Taking a civic break for the holidays

New York Times News ServiceDecember 22, 2013 

So, how do you like living in a country that has a budget?

Last week, the Senate finished work on legislation that will forestall any government shutdowns for the next two years. Then our lawmakers packed up and went home for the holidays. They kept everything else open and closed down Congress! Finally, America’s getting what it really wants for Christmas.

It’s great, right? And people have noticed. Even as a new federal budget was wending its way from House to Senate, a Washington Post-ABC News poll showed that American approval of the job Congress was doing had rocketed from 12 percent to 16 percent.

“The budget agreement is not perfect,” said the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, before the bill finally passed. This was a major refrain during several days of long, meandering debates. Other favorite themes: bipartisanship, the evils of Obamacare, the goodness of Pope Francis and the Republicans’ strong feelings about unfairness of Senate rules.

“Like the frog in the warming water, we do not realize we are being cooked and that the freedoms of Americans are being cooked!” cried Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. That was a reference to the rules, although honestly, it could have been about pretty much anything except the pope.

We are not going to discuss whether or not he had a point. I believe I speak for the entire nation when I say that there will be no thinking about the Senate rules during Christmas vacation.

The debate – perhaps you didn’t catch it – also included a passionate attack on one section of the budget that reduces automatic cost-of-living increases to pensions of military retirees who aren’t actually retired.

Let me run over that again. Suppose you joined the Army at 25. You can retire at 45 on a good pension, which is regularly increased through cost-of-living adjustments. Under the new budget law, those increases would be 1 percent lower until you hit 62.

“How far have we fallen? Do we have no shame?” cried Sen. Lindsey Graham.

A number of observers noted that Graham is a huge fan of reducing cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security recipients. Also, of raising the retirement age for Social Security to 70. But remembering our holiday season, we will accept him at his word that he was simply offended by the sudden and arbitrary nature of the military cut and not posturing for the veteran-heavy Republican voter base in the state where he is facing a primary next year.

The change in benefits for the military unretired won’t kick in until 2015, and senators from both parties are already standing in line with proposals to eliminate it. Shouldn’t we focus instead on protecting Americans who are actually past working age? And what about the many, many enlisted men and women who serve in combat, then leave the service after 10 or 12 or even 19 years? You’d think they could at least qualify for a 401(k).

Mark this down as something to work on in the new year.

Right now, we can celebrate the fact that we do not have a single fiscal cliff to fall over until February at the earliest. That would be the debt-ceiling crisis, when we get to wait and see whether the House Republicans will refuse to pay the nation’s creditors until somebody repeals Obamacare. “We don’t want nothing out of this debt limit,” Paul Ryan said ominously.

Oh, Paul Ryan, we were just warming up to you and now this.

But that’s all next year. Everybody’s clearing out of Washington now. President Barack Obama – who is looking really tired – left for Hawaii after a press conference in which he was asked if this was the worst year of his presidency.

Obama said he did not think about it that way. Personally, I kind of wished he’d said: “Yes, and I swear it will get better from here on out.”

Someone else asked about the woes of the Obamacare rollout. “Since I’m in charge, obviously we screwed it up,” said the president. Notice the shift in pronouns in this sentence.

Anyhow, let’s hope he has a restful couple of weeks. You, too. Feel free to forget about politics for a little bit. Hillary Clinton said recently that she’s going to decide about running for president in 2014. The takeaway is that if Hillary’s not thinking about this stuff right now, you have total leave to go off the grid. Visit your aunt. Go see a movie.

Maybe not the new “Hobbit” one – Thorin Oakenshield, the crown prince of the dwarves, looks a lot like Sen. Ted Cruz.

Wherever you go and whatever you do, remember to stand tall knowing that you’re the citizen of a country that is capable of continuing to run for the next 24 months. Doesn’t get any better than that.

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