What a difference a week makes! Just seven days ago, all of America (and a good chunk of the United Nations and international community) was consumed with the question of whether President Donald Trump had referred to Haiti, all the countries of Africa, and possibly parts of Antarctica as "shitholes," "shithouses," or nothing of the sort. But just as the good times were getting started, that urgent debate was interrupted by a slew of brand-new outrages, all playing out as a potential government shutdown approaches like an iceberg inexorably moving closer to the Titanic.
So many deck chairs to rearrange—how could we possibly take notice of that thing on the horizon? But the plain truth, especially for libertarians who might otherwise cheer a government shutdown, is that we need to stop wallowing in the mire of everyday stupidity and fix our gaze on important things such as passing a federal budget, ending effectively warrantless surveillance on Americans, and hammering out immigration laws that reflect the best hopes of our country and not our darkest fears.
Since Shitgazi hit the fan, so much new has happened. In no particular order, we've dealt with "Girthergate," in which the president's detractors claim that Donald Trump is actually much, much fatter than he already plainly appears to be. No way, say the girthers, that the former beauty-pageant tycoon and serial fat-shamer is a svelte 239 pounds as his doctor claims! We've met Stormy Daniels, a porn star who has publicly denied reports that she had a sexual relationship with the married Trump starting in 2006; she also denies that she was paid $130,000 in hush money to keep quiet. The Wall Street Journal, in a compelling display of old-style investigative journalism, says she and Trump are lying and its reporters have followed a payoff trail through a complicated financial setup involving Delaware-based shell companies. A sub-scandal in this story has also gotten a lot of ink: "Stormy Daniels Once Claimed She Spanked Donald Trump With a Forbes Magazine." If that isn't enough for you to swear off print for good and go all-digital, there remains the hotly debated question of whether the particular issue featured a cover story on Trump himself or his daughter Ivanka, about whom he has said some weird shit. Trump also released the winners of his "fake news" awards, too, which he defined mostly as any news account hostile to him and his agenda.
If this was a Marx Brothers movie, this would be all good, dirty fun. But we're dealing with situations a tad more serious. Over the past week, both houses of Congress, in a rare but depressing show of bipartisanship, overwhelmingly approved renewal of Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which effectively allows the government to spy not simply on foreign agents but on U.S. citizens. As Scott Shackford explains, "This bill doesn't just renew Section 702 for six years; it also codifies permission for the FBI to access and use data secretly collected from Americans for a host of domestic federal crimes that have nothing to do with protecting America from foreign threats." While the legislation awaits Donald Trump's signature into law, dissenting members of Congress have called for publishing a classified four-page memo that they say "reveals alleged United States government surveillance abuses [that are]…'shocking,' 'troubling' and 'alarming,' with one congressman likening the details to KGB activity in Russia." In a Senate that has been incapable of passing an actual budget in forever, a bipartisan group of senators led by Democrat Ron Wyden and Republican Rand Paul were shut down when they tried to filibuster FISA renewal. FISAgate just can't compete with Spankgate, it seems.
If the Senate fails to enact a continuing budget resolution today (CR), the federal government will shut down for the first time since October 2013. Yesterday, the House passed a CR that will keep the government funded through mid-February. Republicans in both houses of Congress have included a six-year renewal of the Children's Health Insurance Program, which serves low-income Americans, as a way to pressure Democrats to accept the deal. Democratic senators are instead pushing for a few-day extension to the current CR and passage of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which would grant legal status to some 700,000 immigrants who were brought here illegally as children. DACA protections put into place by President Obama via executive order currently expire on March 5.
It's telling that virtually all the conversation, both among elected officials and the press, is about which party will take the rap for shutting down the government, and how Trump's share of the blame will influence the midterm elections (Democrats must surely be worried that Republicans ended up doing extremely well in the 2014 midterms despite being held responsible for the 2013 shutdown). These people are not serious about politics or policy. Like Donald Trump, they are dilettantes who refuse to settle down and work.
Indeed, it's even more telling that since 1977, when new rules went into effect, the government has only passed a budget before the relevant fiscal year began four times (the last time was in 1997). To say the wheels have come off the most-basic function of government—passing a budget to pay for its operations—is a gross understatement. If the last shutdown is any guide, there really is very little to worry about in the near- and mid-term from a government shutdown. "Essential" functions, such as cutting checks to seniors, will continue, and "essential" federal employees will show up for work (did you know that fully 95 percent of staff at the Department of Education are considered "non-essential"?)
But especially from a limited-government point of view, we need to do better if we want a state that does less and costs less. Not only do the lives of dreamers and other people hang in the balance, but government spending is structured so it increases massively over time even if our legislators do nothing. Since the early 2000s, when federal spending was split more or less evenly between "mandatory" spending on entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security that ratchets up automatically and "discretionary" spending (education, defense, and the like), which needs to be voted on each year, the mix has shifted dramatically to mandatory. Currently, less than one-third of the federal budget is discretionary and thus voted on each year.
So while Congress fiddles, the budget grows bigger and bigger. So does the national debt. The essential function of Trump's endless outrage flares is to distract all of us from exactly the sort of serious conversations we need to be having. He is who he is; it's up to him and his handlers to live all that. The rest of us need to spend less time on Spankgate and more time on entitlement reform. It matters less that Trump calls Haiti a shithole and more that Congress actually work to hammer out a good immigration reform plan and force it down the president's throat like .
But it's Friday, alas, and we can only figure out what fresh hell awaits us in the coming week.