Monday, September 30, 2013

The Last Time DC Turned Out The Lights

There is banter all across the world over a possible "government shutdown" if both houses of congress can't agree on something that Obama will sign.

The last such impasse came about 17 years ago. Newt Gingrich led the House, which held a Republican (albeit, not necessarily conservative) majority. Several times they pushed through a budget bill. Several times it was kicked back by the Senate. Eventually, bills passed both houses and went to Clinton's desk. Four times Clinton vetoed the bill.

The bill was able to pass with a majority of both houses, but not the 2/3 majority required to override a veto.

The media attempted to blame Newt Gingrich. In reality, the "government shutdown" was due to Clinton's veto. It was his fault. He never owned it. However, once he did, due to severe popular and political pressure, due to a couple of scandals from when he was the governor of Arkansas, eventually sign the bill, Clinton took credit for its positive effects. The biggest effects included the budgetary surpluses in his last two fiscal years.

Another political coattail ride Clinton took came out of the military. Clinton also signed an NDAA companion to that budget bill. It granted a series of raises in military enlisted pay. Those raises were intended to close the disparity between enlisted military salaries and their private sector equivalents. Those were orchestrated by Speaker Gingrich and were also vetoed several times by Clinton. But he took credit for the bills he opposed and was forced to stop blocking.

I remember the eve of that last "government shutdown". I remember them well. I also remember the first day of it.

The summer of 1995 I redeployed from Panama. Clinton had sent us there for two missions. The first was to deal with a few Cuban refugees that he diverted to the US-owned Canal Zone. Well, the Cubans decided to hold a "rock concert". In concert, they started throwing rocks at those on the humanitarian relief mission to help them. See, they received word that Clinton wasn't going to let most of them into the US. So, they decided to riot. We went there to quell the riot and maintain order until Clinton could figure out what to do with them.

Our original mission, however, was supposed to be to beef up security while they closed most of the US Military posts along the Canal-Zone in preparation to give the canal to Panama. Another great socialist, Jimmy Carter, had signed a treaty giving a canal we built and paid for away. We were there to help keep our end of the deal. The riots took place while we were on our way to Panama. So, we accepted our new orders and diverted to the refugee camps for a few months. Once that operation completed, we then still did the original mission. I will admit, we did have some fun.

Upon returning, we had replacements arrive. One of them was a guy named "Matt". We had quite a bit in common and quickly became friends. In fact, if I decided to write a book about crazy stuff Soldiers do, Matt and my exploits could take up a few chapters of hilarity.

Matt had a common law wife, so to speak. She moved to the Puget Sound area to be with him. Given our not-so-great pay back then, Matt, Patty (his "wife), and I split a 3 bedroom apartment. See, neither Matt nor I could stand barracks life. (It's loud and some idiot is always acting crazy enough to keep everybody awake, for one thing). A month or two later, our buddy "Rick" and his girlfriend moved into the apartment beneath ours. (Rick and I can also fill a chapter with our joint exploits.)

The days leading up to the "shutdown" we talked a lot about what it meant to us. Many of us lived almost month to month. Even a delayed paycheck would hurt. The three of us did a little research and found out that the military budget wasn't directly attached to the rest of the federal budget, per se. So, the rhetoric our of congress that the "shutdown" wouldn't affect military pay nor most military benefits seemed sound. Some DoD and DA Civilians might be affected, which could slow down some military services. But the Army would be "Rolling Along".

Naturally, we still didn't trust politicians. Most of them never served in the military. Most of them don't have any appreciation of military life or the sacrifices our families make. So, the general attitude towards politicians in our unit was that we didn't trust them.

That led to the "what if" talk Soldiers will do. Soldiers love the "what if" talks. "What if Batman put on kryptonite boxing gloves, would Superman be toast? Would Batman get to bang Wonder Woman?". "What if we shoot an AT-4 at an enemy fuel point, would it blow up or just spray diesel and mogas all over?". "If g-d were in the Army, what MOS would he be?".

Those of us who considered current events to be more than sorts scores had been paying attention to the news out of our nation's septic tank. We asked "What if they shut down, will we get paid?" (yes). "Will we be paid on time?" (maybe, maybe not). "If we don't get paid, do we still have to show up to work?".

That last question led to lots of typical infantry bravado-speak. "If I check my account and I'm not paid, f-k them, I ain't showing up until I get a paycheck. Our checks are for services rendered and time served. They owe me!". Anybody who has been in the military knows that if they screw up and pay you too much, they are very quick to take it back at the most inconvenient time. However, if the gov't owes you, it could be months before you see a partial payment.

Rick, Matt and I carpooled to work. It saved us gas money and helped keep all three of us usually early and honest. On the eve of the shutdown, we discussed it on the ride home.

Rick, in a sarcastic and jocular tone quietly stated "I don't know. I may show up. I might not. I'll let you know in the morning."

Matt made fun of those who said they wouldn't show up. "I like this stuff. I'm surprised I get paid to do it. I'd have nothing better to do anyway, so why not?". Matt had served in part of Desert Storm, while he was national guard, but had not been on any real deployment since, or as active duty.

I looked at the two of them. "I don't think we really have a choice. I mean, I took an oath. I'm pretty sure you guys took the same one. It doesn't say 'subject to receipt of a paycheck' in there. I don't think it's worth the trouble. I mean, they'll take the pay for sure if we don't show. At least if we show, they'll owe us the money, and we'll get it a year from now, right?".

They laughed.

That night, the weather moved in. All three of us were alerted to come in early. So we left as early as we could, knowing the 15 minute ride would probably take us over an hour. We it ti the gate just in time for them to "shut down post". When weather gets too bad to travel or train, they close all but one gate (for emergency purposes and essential personnel only). They shut down most of the roads on post (you can lose your driving privileges on post if caught driving). It took us another 30 minutes to get to the gate that would let us in. Then we had to convince them to do so.

Well, I asked Rick if he got paid. "I didn't get a chance to check. If I didn't, I may or may not go to work tomorrow."

I hadn't checked, yet, either. I didn't bother to ask Matt. I had some savings in the bank, enough to cover bills for a month or two, so I wasn't overly worried.

We got to our unit. The First Sergeant was there. I was the training NCO, so I immediately started my morning duties. He stopped me. "Take account of who is here, then go the f-k home. Post is closed. The Commander isn't showing up. I'm leaving right after you."

Rick checked on his guys. Matt did the same. They came to me to find out why we were the only off-post people who showed up. Technically, we all had barracks rooms, though. None of us were legally married nor of rank high enough to live off post. We had the commander's permission to do so. But we were technically still listed as living in the barracks. That's why we were called in. They needed 100% accountability of all barracks personnel to make sure nobody was trapped out in the blizzard. So they made us drive in it.

The next three days we spent snowed into our apartments. I drove in for about one hour on day three to help the First Sergeant with something. Other than that, we were considered "non-essential personnel".

This was in the days before online banking. You could check your balance at an ATM machine, or at your bank, in person. But there was no way to check from home. Because of the blizzard, most people could not make it out to check. The bank on post was closed due to the weather, as well.

When we finally were able to return to work, the jokes flew. According to some, the powers that be (g-ds, etc) sent the blizzard so we wouldn't have to work until our paychecks made it into the bank. The irony is that Matt, Rick and I did check an ATM on the way home that first day. Yes, we had, in fact, been paid, on time.

All in all, the shutdown did not affect our training. It did not affect our pay. Our lives as Soldiers continued. Eventually, congress rammed the budget down Clinton's throat. Meanwhile, we never skipped a beat and we were still promptly compensated.

In the end, our country was better off for it for the next few years. That, and I gained insight, experience, and a story to share.