Tag Archives: government spending

GSA Las Vegas Spending Scandal: What’s On His Mind?

Wow. Jeffrey Neely, the former head party planner at the General Services Administration, didn’t have much to say yesterday when members of a congressional committee grilled him about the more than $800,000 team building boondoggle he organized on the taxpayers’ tab.

Neely took the Fifth more times yesterday on Capitol Hill than I did when touring the Jameson factory in Dublin a few years ago. Here’s from the NYT:

One by one, committee members took aim like heat-seeking missiles at the witnesses, although one — Jeffrey Neely, the official who helped plan the Las Vegas event, which cost more than $800,000 — repeatedly refused to answer questions, even one confirming his job title, citing his Fifth Amendment rights. Lawmakers criticized the officials for the huge expenditures; for a bonus received by Mr. Neely, a regional commissioner at the agency, even after the event came under scrutiny; for general outrageousness; and, in one case, for the nerve of giving revelers commemorative knickknacks made in China.

The lavish spending, which came to light last month, seemed almost like a parody of taxpayers’ worst nightmare of their dollars at work: parties, glad-handing and drinking toward no apparent end. The agency’s inspector general conducted a yearlong investigation of the four-day conference, in which 300 people were flown to the M Resort Spa and Casino.

As part of the Las Vegas “event,” Neely hired a mind reader to entertain the federal flunkies and other miscreants.  A mind reader would have come in handy during the congressional hearing yesterday. You would think that at least one of those on the panel would have liked to ask: “What was on your mind when you said OK to all this?”

In fairness to Mr. Neely, the answer is probably nothing. Oops. I digress.

Well, let’s have Dana Milbank do the heavy lifting this morning in his WaPo article, “What was the GSA’s Jeffrey Neely thinking?“:

You knew government bureaucrats were living large when they hired a medium.

And this mind reader who helped government workers communicate with the dead was just the beginning of the scandal involving the General Services Administration’s $823,000 spending spree in Las Vegas.

There was also the $75,000 bicycle-building exercise, the clown show, 1,000 sushi rolls at $7 a pop, $6,325 spent on commemorative coins, $8,130 for souvenir books and 300 helpings of “Boursin Scalloped Potato with Barolo Wine Braised Short Ribs” at $5 each.

The official responsible for the 2010 soiree — Jeffrey Neely — said he wanted his conference to be “over the top.” By all accounts, he achieved his goal — and now the party’s over.

Neely was hauled before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Monday afternoon for the first of several congressional hearings about the GSA scandal. He listened as lawmakers and former colleagues denounced his activities — Indefensible! Intolerable! The gall! — and then answered by taking the Fifth.

“Mr. Neely, what is your title at GSA?” asked Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).

Neely, who had demanded “theatrical talent” at his conference, got to demonstrate his own. “Mr. Chairman, on the advice of counsel, I respectfully decline to answer based upon my Fifth Amendment constitutional privilege.”

“Mr. Neely, did you attend the 2010 Western Regional Conference in Las Vegas?”

“Mr. Chairman, on the advice of counsel, I respectfully decline to answer based upon my Fifth Amendment constitutional privilege,” repeated the witness, who sported a lavish gray mane.

Issa continued to press, assuring Neely “just a few more” questions, as though he were a dentist completing drilling on a patient. He excused the witness and asked him to “remain for the remainder of the hearing” in a back room. But Neely had no interest.

Instead, the witness slipped out a back door — and reporters and camera crews gave chase. A CBS soundman, tangled in wires, fell and was taken to a hospital with a head injury. Fox News’s Chad Pergram and other reporters followed Neely into an elevator and, ignoring his lawyer’s demands that they disperse, continued to pepper him with questions. Among them: “Will you apologize?”

“No comment” was all Neely said.

He had rather more to say when planning the conference. According to e-mails discussed at the hearing, Neely had offered to pay for personal friends to come have a “blast” on the government’s dime. “I know. I am bad,” he wrote. “But Deb [his wife] and I say often, why not enjoy it while we have it and while we can. Aint going to last forever.”

He had that right. “Well, Mr. Neely, it stops now,” thundered Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, who was particularly offended that Neely’s wife, a private citizen, “ordered thousands of dollars’ worth of food at taxpayer expense.”

Committee Democrats and GSA officials portrayed Neely as a bad apple (albeit one who received a $9,000 bonus after his conference contretemps). Cummings said the episode gives government workers “a bad name.”

Meanwhile, Republicans labored to turn what happened in Vegas into an administration-wide scandal. They distributed documents with titles such as “GSA spending skyrockets under Obama administration” and GSA “convention spending soars under Democrat control.”

“As I look through this, there’s no wonder that the American people have lost faith in their government,” harrumphed Rep. Mike Kelly (Pa.).

“I want indictments!” bellowed Rep. Trey Gowdy (S.C.). With a preacher’s fervor, he compared the bureaucrats unfavorably with their biblical forbears. “The tribes of Israel sent 12 scouts into the Promised Land before they decided to invade, and GSA has to send 15 to Las Vegas to check out a hotel? Do you not see the outrage?”

This outrage was undercut by a fellow Republican, Rep. James Lankford (Okla.), who argued that “there was something that was happening that was very unique” at the Las Vegas event.

Indeed, it is not every government event where the “artisanal cheese” is $19 per person and the commemorative coins cost $20 apiece. Or where they make a rap video joking about what their congressional overseers would have to say about their excess (the rapper, summoned before the committee, apologized profusely).

Why did they do this? Neely, who once boasted that he “wanted to make a statement” with his soiree, wasn’t talking. And none of his GSA colleagues wished to speak for him.

“I have no idea what Mr. Neely was thinking,” said one witness.

“I don’t know what Mr. Neely was thinking,” said another.

“I do not know what he was thinking,” said a third.

Maybe they should hire a mind reader.

If you’re racing today to file your income taxes — or if you are like me and have already sent a check to Uncle Sam — thoughts?

 

 

Supercommittee: Super Fail

Wow. The Chattering Class is all worked up this morning about the apparent inability of the members of the so-called Congressional supercommittee to actually agree on anything. As I was chasing the treadmill belt this early a.m., no matter what TV station I went to the story was basically the same: Republicans and Democrats pointing the finger of blame.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. But it doesn’t surprise me that the supercommittee has failed. It surprises me that anyone thought it would succeed. And really. Congress and the Prez shamefully punted by giving the ball to this small group in the first place.

So now what?

In theory, there will be $1.2 trillion in mandated spending cuts to defense and other programs that kick in in 2013. LOL. Congress will work most of next year making sure that doesn’t happen.

And what about the issues of unemployment and growing our economy? Can we really wait until late January 2013 to do something — and even that date means nothing if we end up with another split Congress.

So while most Americans are figuring how to get into the queue on Black Friday to boost the economy, consider the business of Washington and how it works:

Policy wonks identify a problem (real or imagined) and conduct research…public and private policy groups hold meetings to explore the issues…the Chattering Class takes sides via traditional and social media…lobbyists press for their positions…Congress holds meetings and conducts hearings and sends out trial balloons…fail.

Repeat.

So it goes.

 

Please Raise My Taxes: Barf

Wow. We’re a long way from the presidential election in November 2012, but there sure is some great political reality TV available already. Yesterday the Prez was campaigning in Silicon Valley, and he took a question from a guy in the audience who said he was “unemployed by choice” after cashing out from a job at Google. He asked the Prez:”…would you please raise my taxes?”

Barf.

OK. I understand that this is good election politics. It’s a populist wet dream come true to tax the millionaires and billionaires. But is it really sound economic policy — something that will really make a difference in solving the big problems we face involving jobs, government spending and our national debt?

Nah.

Here’s another billionaire, Mike Bloomberg, who opines that the so-called Buffett Rule is just “theatrics.” Here’s from Mediaite.com:

On the whole actually, Bloomberg wasn’t too negative towards the President. In fact, his comments that Obama had “tried some things he liked and some things he didn’t” for the economy weren’t too different from his comments on Christie. However, the Mayor made it clear that one of the things he didn’t like was raising taxes on the rich.

“I think it’s not fair to say that wealthy people don’t pay their fair share. They pay a much higher percentage of their income, they have a higher rate than people who make less. The Buffett thing is just theatrics. If Warren Buffett made his money from ordinary income rather than capital gains, his tax rate would be a lot higher than his secretary’s.”

Wonder if the asshat who asked the Prez yesterday to please raise his taxes paid taxes on ordinary income or on the appreciation on stock options from Goggle? I digress.

I also heard on TV while chasing the treadmill this early a.m. that it is possible just to send a check — a voluntary contribution — to the IRS. Apparently not that many millionaires feel that guilty about their current taxes to make a voluntary contribution. At least I can’t find out via a Google search how to do it. Hey, the guy who wants his taxes raised. He was a Google exec. Maybe he can find it. Oops. I digress again.

And I reprinted info from an AP story last week that shows that the Buffett Rule doesn’t really add up to much — beyond politics.

Anyway, if you are interested in more on this LOL story, check out Michelle Malkin’s blog. She has plenty of commentary and links to other information.

And I didn’t check but she may even have a link to where we can get discount barf bags. With the national campaign just starting, we may need them.

A $16 Muffin: Would Buffett Give His Secretary One?

Since Warren Buffett has emerged as the populist champion for higher taxes and increased government spending,  I wonder what he would say to his secretary about the $16 muffins that government employees are gobbling down at Department of Justice conferences? And I wonder if it would bother him that his secretary’s tax dollars are being used to pick up the tab?

Here’s the story, as reported by many online and dead tree media outlets this morning, including Politico: “Audit: DOL’s costly dining“:

Someone’s not clipping coupons.

The Department of Justice spent about $490,000 on food at 10 conferences held between Oct. 2007 and Sept. 2009, according to a DoJ inspector general audit, Bloomberg reported.

On the menu: $65 dinners, $76 lunches, $41 breakfasts, $16 muffins, $32 per person snacks at a single break and beef Wellington appetizers that cost $7.32 per serving. For a beverage break at one conference, attendees sipped on coffee and tea that went for up to $1.03 per ounce, making an 8-ounce drink $8.24.

“Some conferences featured costly meals, refreshments, and themed breaks that we believe were indicative of wasteful or extravagant spending,” the report on Tuesday said.

The review found that the DoJ spent about $120 million on 1,832 conferences in 2008 and 2009. In 2009, the DoJ spent $73.3 million on conferences compared to $47.8 million in 2008. At the ten conferences reviewed in the audit, the department shelled out $4.4 million.

Those attending an August 2009 Executive Office for Immigration Review conference gobbled up the $16 muffins and had the chance to sample $10 cookies and brownies as well. Guests at a March 2009 conference of the Office on Violence Against Women ate Cracker Jacks, popcorn and candy bars at a single break that cost $32 per person. The $7.32 beef Wellington hors d’oeuvres were eaten by attendees of the February 2008 Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys conference.

The report followed up one from 2007 that showed the DoJ did not have proper policies and procedures in place to limit conference spending. One example featured in that audit was $5 Swedish meatballs. In response, the DoJ issued policies to control spending in 2008.

Wonder who got to keep the little gift prizes in the Cracker Jack? Woot. I digress.

Does government in total operate with this kind of complete disregard for fiscal responsibility and spending taxpayer money in the best interests of, ah, well, taxpayers? No. But it reinforces the perception that tax money goes directly from our wallets and purses into a rat hole never to be seen or heard of again.

We’re dealing a lot in perception these days. And this gets us back to the Oracle of Omaha and the so-called “Buffett Rule” — the notion that this country will thrive only to the extent that high-income wage earners hand over more and more of their cash to the government.

An AP story yesterday based on info from nonpartisan policy wonk organizations and the IRS kind of shoots down the idea the millionaires are paying a lower tax rate than secretaries and others who pay some tax beyond Social Security. Here’s from the AP story “FACT CHECK: Are rich taxed less than secretaries?“:

President Barack Obama says he wants to make sure millionaires are taxed at higher rates than their secretaries. The data say they already are.

“Warren Buffett’s secretary shouldn’t pay a higher tax rate than Warren Buffett. There is no justification for it,” Obama said as he announced his deficit-reduction plan this week. “It is wrong that in the United States of America, a teacher or a nurse or a construction worker who earns $50,000 should pay higher tax rates than somebody pulling in $50 million.”

On average, the wealthiest people in America pay a lot more taxes than the middle class or the poor, according to private and government data. They pay at a higher rate, and as a group, they contribute a much larger share of the overall taxes collected by the federal government.

The 10 percent of households with the highest incomes pay more than half of all federal taxes. They pay more than 70 percent of federal income taxes, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

In his White House address on Monday, Obama called on Congress to increase taxes by $1.5 trillion as part of a 10-year deficit reduction package totaling more than $3 trillion. He proposed that Congress overhaul the tax code and impose what he called the “Buffett rule,” named for the billionaire investor.

The rule says, “People making more than $1 million a year should not pay a smaller share of their income in taxes than middle-class families pay.” Buffett wrote in a recent piece for The New York Times that the tax rate he paid last year was lower than that paid by any of the other 20 people in his office.

“Middle-class families shouldn’t pay higher taxes than millionaires and billionaires,” Obama said. “That’s pretty straightforward. It’s hard to argue against that.”

There may be individual millionaires who pay taxes at rates lower than middle-income workers. In 2009, 1,470 households filed tax returns with incomes above $1 million yet paid no federal income tax, according to the Internal Revenue Service. But that’s less than 1 percent of the nearly 237,000 returns with incomes above $1 million.

This year, households making more than $1 million will pay an average of 29.1 percent of their income in federal taxes, including income taxes, payroll taxes and other taxes, according to the Tax Policy Center, a Washington think tank.

Households making between $50,000 and $75,000 will pay an average of 15 percent of their income in federal taxes.

Lower-income households will pay less. For example, households making between $40,000 and $50,000 will pay an average of 12.5 percent of their income in federal taxes. Households making between $20,000 and $30,000 will pay 5.7 percent.

The latest IRS figures are a few years older — and limited to federal income taxes — but show much the same thing. In 2009, taxpayers who made $1 million or more paid on average 24.4 percent of their income in federal income taxes, according to the IRS.

Those making $100,000 to $125,000 paid on average 9.9 percent in federal income taxes. Those making $50,000 to $60,000 paid an average of 6.3 percent.

Obama’s claim hinges on the fact that, for high-income families and individuals, investment income is often taxed at a lower rate than wages. The top tax rate for dividends and capital gains is 15 percent. The top marginal tax rate for wages is 35 percent, though that is reserved for taxable income above $379,150.

I’m all for fair and equitable taxation. But I’m becoming more and more convinced that we have a government spending problem and not a revenue problem. (And yes that involves me as I inch my way toward Medicare.) And the notion — the perception really — that higher-income wage earners are somehow escaping without paying a fair share of taxes just doesn’t cut it.

Muffin anyone?

 

Cutting Government Deficit, Increasing Jobs — Or Nothing?

Let’s see if I can get this straight. Are we trying to cut federal government spending and reduce the deficit? Increase jobs? Engage the masses in class warfare? Note to self: Where’s my pitchfork? And what side am I supposed to be on? Dismantle entitlement programs? Strengthen and enhance entitlement programs? All or none of the above.

Sheesh.

For a Congress and President that accomplishes very little beyond giving speeches and making appearances with the Inside the Beltway Chattering Classes on the Sunday TV talk shows it sure seems like there are a lot of fish in the skillet these days.

And why does it appear to this pajama-clad citizen journalist that all the proposals currently clogging the nation’s collective attention span will amount to nothing more than peeing in a sleeping bag on a cold morning? Sure. It gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling. But doesn’t accomplish much in the long run.

I could, of course, take the time to construct a solid case for all of this. But instead I’ll defer to David Brooks, the token conservative on the NYT op-ed page. Here’s from his article “Obama Rejects Obamaism“:

I liked Obama’s payroll tax cut ideas and urged Republicans to play along. But of course I’m a sap. When the president unveiled the second half of his stimulus it became clear that this package has nothing to do with helping people right away or averting a double dip. This is a campaign marker, not a jobs bill.

It recycles ideas that couldn’t get passed even when Democrats controlled Congress. In his remarks Monday the president didn’t try to win Republicans to even some parts of his measures. He repeated the populist cries that fire up liberals but are designed to enrage moderates and conservatives.

He claimed we can afford future Medicare costs if we raise taxes on the rich. He repeated the old half-truth about millionaires not paying as much in taxes as their secretaries. (In reality, the top 10 percent of earners pay nearly 70 percent of all income taxes, according to the I.R.S. People in the richest 1 percent pay 31 percent of their income to the federal government while the average worker pays less than 14 percent, according to the Congressional Budget Office.)

This wasn’t a speech to get something done. This was the sort of speech that sounded better when Ted Kennedy was delivering it. The result is that we will get neither short-term stimulus nor long-term debt reduction anytime soon, and I’m a sap for thinking it was possible.

Well, maybe Brooks just got up on the wrong side of the sleeping bag. Let’s see how Dana Milbank views things these days since he is generally swinging from the left side of the plate. Here’s from his article in WaPo “Obama launches a revolution“:

Let us begin by stipulating that President Obama’s new budget plan is unrealistic, highly partisan and a non-starter on Capitol Hill.

That’s what’s so good about it.

At last, the president hasn’t conceded the race before the starter’s gun, hasn’t opened the bidding with his bottom line, hasn’t begun a game of strip poker in his boxer shorts. Whichever metaphor you choose, it was refreshing to see the president in the Rose Garden on Monday morning delivering a speech that, for once, appealed to the heart rather than the cerebrum.

“It is wrong that in the United States of America a teacher or a nurse or a construction worker who earns $50,000 should pay higher tax rates than somebody pulling in $50 million,” the newly populist Obama declared.

Obama squinted into the morning sunlight and chopped the autumn air with his left hand. He got sputtering mad — literally — when he said his opponents would have us “settle for second-rate roads and second-rate bridges and second-rate airports and — and — and — schools that are crumbling.”

Then came that rarest of Obama moves: an ultimatum. “I will veto any bill that changes benefits for those who rely on Medicare but does not raise serious revenues by asking the wealthiest Americans or biggest corporations to pay their fair share.”

Republican howls of complaints began even before the speech.

“Class warfare,” protested Paul Ryan.

“Class warfare,” complained Karl Rove’s American Crossroads.

“Class warfare,” judged House Speaker John Boehner.

The president welcomed the charge. “I reject the idea that asking a hedge fund manager to pay the same tax rate as a plumber or teacher is class warfare,” he told the Rose Garden crowd of 200. “I think it’s just the right thing to do.”

A moment later, the class warrior added: “Either we ask the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share in taxes, or we’re going to have to ask seniors to pay more for Medicare. . . . Either we gut education and medical research, or we’ve got to reform the tax code so that the most profitable corporations have to give up tax loopholes that other companies don’t get. We can’t afford to do both. This is not class warfare. It’s math.”

The audience — a quickly assembled collection of students, retirees and federal bureaucrats — chuckled at this line. Obama didn’t crack a smile.

OK. Like most people I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about the debacle unfolding Inside the Beltway.

But if you are looking for a laugh, look no further than the so-called Buffett Rule. Warren Buffett, the billionaire investor and stock picker, wants to pay his fair share of taxes and argues that his tax rate should not be lower than that of his secretary. Hard not to raise your pitchfork in favor of that notion.

But here’s the rub, as Roger Simon points out in Politico, “Eat the Rich“:

“This is not class warfare,” the president promised. “It’s math.”

Well, sort of. Though the rich do benefit enormously, the poor and middle class benefit from the current Tax Code, too. About half the households in America pay no income taxes at all, because the Tax Code says they don’t make enough. And middle-class taxpayers get a large break by being able to deduct their home mortgage interest. (Want a true third-rail in American politics? Try suggesting the elimination of that last one. Obama didn’t on Monday.)

In truth, the Tax Code gives too many breaks to too many people.

“All told, federal taxpayers last year received $1.08 trillion in credits, deductions and other perks while paying $1.09 trillion in income taxes, according to government estimates,” wrote Lori Montgomery in The Washington Post on Sunday. “Only about 8 percent of those benefits went to corporations. … The bulk went to private households, primarily upper middle-class families that Obama has vowed to protect from new taxes.”

And call me cynical (or an asshat) but as soon as the Prez reveals some specifics about the Buffett Rule, you can be sure the Oracle of Omaha’s tax advisers will be hard at work figuring out a way to avoid the tax.

Wonder if Mr. Buffett sleeps in a sleeping bag?

 

 

Stock Market Decline: Goodbye Optimism, Hello Reality

Wow. It’s the end of the first week of August, and shouldn’t we be fretting about whether the Cleveland Indians can hang in there and make it to the MLB playoffs in November or December? Instead, the stock market during the past week or so has confirmed what most outside the Beltway have known for months: the economy bites, there ain’t no job creation (except for GE in China), and if you own a house and need or want to sell it, well, good luck and God bless.

Goodbye optimism. Hello reality.

And I’m not going to pretend that I understand why the stock market tanked yesterday. There are plenty of smart people out there who do that for  a living. Most can’t time or predict the market any better than the rest of us.

Anyway, here’s a perspective on yesterday’s financial debacle from Mohamed A. El-Erian, opining on a CNBC blog. This guy heads Pimco, and makes his living by making the right calls on the economy.

Technical factors played a role in Thursday’s unsettling market moves, including the disorderly across-the-board collapse in the price of risk assets in the final hour of trading and the related surge in U.S. Treasurys. But they were not the cause. Rather, they amplified three factors that will determine the fate of markets in the weeks ahead.

First, it is now undeniable that the U.S. economy is weakening across the board — a phenomenon aggravated by a concurrent slowdown elsewhere in the world.

Obviously, this translates into lower corporate earnings and profits. It also put pressures on the unfortunate households already burdened by un- and under-employment, excessive debt, and upside down mortgages.

And more:

We should not underestimate the markets’ ability to recover if, for once, policymakers were to surprise on the upside. After all, there is lots of cash on the sidelines and most large companies (particularly multinationals) have impressive rock-solid balance sheets.

If, however, policymakers continue to disappoint, markets are staring at the regrettable prospects over the next few weeks of continued volatility and further losses.

Gee. “If policymakers continue to disappoint.”

Goodbye optimism. Hello reality.

Jobs Decline and Congress Takes a Break

OK. I opined yesterday about members of Congress being on vacation now until after Labor Day even as the nation still faces high unemployment and an economy that may be heading back into recession.

And I realize that in many ways this is a matter of perception. Members of Congress and their staffs merit some time off and if they are running for re-election, they have to be available and visible in their home districts and states. Unfortunately, millions of Americans are now on a forced vacation: no job and few prospects.

Here’s an interesting perspective from Mort Zuckerman in USNews, “Job Numbers Go From Grim to Ghastly“:

Washington, Wall Street, and the business world were astounded and dismayed by the dismal employment statistics recently put forth by the government. We need 125,000 jobs every month just to account for people entering the workforce, but the numbers show only 18,000 more jobs in June and 25,000 in May. And the June numbers included the assumption that 131,000 net jobs were created by newly formed companies, a generous assumption that has proved to be consistently overstated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics for the past three years. Equally concerning is that the underlying employment numbers are even worse than Washington’s gloss.

Almost ignored by the press is the fact that full-time employment dropped by 435,000 in the last month and, over the past three months, it is down by a combined total of 868,000 jobs. There has been a 3 percent increase in the number of people working part time, but full-time employment has been down 0.5 percent for the full year. In fact, all of the net job increases since President Obama came into office were part-time employees and not full-time employees, a critical distinction. All of this is in the context of the most stimulative fiscal and monetary policy in the history of this country.

This is scarily abnormal. We are 24 months into a recovery. Normally we’d be enjoying about 180,000 more jobs a month. We have only a tenth of that. We have lost over 8.5 million jobs in the Great Recession, and only 1.5 million have returned; contrast that to a normal recovery, where all job losses have been recovered two years into a recovery. The total ranks of the unemployed jumped 173,000 and crossed over the 14 million mark for the first time this year.

And here’s Lila Shapiro on The Huffington Post, “Layoffs Surge As Recovery Shows Little Sign of Momentum“:

The early days of the recession were characterized by massive layoffs across industries, and while economists caution that the labor market isn’t there yet, a surge of private sector layoffs in July may indicate that the American recovery is stalling out.

This week has been a worrisome one for economists who monitor the health of the U.S. economy, with mounting signs all pointing in the same direction: For the average American worker, a rebound will not be soon forthcoming. In fact, things seem to be moving in the other direction.

GDP growth is weak; new hiring is not keeping pace with population growth, according to fresh data; and growth in manufacturing — which once lead the recovery — has practically ground to a halt. But most worrisome of all the signs, perhaps, is the return of mass layoffs.

For the past three months, American companies have been cutting their workforce in increasing numbers, according to a new report from Challenger, Gray & Christmas, an outplacement consultancy group in Chicago. In July, the number of planned job cuts surged to a 16-month high of 66,414 — a 60 percent increase from June.

“We’re beginning to see patterns that are disconcerting, and the really troubling part is this: Nothing is happening in the economy which is going to boost job growth,” said Christine L. Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project.

The pattern, if it continues, could spell serious trouble for the American labor market.

Gee. Really? Serious trouble to say the least.

And I recognize that there is only so much that government at any level can do to create and sustain jobs, but if I were an elected official these days I would be giving the issue of job growth some thought while on vacation.

Wouldn’t want to risk becoming one of the unemployed in 2012.

Just sayin’.

Congress and Vacations: Really?

OK. I’m not sure whether this is good news or bad news. Members of Congress — and just about everyone else Inside the Beltway except the K Street lobbyists who are the big winners in the debt debacle — are on vacation now until after Labor Day.

Wow. Nice work if you can get it.

OK. I know. Members of Congress and their staffs do work hard — even if they don’t accomplish much. They deserve some time off. And many are running for re-election. So it doesn’t hurt any to get out of DC and mingle some with people in the real world.

But it seems like there are still some big fish in the skillet waiting to be fried: the biggest being jobs and an economy that appears stalled at best and possibly headed back into recession. If you are out of work, fretting about the value of your house and savings, do these worries go away when members of Congress go away for four or five weeks?

This just isn’t the view of one pajama-clad citizen journalist. I’ve got at least the Maine Congressional delegation on my side. Here’s from the Bangor Daily News:

Although the Congressional delegation says vacationing in Maine in August is just wonderful, they all agree they should remain in Washington to do more work.

“Most people I have talked with and heard from in Maine on the debt ceiling have asked why are we not dealing with jobs, helping to create jobs,” said Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe in an interview. “We should not be taking August off; we should be working to create an economic package that will help get this economy going again.”

She said she had met with GOP Senate leadership and other Republican senators and urged them to oppose taking the month off. The Senate is not scheduled to convene until after Labor Day.

“This super commission simply cannot do everything that needs to be done,” Snowe said. “They need to seek help from the regular committees that have the expertise. I think they should ask the Finance Committee to work on tax reform. We have done a lot of work on overhauling the tax code.”

Republican Sen. Susan Collins said it is “irresponsible” for Congress to take the month off from dealing with the current budget bills, particularly with the additional workload created by the new deficit reduction committee. She said it is unlikely that all of the spending bills will be ready by Oct. 1, resulting in the need for another resolution to keep government operating.

“The House should not have gone home without resolving the [Federal Aviation Agency] authorization bill that is holding up work on airport projects in Maine that need to be done,” she said.

Oh well. Maybe since we are now forming a new Super Congress to wrestle with the debt and spending issue there is no need for the members of the Regular Congress to return to DC at all. Just sayin’.

And I know there are plenty of different spins on what was accomplished — or not — with the just-passed legislation to hike the debt ceiling. But here’s one from Sen. Tom Coburn in WaPo “Why I voted against the debt deal” that strikes me as being accurate:

The good news out of the debt debate is that Washington is now debating how much we can cut instead of how much we can spend. The American people deserve all the credit for forcing that change. Unfortunately, it’s still all talk in Washington. This deal is a victory for politicians but a defeat for families.

In spite of what politicians on both sides are saying, this agreement does not cut any spending over 10 years. In fact, it increases discretionary spending by $830 billion.

I voted against this agreement because it does nothing to address the real drivers of our debt. It eliminates no program, consolidates no duplicative programs, cuts no tax earmarks and reforms no entitlement program. The specter of default or a credit downgrade will still hang over our economy after this deal becomes law.

Politicians on both sides are misleading the country by calling a slowdown in the growth rate of new spending a “cut.” Spending will increase at a time when real cuts are necessary to make us live within our means, repair our economy and preserve our credit rating.

It is true that next year there will be a genuine cut of $7 billion when discretionary spending drops from $1.05 trillion to $1.043 trillion. But with our government borrowing $4.5 billion a day, that $7 billion is enough to fund the government for about 36 hours. And after our day and a half of restraint, spending will increase $830 billion over 10 years.

Supporters say the real savings will come when the joint committee the deal empowers makes recommendations to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion (as we increase the debt limit by the same amount). But the enforcement mechanism designed to force these hard decisions — across-the-board cuts to defense and nondefense programs — will never work. Congress will easily evade these caps. In the Senate, all it will take is 60 votes — the threshold for passing anything. Some have complained about defense cuts, but everyone in Washington knows those cuts can be avoided through supplemental or “emergency” spending bills.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see when the Super Congress returns from vacation.

 

Congress: No News Is Good News?

Well, what now? As I opine this early Friday a.m., House Republicans and other miscreants failed to take John Boehner’s advice to “get your ass in line” and support a plan to increase the debt limit and shave government spending. And the Senate still has to vote on the Harry Reid and gang plan — although if and when that happens it’s unlikely to get the necessary 60 votes.

Wonder if Kim Kardashian is having better success with her wedding plans? I digress. But hey. This tidbit of info is in keeping with my now long-established tradition of highlighting good news stories on Friday.

Although, I guess at this point depending on your view of the world, no news from Congress is good news. Or not. And if Tiny Tim Geithner has been fibbing about the consequences of a USA default or credit downgrade then you better get the women and children off the streets next week. Things will get really nasty.

The reason? It’s possible that neither plan currently being floated in the House and Senate will prevent a credit downgrade. And neither really address the big fish in the skillet: unsustainable government borrowing and spending — without corresponding tax increases.

Anyway, here are a couple of thoughtful perspectives on what’s happening Inside the Beltway.

First from Kimberly Strassel in the Wall Street Journal, “Boehner’s Moment of Truth“:

By Thursday evening, Mr. Boehner had moved a significant portion of his conference, though he proved unable to net the final few votes. Some remained wedded to their vow to never vote for a debt-ceiling hike. Some, like presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann, continued to insist, ludicrously, that a failed deal wouldn’t be a problem. It is an open question if Mr. Boehner could have ever won these votes, no matter how big, deep and dramatic a budget-cutting deal he presented.

What he did do this week is position his party to take credit for a bill that averts a crisis, cuts more spending than any Democrat ever thought possible, and exposes the White House’s insincerity on the deficit and economic prosperity. The Republicans who yesterday undermined bill now bear sole responsibility for whatever political fallout comes next.

And the second from Charles Krauthammer in WaPo, “The great divide“:

We’re in the midst of a great four-year national debate on the size and reach of government, the future of the welfare state, indeed, the nature of the social contract between citizen and state. The distinctive visions of the two parties — social-democratic vs. limited-government — have underlain every debate on every issue since Barack Obama’s inauguration: the stimulus, the auto bailouts, health-care reform, financial regulation, deficit spending. Everything. The debt ceiling is but the latest focus of this fundamental divide.

The sausage-making may be unsightly, but the problem is not that Washington is broken, that ridiculous ubiquitous cliche. The problem is that these two visions are in competition, and the definitive popular verdict has not yet been rendered.

We’ll see how this all plays out this weekend. Or not.

In the meantime, I’ll keep checking my snail mailbox waiting for the Kim Kardashian invitation.

Now, for a Friday, that would be good news.

Trust, Politics and Third Parties

Well, I figured I would be sitting here this early Monday a.m. opining about some kind of framework to hike the debt limit and control federal government spending. Nope. Yet the clock keeps ticking to what the Sunday talk show pundits say will be financial ruin unless a deal is reached this week.

Yawn.

This strikes me as business as usual Inside the Beltway: meet, talk, posture, spin — and accomplish little or nothing.

Here’s an interesting perspective from Dan Balz in WaPo, “Debt talks show breakdown in governing“:

What the country is watching is a breakdown in governing that could be as corrosive to the political system as the possible financial default looming could be to the economy.

Even before Friday’s collapse in the debt talks, public dissatisfaction with Washington was on the rise. The impasse threatens a further deterioration in public confidence.

There is great disagreement in Washington over the meaning of last year’s midterm elections, but it’s almost certain that most Americans did not vote for the kind of paralysis that surrounds the negotiations over the terms of raising the debt ceiling.

Americans voted for, or got, divided government because the public doesn’t fully trust either party with the reins of power. That means the only way out of this problem is through compromise, or what one administration official called “bipartisanship by necessity,” not by choice.

Up until now, enough lawmakers haven’t been ready to accept that in order for a deal to be struck. So the clock ticks.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Wonder how much this has to do with trust? It doesn’t appear that there is any level of trust between the Prez and the administration and members of Congress from both parties. A lot of us voted for Obama with the hope that this would change. It hasn’t. It’s gotten worse, more partisan and defined by gridlock where Congress and the administration don’t appear able to accomplish anything.

Sigh.

And I’m sure that before the clock strikes 12 (or whatever) there will be an agreement: long term or short term, with or without revenue increases, and something that will send people on Medicare and Social Security reaching for the barf bags — or not.

Who know? After seven months of dithering, there are plenty of words but almost no specific details. And sorry. I don’t trust either party or the Prez to get this right at this point.

Would a third, fourth or fifth political party help? Probably not. But something tells me that the idea of additional parties, platforms and candidates starts to get plenty of attention — and perhaps some action.

Here’s from Chris Cillizza in WaPo, “Voters’ renewed anger at Washington spurs formation of third-party advocate groups“:

The numbers are startling.

Eighty percent of people in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll described themselves as either “angry” or “dissatisfied” with the way Washington works — the highest that number has been in nearly two decades.

Additionally, 63 percent said they would prefer to vote for someone other than their current member of Congress in the 2012 election, a historic high in Post-ABC data on that question.

The poll was taken before the “grand bargain” on debt reduction being crafted by President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) collapsed late last week amid the sort of acrimony and public name-calling sure to further sour voters on the ability of the two political parties to get nearly anything done.

Given all of the above, advocates of a third party — or at the very least another viable option in the 2012 presidential race — seem to be sprouting up all over.

The two most prominent are Americans Elect, a group aimed at winning ballot access for an eventual third-party candidate, and No Labels, an organization filled with high-profile names — including former George W. Bush media consultant Mark McKinnon and former Kentucky state treasurer Jonathan Miller — designed as an online home for the politically disaffected. “If you build it (ballot access), they (candidates and voters) will come,” McKinnon said in an e-mail.

No Labels says it advocates for bipartisan solutions to problems and not a third-party presidential candidate.

There are others. Votocracy allows virtually anyone to run for president. Ruck.us, a site developed by two former Democratic operatives, sorts people by common interests rather than political leanings. The Centrist Alliance, the newest entrant into the field, formed officially on July 4.

Those who closely monitor these third-party efforts say that not only is there an array of groups with similar goals but there also is money flowing to them from wealthy individuals trying to change the two-party dynamic.

“Politics has lagged our social and business evolution,” said Scott Ehredt of the Centrist Alliance. “There are 30 brands of Pringles in our local grocery store. How is it that Americans have so much selection for potato chips and only two brands — and not very good ones — for political parties?”

The Potato Chip Party.

Now that’s something we could sink our teeth into.

C’mon.

It’s early.

And we’re teetering on the brink of financial ruin.

Or not.