January 26, 2019

Horse 2507 - The State Of The State Of The Union

Unless things have changed by the time this is posted at 7:17am AEST in Sydney, the United States Government is still in partial shutdown, due to the political machinations of the current resident at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The idiocy of this whole thing isn't that this is over a truly petty matter but that this current government shutdown is now the longest in American history, affecting about 800,000 federal employees out of 1.8 million full-time civil servants, not counting military personnel and postal workers. Of those, about 380,000 have been furloughed, meaning that they either cannot work because the offices are shutdown and/or the more important and immediate problem is that they are not getting paid. The rest, whose positions are categorized as essential, are working without pay.
This is madness. This is idiotic. This is the second worst administration in history.

There are four basic components to this mess, that fit together like the world's most idiotic puzzle. Yet I fear that in 1776, the founding fathers would have looked at all of this and laughed with glee because their checks and balances have ensured that everything has been perfectly balanced to a big fat zero in every column and no checks are being written.
I'm going to attempt to explain those four components as I understand the state of play and why the TV Guide for Sydney which lists the State Of The Union Address for tomorrow morning, is wrong.

1 - The Budget Process
As nonsensical as this might sound to a set of Australian ears like mine, there is not one US Federal Budget but actually twelve. Instead of just the single Appropriations Bill No.1 20XX which makes perfect sense and which is what we have in Australia or the Finance Act 20XX which is what they have in the UK, the US Federal Budget is comprised of twelve bills, which the twelve Appropriations Subcommittees have determined shall be the discretionary funding for various government functions. This explains why it is possible to have a partial government shutdown because if some budget bills have been passed into law, then funding has already been secured for those functions of government; which is currently what we have now.

As it stands though, all twelve budget bills have been passed by both the House and the Senate. This means that even before the changeover date when the Democrats took control of the House, that the bills which had not yet been signed were actually all Republican bills. It might very well be possible that the newly elected Democrats would want to propose a new set of budget bills but that would need to pass the Senate before it reached the President.
President Donald Trump is actually refusing to sign the budget bills which were proposed by his own party, when the Republicans had control of all three rings under the big top that is the circus of government. To claim that this is a Democrat shutdown is simply materially untrue.

2 - Only Three of Twelve Appropriations Bills Remain
It is surprisingly difficult to work out exactly which of the twelve Appropriations Bills remain unsigned because the US Government is a rather diffuse organisation. I did eventually track them all down by looking through the lists of bills tabled before the House and Senate though.  The ones which remain outstanding and unsigned, are perhaps telling as to what the agenda of this President are:

Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Subcommittee.
This oversees funding for the Department of Commerce, the Department of Justice, NASA, and other agencies. Of these, the most important to Mr Trump is the Department of Justice because within that department is the Special Counsel's Office investigation, headed by Robert Mueller, which is a counterintelligence investigation of the Russian government's efforts to interfere, with primary focus on the 2016 presidential election; and to look into a potential obstruction of justice by Trump and others associated with the 2016 Trump Campaign.
Technically, the Department of Justice is not currently funded; that includes Robert Mueller's investigation. I'm wondering if Mr Trump is hoping that by taking away the dog's dinner, that the dog will go away. I suspect though, that this only makes the dog hungrier and want to bite harder.

State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee.
The Subcommittee oversees funding for the U.S. State Department, USAID, and related programs. Mr Trump probably doesn't care about USAID or other programs and kind of wishes that they'd all just go away.
I suspect that Mr Trump has a particular gripe with the State Department because one of its former Secretaries was Hilary Clinton and one of its prime functions is to represent the United States at the United Nations. Not wanting to fund this particular part of government appears to be a matter of personal vendetta more than anything else. It is probably not a conindicence that it the the State Department who has oversight when it comes to foreign relations with the US; that means that while it is closed, the diplomatic channels which might be usful to  Special Counsel Mueller's investigation also remain closed.

Homeland Security Subcommittee.
As you would expect, this subcommittee oversees funding for the Department of Homeland Security. The most public face of the DHS is at airports and so this where most people are likely to come into contact with it however, it would be the Department of Homeland Security's budget which contains the line item for the Border Wall with Mexico, or rather, does not.
By Mr Trump refusing to pass this Appropriations Bill, he is saying that he wants his wall really really badly. Admittedly $5bn out of a total budget of $4094bn is tiny but it is still enough to kick up a stick as a symbol to say that he did something as President.

3 - Pelosi Closing The House Of Representatives
Nancy Pelosi who is now the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, can also direct the day to day functioning of the House. Just like our own  United States House of Representatives, the Speaker has the authority to direct the Sergeant at Arms of the House. Functionally this is identical to the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, who has the ability and responsibility to open and close the doors of the legislative chamber. This is important because just like our own House of Representatives or the United Kingdom's House of Commons, the head of state is not allowed into the legislature without express permission.
Ms Pelosi as the Speaker, is completely entitled to refuse permission to the President in any and all circumstances; especially in a case like this where both houses of Congress have done their job and he refuses to do his.

4 - The State of the Union Address 

Article II, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution states:
He (the President) shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient; he may, on extraordinary occasions, convene both Houses, or either of them, and in case of disagreement between them, with respect to the time of adjournment, he may adjourn them to such time as he shall think proper; he shall receive ambassadors and other public ministers; he shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed, and shall commission all the officers of the United States.

The President is required by the Constitution to give to the Congress information of the state of the union, however the Constitution does not in any way shape or form, prescribe the manner in which it should be done. Up until about 1914 the vast majority of the State of the Union adressses were simply written and sent to the Congress wherein they would be read aloud. Woodrow Wilson was probably the first president to be physically present when delivering the State of the Union Address, on an annual basis. There have been addresses presented in the Senate chamber and in the case of FDR, his 1944 State of the Union Address was delivered on the radio because he had had the flu. The main reason that I can see why the The President delivers the State of the Union Address in the chamber of the House is because there's more seats in there.

The thing to remember though is that although Ms Pelosi controls the functioning of the House, President Trump could if he wanted to, "convene both Houses", "as he shall think proper". That means by extension that he could, if he really wanted to, force all 538 members of Congress to attend a rally, or deliver his State of the Union Address from the car park of a Burger King.

Where we are:
Trump could sign the three appropriations bills into law at a moment's notice and end this. They have already passed the House and Senate and are sitting there in the Oval Office. This is entirely, 100%, without question, absolutely his fault and nobody else's. Instead of bothering to do any proper negotiation, the supposed author of "The Art Of The Deal", has decided that the best way to move forward is to hold the wages of 1.8 million full-time civil servants to ransom, just so he can get his stupid wall.
There you go. That is The State of the Union. It is one giant mess; caused by one man who probably shouldn't be there and who is probably obstructing justice as well as the normal functioning of government, just so he can get a legacy promise built.

And by the way... Happy Invasion Day.

Speaking on day 35 of the shutdown in the White House Rose Garden, Mr Trump said he was "very proud to announce" the agreement would fund the government until 15 February.
He said federal workers affected by the political imbroglio, whom he called "incredible patriots", would receive full back-pay.
- BBC News, 26th Jan 2019

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