Out go the lights 

In D.C. as in Helena, they're doing the shutdown shuffle

Montanans and citizens across the nation are justified in wondering just what's going on in our country these days. The federal government teeters on the edge of a shutdown while President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid dance across their stages and bully pulpits and Speaker of the House John Boehner toes the hard line on cutting the federal budget. Closer to home, Gov. Brian Schweitzer is in the same grotesque game of chicken with the state's Republican-dominated legislature. As the partisan battles grow fiercer, the governance we pay for is starting to look more and more like all-out civil war, with the citizens the ultimate victims.

On both the state and federal level, the Tea Party, which has become the radical wing of the Republican Party, is putting tremendous pressure on more moderate Republicans to slash spending. Some would say they've already gone a long way in their quest by getting Obama and his Senate Democratic majority to agree to a whopping $30 billion in reductions to the federal budget for the remainder of this fiscal year. And that doesn't count the much larger plans an-nounced this week to seek a reduction of more than $5 trillion in federal spending over the next decade.

Perhaps emboldened by their success so far, Congressional Republicans are now indicating their willingness to "touch the third rail" and go after what are called "entitlement" programs, such as Social Security. "Entitlement" is, however, a misnomer, since Social Security has been principally funded by deductions from the paychecks from every job any citizen has ever held. In any case, it's our money, it's always been our money, and, you know, we'd like to get it back one of these days.

Ironically, in the offer Republicans made to President Obama and the Senate in their latest Continuing Funding Resolution, the only real "entitlement" program that will receive full taxpayer funding is the Pentagon, secure behind its shield of two ongoing wars and a third war in Libya that President Obama just started. So while the elderly, the sick, and the young of our nation face cuts to retirement, health care, and education, the insane $2 billion-per-day military spending goes on and on...unquestioned, unassailable and, ultimately, unsustainable.

As he continued his fruitless search for "bipartisan cooperation," Obama was bluntly told by Speaker Boehner this week that agreement on anything less than the terms dictated by the Tea Party is untenable. Boehner has already warned House Republi-cans that a shutdown of the federal government was not just possible, but urged them to prepare for it. Meanwhile, in the background, the cries of "cut it or shut it" from the Tea Party continue unabated.

It is against this incredible uncertainty, this open warfare in Washington, D.C., that the Montana legislature continues to muddle its way through one of the worst legislative sessions in its history. Even though, with only three weeks left, the Republican majorities in the House and Senate have yet to produce a budget or school-funding plan, they appear united in their bid to reject federal funding for social services, food stamps, family planning, and heating assistance.

While Schweitzer argues that rejecting the federal money won't do a thing to federal spending because it will merely be appropriated for other states, Montana's lone Congressional representative, Denny Rehberg, has already introduced long-shot legislation that would mandate that any federal funds rejected by state legislatures must be used to reduce the burgeoning federal debt of $14 trillion or more.

For his part, Schweitzer an-nounced this week that without the restoration of the federal funds, the Republican budget bill is "dead on arrival" and he'll veto it. That, of course, would then leave the state government in a situation analogous to that of the federal government. If the governor vetoes the budget, Montana can run until the end of June, which is the end of the fiscal year. But unless agreement is reached on a budget deal before then, whether through negotiation or a special session, state government will shut down on July 1.

So far, agreement does not seem any closer in Helena than in Washington. Senator Dave Lewis, a former budget director for both Democratic and Republican governors, says restoring the federal funds in the state budget will simply not pass muster with conservative legislators—and this session is thick with conservative, mostly inexperienced, legislators.

But here's the rub. Let's say Schweitzer and the Republican legislators do reach agreement one way or another in time to keep Montana's government running. What happens if the federal money simply isn't there? The federal funds for the elderly, sick, and young are exactly what the Congressional conservatives are targeting. And Obama has not exactly painted the picture of a strong leader when it comes to negotiating with Republicans. In fact, just the opposite, from health care to tax breaks for the wealthy to corporate largesse.

So what happens if Obama, faced with the shutdown of almost the entire federal government, except for the military, decides to do a little triage, sacrificing some budget areas to save the government as a whole? In this shootout at the Not-OK Corral, betting on the draw and aim of Obama may not quite get us out the other side in one piece.

Montanans and the American people watch in shock and dismay as the shutdown shuffle—between Congress and the president, the governor and the Legislature, and federal and state governments—becomes ever more unendurable. In the meantime, governance of the people, by the people, and for the people seems lost in that shuffle.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at opinion@missoulanews.com.

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