Budget Percentages

With the passage of the first continuing resolution, the United States federal government has spending authority until December 11, 2014.

House Joint Resolution 124 (HJR 124) allows Uncle Sam to spend money through the first quarter of Fiscal Year (FY) 2015. Instead of going through all of the federal programs one by one and allocating money, HJR 124 mandates that federal programs have their spending levels set at FY14 levels.

Except, that’s not entirely true. Section 101(b) of HJR 124 says that all spending levels for FY15 will be cut by 0.0554 percent of FY14 levels.

Not 1%.

Not even 0.1%.

Congress slashed spending across the board by one-half of 0.1%.

In other words, for every $100 spent, spending has been cut by a nickel. In other other words, for every Ben Franklin bill, subtract a Thomas Jefferson coin.

How does that work in the real life of the federal government? Here are some examples.

According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimate of FY14 spending (here in PDF form), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was authorized to spend $20,880,000,000 (or $20.88 billion for those who like their numbers in words). With the ax wielded by HJR 124, the folks over at 1400 Independence Avenue SW in Washington D.C., now have $11.56 million less to spend in FY15.

The Department of Defense was authorized in FY14 to spend $572,042,000,000 ($572.042 billion…or 27.39 times more than the USDA). Courtesy of HJR 124, the Pentagon now only has $571.725 billion to work with.

And so on down the line.

According to the CBO, discretionary spending for FY14 was set at a level of $1,110,725,000,000 (or $1.110 trillion). Therefore, using a bit of math, the federal government has its FY15 spending authority cut by $615,341,650 and now can only spend $1,110,109,658,350 (or $1.110 trillion).

But how much of this cutting, hacking, and slashing of 0.0054% by Congress actually accomplished anything?

With the start of October, FY14 ended and the CBO has come out with its preliminary look at the fiscal year just passed. According to the CBO Monthly Budget Review for September 2014 (jump to the graph entitled “Total Outlays”), the federal government spent $1.608 trillion on discretionary spending ($578 billion for Defense, $1,030 billion for everything else). However, Uncle Sam spent a grand total of $1.651 trillion on only three programs ($840 billion for Social Security, $509 billion for Medicare, and $302 billion for Medicaid). That $1,651,000,000,000 of mandatory spending – or almost half of all FY14 spending – was untouched by the Congressional ax for FY15.

In fact, those three mandatory programs increased their spending. Once again, according to the CBO, Defense spending shrunk 4.9% from FY13 to FY14. In that same time period, all the other discretionary spending shrunk 2.3%. Meanwhile, over the twelve months from September 2013 to September 2014, Social Security grew 4.6%, Medicare grew 2.7%, and Medicaid grew 13.6%.

All of those figures for mandatory spedning are greater than 0.0554%

TIL – Driving in China

Today is August 1, 2014, and I am sitting in a restaurant in Long Beach, California.

Along with my lovely wife, my dining companions include my oldest friend (and by that I mean the friend I have known the longest in my life) and his wife.

While dining on the fabulous food this eatery has to offer, my friend and his wife are telling me about their most recent trip to China. One of the stories they told us made my eyes widen and jaw drop.

TILSome drivers in China are insane.

According to their tale, they were in a car on a Beijing highway when their driver announced that they were approaching a fog bank. The drive began to slow down, but not because the decreased visibility mandated a slower (and thus safer) speed. No, the driver began to reduce his speed because he knew what was coming up. Because the fog made driving on the highway difficult if not impossible, the drivers in front of my friends simply did U-turns and began to drive the wrong way on the highway to find an alternate route. As the car bearing my friends slowed down, they began to see cars coming towards them. My friends’ driver, determined to go with the flow, did the same as he executed a U-turn and also went the wrong way on a one-way section of the highway. Well, when in Rome…er, Beijing.

Although, as my grandfather joked years ago when he went the wrong way on a one-way street, “Hey, I’m only going one way so what’s the problem.”

As much as living internationally for the past three years has shown me that different folks and countries have different mores, this tale left me with the desire to do some further research to receive a second opinion on this Sino-behavior.

I found it.

From this article from Wikitravel on Chinese driving comes this tidbit:

Another situation where they [Chinese motorists] drive the wrong way is if a vehicle wants to make a left turn off a two-way road with the center median or fence and drive into a driveway, but the driveway is not conveniently located near a gap in the median or fence. They will cross the center median in a gap before their destination driveway, drive the wrong way in the oncoming traffic lane, and exit the road when they reach their driveway. These maneuvers save the effort of travelling a distance and making a u-turn.

While words are helpful, pictures can seal the deal.

I found this 2010 video (courtesy of Gawker) of a Chinese driver going the wrong way down a highway. Granted, he’s using the shoulder, but you get the idea.

After that video, I will not gripe about Bangkok drivers ever again.

It’s a good day when you learn something new.

First Monday in October

It was the first Monday in October and that means the Supreme Court of the United Status (SCOTUS to all the cool kids) is back in session.

John, Antonin, Anthony, Clarence, Ruth, Stephen, Samuel, Sonia, and Elena are all back in black (robes) and ready to kick off the 2014-2015 judicial season.

There was definitely no lollygagging for this Gang of Nine as their first day back on the bench saw them hearing oral arguments in the case known as Heien v North Carolina.

This case is a Fourth Amendment case about the legality of a search that was based on a mistake.

The facts of the case are thus and thus. Mr. Heien was driving his car when he was stopped by a police office for having a broken brake light. The officer asked if he could search the car and Mr. Heien consented. Why he consented I’m not sure because the officer discovered drugs in the car and then arrested Mr. Heien for possession.

However, this is where the case takes a twist. Mr. Heien did some digging and found that in North Carolina it is not illegal to drive with a broken brake light so as long as least one other brake light is operational. Therefore, since Mr. Heien’s car was not in violation of state law, the officer had no right to stop him and subsequently search the car. The state makes the case that the officer made an honest mistake in not knowing all the minute details of North Carolinan traffic laws and that his mistake should be overlooked for the greater good of having found illegal narcotics in Mr Heien’s possession.

In other words, North Carolina is turning the adage on its head and stating that ignorance of the law is an excuse.

A few days as I read about this case, and before oral arguments, I would have predicted that the Court would rule 6-3 in favor of Mr. Heien. I based this prediction on the original adage that ignorance of the law is no excuse. If I can’t use the “Hey, I didn’t know it was illegal” card, then neither should an officer of the peace.

However, after reading the transcipt from the oral arguments, I am revising my prediction and now opine that the Court will rule 5-4 in favor of North Carolina.

I make this new assertion based on the fact that the lawyer representing the state produced a section of North Carolina law that stated that a car needed to have all of its originally equipped rear lamps in good working order. While that section conflicts with another section of state law, the “originally equipped” section is in state law, which means (to my un-legally trained mind) the police officer was correct in stopping Mr. Heien’s car because not all of the originally equipped lamps were in good working order.

We’ll see what happens when the Court makes it decision, but in the meantime, make sure all of your rear lamps are in good working order.

TIL – Matterhorn

Today is July 31, 2014, and I am standing outside of the Matterhorn Bobsleds ride at Disneyland in Anaheim, California.

It is late at night and the fireworks spectacular has already happened. Our large group of extended family members of the Sandosen name (my parents, my siblings, their spouses, and all of their kids…including the five members that make up my immediate brood) are taking one last stab on the bobsleds.

Well, not all of us.

I grew up in Southern California and Disneyland was like a third or fourth home to me. I can remember a time when the Star Tours ride was Monsanto’s Adventure Through Inner Space. I remember when Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters was the theater showing the film America The Beautiful in a full 360 degrees. I remember when Big Thunder Mountain was the Rainbow Caverns Mine Train.

I can also remember a time when the Bobsled ride was comfortable. In 2012, the designers at the House of Mouse thought it would be a darling idea to replace the seats on the ride that could fit two people with seats that only fit individuals. I heartily agree with the line in this article that says, “…many riders have found them [the new seats] to be a bit too cramped for comfort.”

I would be one of those riders.

I had experienced the bobsleds earlier in the day and my knees and back were still reminding me that they did not enjoy the cramped spaces of the updated seats. So, I decided to take a pass when our large group wanted to take a second, and final, crack at the roller coaster that features a Yeti.

However, our group – and everyone behind them – was never able to scream on the Matterhorn because…

TILHow to shut down the Matterhorn ride at Disneyland.

For reasons of privacy, liability, and because he is my brother, let’s call our protagonist in this story Mr.X. Our hero, the aforementioned Mr.X, dutifully waited in line and when his turn came, he stepped into his individual seat at the front of his bobsled. He was not riding alone as he had taken it upon himself to enter the Matterhorn with an inflatable, light-up thunderstick. For those who are unaware and are too lazy to click on the previous link, a thunderstick is an air-filled plastic cylinder that is used to create noise by banging it against another thunderstick. After climbing aboard the bobsled and ensuring that his seatbelt was securely fastened, the sled with Mr.X entered a tunnel and also climbed upward along its tracks. This is when Mr.X thought it would be smashing idea to wave his thunderstick over his head.

This is when the ride stopped.

In the history of the Matterhorn, there have two deaths and that has been two too many. So, to stop a third fatality, the designers have embedded a series of sensors in the ride to determine if anyone stands up or extends an arm or a leg outside of a certain safe zone. Mr.X’s thunderstick tripped this sensor causing an automatic stop to the ride. From what I can deduce, D-Land protocol then called for everyone to be evacuated off the ride and then for personnel to walk the length of the tracks to ensure that no person was left stranded. Since this occurred around 10:15pm and since it would take about an hour to complete this safety procedure, the cast members dressed in lederhosen announced that the ride was closed for the remainder of the night.

While our family members were disappointed at the loss of another spin on the bobsleds and while some were sheepish over the fact that they were the cause of the ride stoppage, it’s still a good day when you learn something new.

Governmental Gridlock

Once again I will be exploring the concept of the “do nothing” Congress, the charge levelled against the legislative branch of the United States government when people feel Congress hasn’t passed enough legislation, approved enough presidential nominations, or failed to even debate proposed laws.

The appellation of “Do Nothing” was first applied to the 80th Congress by President Harry S. Truman during the 1948 elections.

The charge of “Do Nothing” has been levelled against the most recent sessions of Congresses as both the 113th (here and here for examples) and the 112th (example here) have been accused of being even more lazy than the 80th.

However, is such a charge of do-nothingness even true or even reasonable?

Congress does much more than pass legislation, which is one way of measuring effectiveness. For all of the vitriol dumped against the 80th Congress, that legislative session did pass 906 public laws. For comparison, the 112th passed 283 and the 111th passed 383.

As part of its additional duties, Congress debates legislation, hold committee hearings and subcommittee hearings, and hears from their constituents.

There is also one part of the job of Representatives and Senators that could, in my estimation, be part of the reason why things are so gummed up over at the Capitol Building. Congress is inundated with communications from the Executive Branch. Granted, this is the fault of Congress as each one of the official communications that finds its way from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol is required by federal law so if any Representative has any complaint, they only have themselves to blame.

I will use only one day from the Congressional Record as an example. On Friday, September 19, 2014, Congress received seventy-six letters from different agencies of the Executive Branch. I would fathom the guess that members of Congress are expected to read all of these missives (or at least the ones directed their committees and sub-committees).

So what are some of the things the executive agencies need to tell their legislative counterparts? Let’s take a look.

There is a letter from the Under Secretary for Rural Development, Department of Agriculture, transmitting the Department’s final rule — Eliminate the 6-Day Reservation Period Requirement for Rural Development Obligations (RIN: 0575-ZA01) received September 18, 2014, pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 801(a)(1)(A); to the Committee on Agriculture.

There is a letter from the Deputy Director, ODRM, Department of Health and Human Services, transmitting the Department’s final rule — Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; Annual Eligibility Redeterminations for Exchange Participation and Insurance Affordability Programs; Health Insurance Issuer Standards under the Affordable Care Act, Including Standards Related to Exchanges [CMS-9941-F] (RIN: 0938-AS32) received September 3, 2014, pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 801(a)(1)(A); to the Committee on Energy and Commerce.

There is a letter from the Assistant Secretary, Legislative Affairs, Department of State, transmitting Transmittal No. DDTC 14-089, pursuant to the reporting requirements of Section 36(c) of the Arms Export Control Act; to the Committee on Foreign Affairs.

There is a letter from the Chief, Branch of Endangered Species Listing, Department of the Interior, transmitting the Department’s final rule — Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Threatened Status for Oregon Spotted Frog [Docket No.: FWS-R1-ES-2013-0013] (RIN: 1018-AZ04) received September 19, 2014, pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 801(a)(1)(A); to the Committee on Natural Resources.

There is a letter from the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs, NMFS, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, transmitting the Administration’s final rule — Atlantic Highly Migratory Species; North and South Atlantic 2014 Commercial Swordfish Quotas [Docket No.: 000007123-4657-02] (RIN: 0648-BD96) received September 18, 2014, pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 801(a)(1)(A); to the Committee on Natural Resources.

Those are just five examples and you may have noticed something similar in all of the above correspondences. The item common to all of them is the phrase “pursuant to 5 U.S.C. 801(a)(1)(A)”. So what does that mean?

That phrase is referencing the United States Civil Code – specifically Title 5 (Government Organization and Employees), Chapter 801 (Congressional Review), Section (a), Paragraph (1), Line (A) which basically states that before a new rule from a federal agency can take effect, that agency has to submit to Congress a copy of said rule.

Read that again.

Every rule. To Congress.

With all that mail to read, it’s more of a wonder why less isn’t done in the halls of Washington.