screen televisions remained open. That’s because “essential” services continued, even as “nonessential” ones ceased. And it turned out that whether the services you cared about were essential or not was a matter of just who got to do the defining. In that distinction between what was necessary and what wasn’t, it was easy enough to spot the values of the people’s representatives. And what we saw was gut-wrenching. Stomach-churning.</p></blockquote><blockquote><p>Prioritized above all else were, of course, “<a href="http://nationalpriorities.org/en/cost-of/" target="_blank">national security</a>” activities, deemed beyond essential under the banner of “protecting life and property.” <a href="http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2013/10/02/nsa_and_government_shutdown_no_foia_but_the_spying_continues.html" target="_blank">Surveillance</a> at the National Security Agency, for instance, continued, uninterrupted, though it was liberated from its obviously nonessential and, even in the best-funded of times, minimal responsibility to disclose those activities under the Freedom of Information Act. Such disclosure was judged superfluous in a shutdown era, while spying on Americans (not to speak of<a href="http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/09/nsa-spying-brazil-oil-petrobras" target="_blank">Brazilians</a>, <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57600928/report-nsa-spied-on-brazilian-mexican-presidents/" target="_blank">Mexicans</a>, <a href="http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/secret-nsa-documents-show-how-the-us-spies-on-europe-and-the-un-a-918625.html" target="_blank">Europeans</a>, <a href="http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/25/nsa-surveillance-indian-embassy-un-mission" target="_blank">Indians</a>, and others around the planet) was deemed indispensible.</p><p>Then there was the carefully orchestrated Special Operations Forces <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/07/world/africa/raids-show-the-limits-of-us-military-strikes.html" target="_blank">mission in Libya</a> to capture a terror suspect off the streets of Tripoli in broad daylight, proving that in a shutdown period, the U.S. military wasn’t about to shut off the lights. <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/07/world/africa/raids-show-the-limits-of-us-military-strikes.html" target="_blank">And</a> don’t forget the nighttime landing of a Navy SEAL team in Somalia in an unsuccessful attempt to capture a different terrorist target. These activities were deemed essential to national survival, even though the chances of an American being killed in a terrorist attack are, at the moment, estimated at around <a href="http://reason.com/archives/2011/09/06/how-scared-of-terrorism-should" target="_blank">one in 20 million</a>. Remember that number, because we’ll come back to it.</p><p>Indeed, only for a brief moment did the shutdown reduce the <a href="http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175545/tomgram%3A_hellman_and_kramer%2C_how_much_does_washington_spend_on_%22defense%22" target="_blank">gusher</a> of taxpayer dollars, billions and billions of them, into the Pentagon’s coffers. After a couple days in which civilian Defense Department employees were furloughed, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that 90% of them could resume work because they “<a href="http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R41745.pdf" target="_blank">contribute to</a> morale, well-being, capabilities, and readiness of service members.” This from the crew that, according to<a href="http://killerapps.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/10/01/on_the_eve_of_the_government_shutdown_the_pentagon_spent_billions_on_weapons" target="_blank">Foreign Policy</a>, went on a jaw-dropping, morale-boosting $5 billion <a href="http://www.defense.gov/contracts/contract.aspx?contractid=5144" target="_blank">spending spree</a> on the eve of the shutdown to exhaust any remaining cash from the closing fiscal year, buying spy satellites, drones, infrared cameras and, yes, a $9 million sparkling new gym for the Air Force Academy, replete with CrossFit space and a “television studio.”</p><p><strong>Furloughing Children</strong></p><p>Then there were the nonessential activities.</p><p>In Arkansas, for instance, federal funds for infant formula to feed 2,000 at-risk newborn babies were <a href="http://www.arkansasbusiness.com/article/94952/access-limited-to-clinton-library-during-shutdown" target="_blank">in jeopardy</a>, as were 85,000 meals for needy children in that state. Nutrition for low-income kids was considered nonessential even though one in four children in this country doesn’t have consistent access to nutritious food, and medical research makes it clear that improper nutrition stunts brain architecture in the young, forever affecting their ability to learn and interact socially. Things got so bad that a Texas couple <a href="http://www.npr.org/2013/10/10/231224185/texas-couple-props-up-head-start-while-government-is-closed" target="_blank">dug into</a> their own reserves to keep the program running in six states.</p><p>If children in need were “furloughed,” so were abused women. Across the country, domestic violence shelters struggled to provide services as federal funds were cut off. <a href="http://www.thenation.com/blog/176536/domestic-violence-shelters-struggle-stay-open-during-shutdown" target="_blank">Some shelters</a> raised spare change from their communities to keep the doors open. According to <a href="http://dvrc-or.org/domestic/violence/resources/C61/#hom" target="_blank">estimates</a>, as many as six million women each year are victims of domestic violence. On average in this country, three women are murdered by an intimate partner every day.</p><p>But funding for domestic violence protection: nonessential.</p><p>Funds for early childhood education, too, were shut off. Seven thousand low-income kids from 11 states were turned away. Their “head start” was obviously less than essential, even though<a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/03/business/studies-highlight-benefits-of-early-education.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0" target="_blank">evidence</a> shows that early education for at-risk children is the best way to help them catch up with their wealthier peers in cognition and adds to their odds of staying out of prison in later life.</p><p>The National Institutes of Health (NIH) wasn’t accepting new patients because of the shutdown. Typically 200 new patients arrive <a href="http://edition.cnn.com/2013/10/01/health/shutdown-nih-clinical-trials/index.html" target="_blank">every week</a> for experimental treatment. On average around 30 of them are children, 10 of whom have cancer.</p><p>Cancer, in fact, is the <a href="http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Sites-Types/childhood" target="_blank">leading cause</a> of death among children ages one to 14. But treatment for them didn’t qualify as essential. Unlike fighting terrorism -- remember the less-likely-than-being-struck-by-lightning odds of one in 20 million -- treating kids with cancer didn’t make the cut as “protecting life and property.”</p><p>A father of two young girls in the town of Eliot, Maine, said to a National Priorities Project staffer in disbelief, “If even one kid can’t get cancer treatment, isn’t that enough to end the shutdown?”</p><p>Let this be the last time we find ourselves on the wrong side of that question. Because every day we as a nation allowed our lawmakers to keep the government closed was a day in which we as a people were complicit in replying "no."</p><p>Let this be the last time that a couple dozen Tea Party truckers are the only ones angry enough to take to the streets. The vast majority of Americans, whatever their anger when faced with pollsters or TV news interviewers, took this shutdown lying down, perhaps imagining -- incorrectly -- that they were powerless.</p><p>Let this be the last time we allow ourselves such lethargy. After all, there are 243 million Americans old enough to vote, which means <a href="http://nationalpriorities.org/en/blog/2013/10/07/243-million-ways-end-shutdown/" target="_blank">243 million ways</a> to demand a government that serves the people instead of shutting them out. Keep in mind that in the office of every member of Congress is a staffer tracking constituent calls. And what those constituents say actually matters in how legislators vote. They know that a flood of angry telephone calls from their home districts means legions of angry constituents ready to turn out in the next election and possibly turn them out of office.</p><p><strong>Shutting Down Taxes</strong></p><p>Americans, however, didn’t get angry enough to demand an end to the shutdown, perhaps at least in part because poisonous rhetoric had convinced many that the government was nothing more than a big, wasteful behemoth -- until, at least, it shut down on them. Think of these last weeks as a vivid lesson in reality, in the ways that every American is intimately connected to government services, whether by enjoying a safe food and water supply and Interstate highways, or through Meals on Wheels, cancer treatment, or tuition assistance for higher education, not to speak of Social Security checks and Medicare.</p><p>Deep in the politics of the shutdown lies another truth: that it was <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/10/10/wonkbook-the-shutdown-is-about-taxes/" target="_blank">all about taxes</a> -- about, to be more specific, the unwillingness of the Republicans to raise a penny of new tax revenue, even by closing egregious <a href="http://nationalpriorities.org/en/interactive-data/taxbreaks/2013/visualization/" target="_blank">loopholes</a> that give billions away to the richest Americans. Simply shutting down the tax break on capital gains and dividends (at $83 billion annually) would be more than enough to triple funding for Head Start, domestic violence protection, the<a href="http://www.fns.usda.gov/wic" target="_blank">Women, Infants, and Children</a> nutrition program, and cancer care at the NIH.</p><p>So let this be the last time we as a nation let our elected officials cut nutrition assistance for vulnerable children <a href="http://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/healthcare/322829-cutting-corporate-tax-loopholes-is-not-food-for-kids" target="_blank">at the same moment</a> that they protect deep tax loopholes for the wealthy and corporations. And let’s call recent events in Washington just what they are: breathtaking greed paired with a callous lack of concern for the most vulnerable among us.</p><p>It’s time to create a roll of dishonor and call out the lawmakers who supported the shutdown, knowing just what was involved: Mark Meadows (North Carolina, 11th congressional district), Walter Jones (NC-3), Rodney Davis (IL-13), John Mica (FL-7), Daniel Webster (FL-10), Jim Gerlach (PA-6), Justin Amash (MI-3). And that’s just to start a list that seems never to end.</p><p>Such representatives obviously should not be reelected, but we need a long-haul strategy as well -- the unsexy yet necessary systemic set of changes that will ensure our government truly represents the people. Gerrymandered district lines must be redrawn fairly, which means that citizens in each state will have to wrest control over redistricting from biased political bodies. California has<a href="http://www.lwvc.org/announcement/2013/may/when-people-draw-lines" target="_blank">set the example</a>. Then the <a href="http://www.opensecrets.org/" target="_blank">big money</a> must be pulled out of political campaigns, so that our politicians learn how to be something other than talented (and beholden) fundraisers.</p><p>Finally, we must build, person by person, an electorate that’s informed enough about how our government is supposed to work to fulfill its responsibility in this democracy: to ensure, that is, that it operates in the best interests of the broadest diversity of Americans.</p><p>Ahead will be long battles. They’ll take years. And it will be worth it if, in the end, we can give the right answer to that father who asked a question that should have been on everyone’s lips.</p></blockquote>
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May 21, 2013
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<p>The streets are so much darker now, since money for streetlights is rarely available to municipal governments. The national parks began closing down years ago. Some are already being subdivided and sold to the highest bidder. Reports on bridges crumbling or even collapsing are commonplace. The air in city after city hangs brown and heavy (and rates of childhood asthma and other lung diseases have shot up), because funding that would allow the enforcement of clean air standards by the Environmental Protection Agency is a distant memory. Public education has been cut to the bone, making good schools a luxury and, according to the Department of Education, two of every five students won’t graduate from high school.</p><p>It’s 2023 -- and this is America 10 years after the first across-the-board federal budget cuts known as <a href="http://nationalpriorities.org/en/blog/2013/02/26/what-sequestration-and-how-will-it-affect-me/" target="_blank">sequestration</a> went into effect. They went on for a decade, making no exception for effective programs vital to America’s economic health that were already underfunded, like job training and infrastructure repairs. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.</p><div>Traveling back in time to 2013 -- at the moment the sequester cuts began -- no one knew what their impact would be, although nearly everyone across the political spectrum agreed that it would be bad. As it happened, the first signs of the unraveling which would, a decade later, leave the United States a third-world country, could be detected surprisingly quickly, only three months after the cuts began. In that brief time, a few government agencies, like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), after an uproar over flight delays, requested -- and won -- special relief. Naturally, the Department of Defense, with a mere $568 billion to burn in its 2013 budget, also joined this elite list. On the other hand, critical spending for education, environmental protection, and scientific research was not spared, and in many communities the effect was felt remarkably soon.</div><p>Robust public investment had been a key to U.S. prosperity in the previous century. It was then considered a basic part of the social contract as well as of Economics 101. As just about everyone knew in those days, citizens paid taxes to fund worthy initiatives that the private sector wouldn’t adequately or efficiently supply. Roadways and scientific research were examples. In the post-World War II years, the country invested great sums of money in its interstate highways and what were widely considered the <a href="http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175600/andy_kroll_back_to_%24chool" target="_blank">best education systems</a> in the world, while research in well-funded government labs led to inventions like the Internet. The resulting world-class infrastructure, educated workforce, and technological revolution fed a robust private sector.</p><p><strong>Austerity Fever</strong></p><p>In the early years of the twenty-first century, however, a set of <a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-04-16/reinhart-rogoff-paper-cited-by-ryan-faulted-for-serious-errors-.html" target="_blank">manufactured arguments</a> for “austerity,” which had been gaining traction for decades, captured the national imagination. In 2011-2012, a Congress that seemed capable of doing little else passed <a href="http://www.nwlc.org/our-blog/note-new-congress-we%E2%80%99ve-already-achieved-24-trillion-dollars-lopsided-deficit-reduction" target="_blank">trillions of dollars</a> of what was then called “deficit reduction.” Sequestration was a strange and special case of this particular disease. These across-the-board cuts, instituted in August 2011 and set to kick in on January 2, 2013, were meant to be a storm cloud hanging over Congress. Sequestration was never intended to take effect, but only to force lawmakers to listen to reason -- to craft a less terrible plan to reduce deficits by a wholly arbitrary $1.2 trillion over 10 years. As is now common knowledge, they didn’t come to their senses and sequestration did go into effect. Then, although Congress could have cancelled the cuts at any moment, the country never turned back.</p><p>It wasn’t that cutting federal spending at those levels would necessarily have been devastating in 2013, though in an already weakened economy any cutbacks <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/26/opinion/krugman-the-one-percents-solution.html" target="_blank">would have hurt</a>. Rather, sequestration proved particularly corrosive from the start because all types of public spending -- from grants for renewable energy research and disadvantaged public schools to HIV testing -- were to be gutted equally, as if all of it were just fat to be trimmed. Even monitoring systems for possible natural disasters like <a href="http://money.cnn.com/2013/05/10/news/economy/budget-cuts-floods/" target="_blank">river flooding</a> or an<a href="http://www.columbian.com/news/2013/may/16/budget-cuts-pare-volcano-monitoring/" target="_blank">imminent volcanic eruption</a> began to be shut down. Over time the cuts would be vast: $85 billion in the first year and $110 billion in each year after that, for more than $1 trillion in cuts over a decade on top of other reductions already in place.</p><p>Once lawmakers wrote sequestration into law they had more than a year to wise up. Yet they did nothing to draft an alternate plan and didn’t even start pointing out the havoc-to-come until just weeks before the deadline. Then they gave themselves a couple more months -- until March 1, 2013 -- to work out a deal, which they didn’t. All this is, of course, ancient history, but even a decade later, the record of folly is worth reviewing.</p><p>If you remember, they tweeted while Rome burned. Speaker of the House John Boehner, for instance, sent out dozens of tweets to say Democrats were responsible: “The president proposed sequester, had 18 mo. to prioritize cuts, and did nothing,” he typically wrote, while he no less typically did nothing. For his part, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tweeted back: “It’s not too late to avert the damaging #sequester cuts, for which an overwhelming majority of Republicans voted.” And that became the pattern for a decade of American political gridlock, still not broken today.</p><p><strong>Destruction Begins</strong></p><p>March 1st came and went, so the budgetary axe began to fall.</p><p>At first, it didn’t seem so bad. Yes, the cuts weren't quite as across the board as expected. The meat industry, for example, protested because health inspector furloughs would slow its production lines, so Congress patched the problem and spared those inspectors. But meat production aside, there was a sense that the cuts might not be so bad after all.</p><p>They were to be doled out based on a formula for meeting the arbitrary target of $85 billion in reductions in 2013, and no one knew precisely what would happen to any given program. In April, more than a month after the cuts had begun, the White House issued the president’s budget proposal for the following year, an annual milestone that typically included detailed information about federal spending in the current year. But across thousands of pages of documents and tables, the new budget ignored sequestration, and so reported meaningless 2013 numbers, because even the White House couldn’t say exactly what impact these cuts would have on programs and public investment across the country.</p><p>As it happened, they didn’t have to wait long to find out. The first <a href="http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/04/sequestration-cuts-in-united-states" target="_blank">ripples</a> of impact began to spread quickly indeed. Losing some government funding, cancer clinics in New Mexico and Connecticut turned away patients. In Kentucky, Oregon, and Montana, shelters for victims of domestic violence <a href="http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/05/sequestration-next-targets-domestic-violence-victims" target="_blank">cut services</a>. In New York, Maryland, and Alabama, public defenders were furloughed, limiting access to justice for low-income people. In Illinois and Minnesota, public school teachers were laid off. In Florida, Michigan, and Mississippi, Head Start shortened the school year, while in Kansas and Indiana, some low-income children simply lost access to the program entirely. In Alaska, a substance abuse clinic shut down. Across the country, Meals on Wheels cut <a href="http://www.foreffectivegov.org/sequestration-and-meals-on-wheels" target="_blank">four million meals</a> for seniors in need.</p><p>Only when the FAA <a href="http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/18/travel/faa-furloughs-delays/" target="_blank">imposed furloughs</a> on its air traffic controllers did public irritation threaten to boil over. Long lines and airport delays ensued, and people were angry. And not just any people -- people who had access to members of Congress. In a Washington that has gridlocked the most routine business, lawmakers moved at a breakneck pace, taking just five days to pass <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/26/us/politics/senate-moves-to-stop-air-controller-furloughs-and-prevent-travel-delays.html" target="_blank">special legislation</a> to solve the problem. To avoid furloughs and shorten waits for airline passengers, they allowed the FAA to spend funds that had been intended for long-term airport repairs and improvements.</p><p>Flights would leave on time -- at least until runways cracked and crumbled. (You undoubtedly remember the scandal of 2019 at Cincinnati International Airport, when a bright young candidate for Senate met her demise in a tragic landing mishap.)</p><p>And then, of course, the Pentagon asked for an exemption, too. We’re talking about the military behemoth of planet Earth, which in 2013 accounted for 40% of military spending globally, its outlays exceeding the next 10 largest militaries combined. It, too wanted a special exemption for some of its share of the cutbacks.</p><p>Meat inspectors, the FAA, and the Department of Defense enjoyed special treatment, but the rest of the nation was, as the history books recount, not so lucky. Children from middle-class and low-income families saw ever fewer resources at school, closing doors of opportunity. The young, old, and infirm found themselves with dwindling access to basic resources such as health care or even a hot dinner. Federal grants to the states dried up, and there was less money in state budgets for local priorities, from police officers to lowly streetlights.</p><p>And remember that, just as the sequestration cuts began, carbon concentration in the atmosphere <a href="http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-05-10/national/39164136_1_carbon-dioxide-pieter-tans-charles-david-keeling" target="_blank">breached</a> 400 parts per million. (Climate scientists had long been warning that the level should be kept <a href="http://350.org/" target="_blank">below 350</a> for human security.) Unfortunately, as with the groundbreaking research that led to the Internet, it takes money to do big things, and the long-term effects of cutting environmental protection, general research, and basic infrastructure meant that the U.S. government would do little to stem the extreme weather that has, in 2023, become such a part of our world and our lives.</p><p>Looking back from a country now eternally in crisis, it’s clear that a Rubicon was crossed back in 2013. There was then still a chance to reject across-the-board budget cuts that would undermine a nation built on sound public investment and shared prosperity. At that crossroads, some fought against austerity. Losing that battle, others argued for a <a href="http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175686/tomgram%3A_mattea_kramer%2C_a_people%27s_budget_for_tax_day" target="_blank">smarter approach</a>: close <a href="http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/02/25/8-ridiculous-tax-loopholes-how-companies-are-avoiding-the-tax-man.html" target="_blank">tax loopholes</a> to raise new revenue, or reduce <a href="http://www.healthaffairs.org/healthpolicybriefs/brief.php?brief_id=82" target="_blank">waste in health care</a>, or place a <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/opinion/sunday/friedman-its-lose-lose-vs-win-win-win-win-win.html?ref=thomaslfriedman&_r=0" target="_blank">tax on carbon</a>, or cut <a href="http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175545/tomgram%3A_hellman_and_kramer%2C_how_much_does_washington_spend_on_%22defense%22" target="_blank">excessive spending</a> at the Pentagon. But too few Americans -- with too little influence -- spoke up, and Washington didn’t listen. The rest of the story, as you well know, is history.</p><p>Mattea Kramer is Research Director at National Priorities Project, where Jo Comerford is Executive Director. Both are TomDispatch <a href="http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175686/tomgram%3A_mattea_kramer,_a_people%27s_budget_for_tax_day/" target="_blank">regulars</a>. They wrote<a href="http://www.amazon.com/dp/1566568870/ref=nosim/?tag=tomdispatch-20" target="_blank">A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget</a>.</p><p>Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on <a href="http://www.facebook.com/tomdispatch" target="_blank">Facebook</a> or <a href="http://tomdispatch.tumblr.com/" target="_blank">Tumblr</a>. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s <a href="http://www.amazon.com/The-Changing-Face-Empire-Cyberwarfare/dp/1608463109/" target="_blank">The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.</a></p><p>Copyright 2013 Mattea Kramer and Jo Comerford</p>
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