29 July 2011

A Civics Lesson for Congress

At one point yesterday, I saw a tweet that noted the U.S. government had scarcely more cash on hand than Apple.  I suspect by now Apple has more money than the government.  Wall Street has been shouting from their ivory towers about how catastrophic a default will be, and how bad it would be for our credit to be downgraded. The response to this has largely been a collective, "Screw Wall Street!" as though only people with investment portfolios will suffer consequences of failure to get a deal finalized in time to stave off disaster.  All I've seen on Twitter from Representative Geoff Davis (in whose constituency yours truly resides) has been some variation of the following:
We have asked, and the President has still not released ANY plan to address the   - 3:10 P.M. 28 July 2011
Representative Davis has been keen to emphasize this point, as though President Obama is the bad guy here for not telling Congress how to do their job.  Perhaps he should.  As a member of Congress, Representative Davis really ought to know that it's his job to help write the law and President Obama's job to either sign it or veto it.  I'm enough of a wonk I understand why this has been the message repeated throughout this debacle: it reinforces to conservative voters the idea that this is all President Obama's fault.  And a week ago I was resigned to tolerate this ad hominem nonsense as part of the theatrics.

Then last night Speaker John Boehner failed to rally enough GOP support to even hold a vote on his own plan.  Representative Denny Rehberg (R-Montana) decried:
"So you can go to college on Pell Grants — maybe I should not be telling anybody this because it’s turning out to be the welfare of the 21st century," Rehberg told Blog Talk Radio in April. "You can go to school, collect your Pell Grants, get food stamps, low-income energy assistance, Section 8 housing, and all of a sudden we find ourselves subsidizing people that don’t have to graduate from college.”
This was cited as representative last night that at least some segment of the House Republicans feel Pell Grants are too generous and ought to be cut or even abolished.  I've got news for Representative Rehberg.  Students who do not perform well forfeit their Pell Grants and must repay them.  I know this because I was one of the selfish, lazy Americans who had the audacity to benefit from Pell Grants.  You're welcome to consult the bursar's office at the University of Louisville.  They can confirm I received the money.  I received some residual money.  Wanna know what I did with it?  Generally, I bought text books (which, in case you're unaware, are expensive).  Even being frugal and buying used copies from online sellers--which admittedly saved me a ton of money--ate up most of my residual checks.  I also went through a ton of printer paper and ink.  Paper's cheap, but ink's not.  And remember, I graduated in 2006.  We paid more for ink that lasted less in those days.  My parents divorced when I was a child, my mom struggled to take care of my brother and me with a budget that didn't really encourage such luxuries as college savings and my dad not only never set aside any money for either of us (for college or otherwise), but he never so much as offered to buy me a textbook.

I was just about to feel guilty for expecting government to make possible what my family couldn't--or wouldn't--when I thought about the recent revelation that Representative Michele Bachmann, herself a presidential candidate campaigning against the evils of government programs, took out a $417,000 home loan backed by the very agencies she seeks to scrap.  When asked about the disparity between her rhetoric and actions, Representative Bachmann defended herself by saying:
Now unlike all of you, who I’m sure pay cash for your homes, there are people out there like myself who actually have to go to a bank and get a mortgage. And this is the problem. It’s almost impossible to buy a home in this country today without the federal government being involved. Whether it is with the FHA, whether it’s with Fannie, whether it’s with Freddie, it’s almost impossible to buy a home…What’s important is that we do dismantle a number of these federal programs that everyone agrees are clearly out of control.
That's right.  It's "almost impossible" to get a home without government involvement.  Not because government is a controlling institution seeking to dictate our lives, but because without the confidence that lenders have in government to ensure loans pan out, few would qualify for them.  A reasonable person understands that Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae exist to reassure lenders--not control citizens.  Without government involvement, lenders would approve far fewer home loans.  Maybe Representative Bachmann thinks that would be a good thing, that too many uppity greedy selfishly feel entitled to live in a home they own.  I would disagree with her, but she'd have a lot more credibility to tell me what she believes if she herself hadn't already demonstrated that home ownership is a legitimate, respectable aspiration and that lenders do require government reassurance to make that dream happen for most people.

Why do I bring up Pell Grants and home loans?  Because the Tea Party is the tail wagging the GOP dog and they clearly do not understand cause and effect any more than they understand why these government programs exist in the first place.  In Representative Bachmann's mind, then, getting rid of the agencies that make possible home loans for most people (it's estimated 90% of home mortgages are backed by either Freddie Mac or Fannie Mae) will lead to a cleaner, unfettered home loan process.  Except, of course, that without government agencies to reassure lenders, they won't approve the loans.  How does anyone over the age of seven, much less a member of Congress, not understand this?

This debt ceiling crisis exists in its current state in large part because entirely too many people--from citizens to politicians to the talking heads on TV and the blogosphere--have characterize this and every other political issue as though we were watching a grand version of Survivor, wondering whether Team Obama would prevail over Team Boehner, and whether Team Boehner would even stay together.  These issues are not abstract concepts confined the distant realm of Washington.  These things affect every one of us in one way or another, every day.

Representative Davis makes it clear that more than a few members of Congress need to attend a civics class and learn what their job actually involves--and what they're not supposed to outsource to the White House.  Representatives Rehberg and Bachmann make clear that when they're finished taking civics, they need to take an economics class and find out just how important Pell Grants and federally-backed home loans really are.  At the very least, understand this:

You're not just "sticking it" to President Obama.  You're placing us all at risk.  There's no "I just wanted to defy Obama" exemption that will get you out of paying exorbitantly higher interest rates if our credit is downgraded.  The consequences won't be confined to Wall Street or the White House.  They will be felt by all of us.  Grow the hell up, have someone tell you how to do your job and then do it.

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