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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Misusing the 'Power of the Purse'

 Republican lawmakers have a way of forgetting that their inaction is one of the major causes of later debacles.  Why?  Because every time they refuse to fund something, or act to cut funding, it turns out that those funds are a basis for lack of personnel or services, of safety or enforcement that provokes unfortunate incidents.  You can't run a ship without an adequate crew.  You can't provide adequate services without adequate personnel and structures.  You can't keep water and food and work places safe from corruptive influences without enough inspectors, or enforcement agents.  As much as the slogan "do more with less" is catchy, it is not a viable statement because you can't do more with less; you can only do less with less.  Cuts or inaction are at the root of why certain governmental functions are under-funded and half-baked.  If you want an adequate job done, you have to have the right tools, and in many cases, the number of workers required to do the job.   

Let's take a look at the Ben Ghazi incident, where we lost four good members of the diplomatic corps, including the Ambassador.  Why?  Because we cannot protect our people in those parts of the world where terrorism is rampant and where embassy or consulate guards are limited.  We simply have an untenable situation unless we deploy adequate military units to every such embassy and consulate.  This is WAR folks, and any American diplomatic outpost that is not also a military compound, is vulnerable.  That's the truth of Ben Ghazi, Libya and certainly of Iran; and of Lebanon, Syria, and even Egypt.  Under present circumstances, we cannot protect our diplomatic corps in those areas because they are in the midst of people who want to kill them, and we can't stop those armed militants with 4 or 5 guards or even with 4 or 5 extra guards!  We didn't do it in Viet Nam, and we can't do it in the Middle East either.     

 Instead of facing that basic fact, we have seen an arrogant, multi-millionaire Congressman, Darryl Issa from California, trying desperately to blame the Obama administration for the Ben Ghazi incident.  The truth of the matter is this:  Ben Ghazi is not an isolated incident.  Other embassies have experienced, or been threatened with, attacks from local groups.  If a force of 100-1,000 militants attack our people in an embassy or consulate (an overwhelming force in terms of the measures in place to deal with such an attack), nothing can stop them except an equal US force, and we can't provide that.  Or, maybe we can, but just haven't faced that fact. 

 So Hillary was right, again.  "What difference would it have made" if she or her underlings had sent a few extra guards?  Not one scintilla of difference (except maybe more loss of life).  That's what these Republican congresspersons keep denying.  They can't accept the fact that we are in an untenable situation.  They would rather politicize that untenable circumstance, and use this incident to demean and destroy our first black president.  Please spare us the empty rhetoric.  Either fund what must be done to protect our diplomats, or shut up and stop trying to make Mr. Obama the scapegoat for an inadequate response to a dangerous situation on the part of a recalcitrant Congress; a response that has actually gone on now for a few years. 

 The Huffington Post reminds us of this lack of clarity on what it would take to protect our diplomats:

 "Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) acknowledged... (recently) that House Republicans had consciously voted to reduce the funds allocated to the State Department for embassy security since winning the majority in 2010.  ....CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien asked the Utah Republican if he had "voted to cut the funding for embassy security."

"Absolutely," Chaffetz said. "Look we have to make priorities and choices in this country. We have…15,000 contractors in Iraq. We have more than 6,000 contractors, a private army there, for President Obama, in Baghdad. And we’re talking about can we get two dozen or so people into Libya to help protect our forces. When you’re in tough economic times, you have to make difficult choices. You have to prioritize things.”

 For the past two years, House Republicans have continued to de-prioritize the security forces protecting State Department personnel around the world. In fiscal year 2011, lawmakers shaved $128 million off of the administration's request for embassy security funding. House Republicans drained off even more funds in fiscal year 2012 -- cutting back on the department's request by $331 million.

Consulate personnel stationed in Benghazi had allegedly expressed concerns over their safety in the months leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.  Chaffetz and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, claim those concerns were ignored. "

 Yes, they were ignored -- by the fools who run our Congress who can't get it through their thick skulls that in order to protect our diplomatic people in a time of hotspot wars and attacks that we must commit troops to defend our diplomats in volatile countries like Libya and Syria!  Or, maybe we can do it with private contractors!  How about some mercenary troops?  Either put up or shut up; and stop blaming the Executive branch when you hold the power of the purse, or have you forgotten that too?

Let's move on to another debacle that has been long in the brewing process: the Veteran's Administration failure to care adequately for our military men and women who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan (and other outposts), and are in need of many services, particularly of a medical nature.  Congress has once again ignored the massive problems with the system, and has simply decided that cutting their budget is the right thing to do no matter what that produces as consequences.  Once again, the power of the purse is at the base of the problems, but not the whole problem. 

What are the problems?   The Wall Street Journal has a bit to say on the matter (and it's not that often that such good non-partisan reporting is found there -- added emphases are mine):

 "Now that the political fight over Eric Shinseki has ended, our nation can focus on reforming the VA system, which treats about 10 million of the 22 million U.S. combat veterans and costs taxpayers about $150 billion a year.

 "The problem is much bigger than negligence and dereliction of duty by individual bad actors. In fact, there are two main problems: one cultural, the other of supply and demand.

The supply-and-demand issue is partly due to the huge new caseload of qualifying veterans. Some of this is inevitable in wartime, but secretary of veteran’s affairs Gen. Shinseki instituted policies making it easier for returning veterans to seek treatment. This worthy action worsened the shortage of administrators and physicians processing claims and treating patients. Separately, poor government decision making, largely in Congress, has conflated war injuries with health problems related to aging, and the VA system was unwisely asked to handle both.

 "The cultural issue arises largely because the VA universe of hospitals, clinics and patients is a closed system, effectively impervious to outside influence. Most VA personnel, of course, work tirelessly and at modest pay. But the system itself is badly flawed

Proof is the VA’s poor performance in expediting and improving care for hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury, the signature injuries of our 21st-century conflicts. The VA system has been reluctant to ask for help—even as it has succeeded in getting veterans to seek help with issues that used to be so stigmatized our wounded warriors often preferred to hide or ignore them.

 The VA’s two types of problems compound each other. Demand for treatment greatly exceeds supply even though the VA budget has about tripled since 2000. And the VA has resisted meaningful creation of public-private partnerships to address its huge caseload.

A 2012 executive order directed the VA to establish public-private partnerships for research into better treatment for PTSD and traumatic brain injury, as well as to create more and better therapy options. While the research program is well conceived, the therapy concept to date involves hospitals in remote areas, far from VA hospitals and clinics. It is in effect a niche effort. Broader private-sector involvement is needed, particularly for mental health issues, and should include some of the country’s best teaching and clinical hospitals, whose innovative methods could push the envelope on treating the brain injuries that frequently debilitate veterans and their families’ quality of life even after conflicts end. Facilities of such size could make a meaningful difference in addressing the VA’s enormous backlogs.

Medicaid, Medicare and even elements of the Defense Department health-care system reimburse for care that patients can seek in a variety of private settings. Starting immediately, any veteran qualifying for treatment of PTSD or traumatic brain injury should have the option of seeking that therapy within or outside the VA system, with the government footing at least most of the bill. This would introduce an innovative and constructively competitive culture into the community of caregivers for our nation’s wounded warriors."

 I'm not sure there is much more to say, but I'll say it anyway.  The one thing left out of that excellent article is the same thing that afflicts our government in almost all of its branches:  the lack of a world-class computer system and data-gathering.  The primitiveness of the systems in some of the departments is appalling, and the VA is no exception.  There is just no excuse: 1) for delays of up to one-two months for treatment - an adequate computer system would not allow that to happen because built-in would be a notification system that would alert administrators all the way to the top as to the backlog; 2) for anyone to be able to hide the delays -- an adequate system would not allow such tampering with data.  If it did occur, alarm bells should go off everywhere! and 3) for the lack of a world-class data system that not only keeps track of treatments and recommends next steps, but is also able to indicate when outside treatment and services are required.

 So, once again, Congress must take most of the blame.  Ignoring the technical needs of the government for such a world-class data system is equivalent to their neglect of our infrastructure which is vital to the health of our businesses and economy.  As a nation, we are going to pay an enormous price for this neglect of duty on the part of Congress.  The VA problem is just the tip of the iceberg.  Transportation is going to continue to lag; buildings will deteriorate and crumble; bridges will fall; railroads fail, and roads will be ever more dangerous as more truckers fill them, and more accidents occur.  The neglect of investment in our infrastructure, including our computer systems, is tantamount to the kind of "high crimes and misdemeanors" that the Constitution mentions in regard to grounds for impeachment.  Thus, any attempt to impeach the President for any trumped-up charges should be met by 'We, the People' with a serious call for the impeachment of all those who have voted against the refurbishing of our infrastructure. 

 Now let me add to that the abuse of children that Congress has allowed to happen by neglect and inaction, as well as by active cutting of programs that benefit children and families.  Because I have spoken before of this (see blog postings for 4/13/2014, 2/17/2014, 3/14/2013, 3/3/2013), I will make it brief and to the point.  Pre-natal care is essential for children yet unborn.  Affordable healthcare is a must for children if they are to grow as they should and to face life without the effects of childhood diseases; they must have a first-class education that prepares them for life's work and life's demands, beginning with a pre-K program that starts them off with an advantage; they must be protected from environmental hazards; they must be encouraged and enabled to graduate from college;  they must be nurtured by families that are themselves not put at risk by either private or public decisions that can harm their lives.  Children must be nourished in many ways:  by caring people, with the right foods, the best education possible, and with a vast array of possibilities for living a fruitful and meaningful life. 

 The Republican Radicals in Congress have decided that none of this is true or possible.  They have instead decided to cut funding for almost every program that benefits, encourages, nurtures and promotes children:  research into prevention of childhood diseases, universal pre-K education, housing for the homeless and the poor, adequate funding for all schools and the resources necessary to bring about a world-class education for all; they cut Head Start, they cut Aid to children and families, they cut food stamps, and housing subsidies, and want to repeal affordable health care.  They have neglected the needs of certain children with special needs; they have cut Pell grants and neglected to cut back on interest rates for student loans.  They neglect entirely the special needs of homeless children, children with disabilities, children who will not go to college, and of those who drop out of school.  They have increased punishment for children who stray from the laws of the land, but have done nothing to reform the juvenile justice system or the over-incarceration of drug-abusers.  They have neglected the potential of minority children and have instead laid the groundwork for them to be perpetual felons with no vote, no rights and no jobs.  I call this abuse and neglect of children who are our most valuable resource.  The congressional naysayers are child abusers and for that they must be called to account.  Impeachment for them is too mild.

 Having the power to invest in the future, the Congress has chosen to cut programs and services.  Cutting the ground out from under millions of citizens is not a viable problem-solving technique.  It is, without a doubt in my mind, equivalent to undermining our government and our economy; something similar to an act of disloyalty.  It should not go unpunished.