Friday Talking Points [150] -- A Fortean Week

Sometimes it is hard to come up with a metaphor to describe the week that was. This was not one of those weeks.

Of course, the easy way out would be to get all self-referential and talk about our sesquicentennial column (or, perhaps more accurately, sesquivolumenical, in a literary sense... or even sesquihebdomadal, in the strict calendrical sense... but then I don't speak Latin, so what do I know?). But that would be a cheap shortcut indeed, so we'll get to that sort of thing in a bit, but we have to shy away from actually leading off with such blatant patting-ourselves-on-the-back-ism.

Instead, we must present the dominant metaphor of the past week: Republicans take control of the House of Representatives, and masses of dead birds begin dropping from the sky.

Boy, that just leaves all sorts of openings, doesn't it?

You could go with a "sky is falling" angle, you could go with an "omen of dark days" type of thing, or you could even go with the "Nature out of balance" theme (in the grand tradition of the movie Koyaanisqatsi, of course).

We choose to take none of these too-easy metaphorical paths, however. Instead, we choose to honor the memory of Charles Fort.

For those of you unaware of his name, Charles Fort was the father of taking seriously reports of things falling from the skies. That's really an oversimplification, but it'll do for now. Fort lived a century ago, and (after gaining an inheritance guaranteeing he'd never have to work another day in his life) was possibly the first person to begin taking seriously (on a large scale, at least) strange events which the science of his day simply could not explain. By doing so, he became the forerunner of experiments in Extra-Sensory Perception ("ESP," to us now), investigations of Unidentified Flying Objects ("UFOs" as we know them today), and -- to be absolutely honest -- popular culture from the Bug-Eyed Monsters ("BEMs," believe it or not) of science-fiction movies of the 1950s and 1960s (during the "flying saucer" craze), all the way up to Agents Mulder and Scully of The X-Files television show. Without Charles Fort, the concept of Scully and Mulder never would have occurred to anyone, it is likely.

Fort was a collector of odd data. He spent his life clipping newspaper and magazine articles of unexplained events. He published four books on his collection of anomalies in the early parts of the twentieth century.

And he would have been all over the "dead birds falling from the skies" stories this week. It's what he did, after all.

Fort catalogued all kinds of things falling from the skies -- rains of fish (still alive, in some cases), frogs, birds, and even "red rain" or "blood rain." Much to the consternation of reputable scientists, who dismissed him out of hand. A rain of dead birds from the sky? Pre-pos-terous! Science had no theories to explain such bizarre phenomena, so Science just ignored it and swept it under the stamp-of-approval metaphorical scientific rug.

Which didn't faze Fort in the least. He was criticized for being too credulous, but his motto seems to have been: "It's not my job to verify these reports, it's my job as I see it to collect them -- but it should be the job of scientists to investigate and theorize about these reports; and not dismiss them out of hand because they don't fit into the accepted world view of the times."

Consider, if you will, the history of meteorites. Right up into the "Age of Enlightenment" which produced our Constitution and the French Revolution -- and was so much more intellectually advanced than the Church condemning Galileo for his heliocentric blasphemy -- the leading scientists of the day were unified in discounting stories of "thunderstones" that fell from the sky. After all, simple common sense dictated that rocks could not possibly fall from the sky, and that it was much, much easier to just discount and ignore any reports of such things happening.

The scientists of the day, of course, turned out to be wrong. Rocks do fall from the skies, on a regular basis. Whether 18th-century science had allowed for them or not.

Which means that Charles Fort may ultimately be proven not to be some sort of crackpot, but instead the patron saint (if that's not too twisted a metaphor to use in the scientific realm) of paying attention to odd data which fits no known theory.

Speaking of odd data which fits no known theory (how's that for a segue?), we have the Republican Party agenda on full display. This week, the Republicans declared an all-out War On Math. We'll get to some of these details in a bit, but the most egregious example was what they're calling "cut-go." This is linguistic nonsense (before we get to why it is also mathematical nonsense), because it is meant to replace the Democrats' "pay-go." Now, I think even the Democrats' term is silly myself, but at least it has a basis in reality. It stands for "Pay As You Go"... "PAY Go"... get it? "Cut go" is supposed to stand for "Cut As You Go" but that would be "CAY Go" which I guess was too silly even for Republicans.

The difference between "pay-go" and "cut-go" is that under pay-go, whenever you did anything to the federal budget which was going to increase the deficit, you had to pay for it by reducing the budget (or increasing revenue) elsewhere, to balance it all out. Under cut-go, you only have to pay for things that Republicans don't like. Seriously. You can't make this stuff up, folks.

For instance, under cut-go, if you propose spending money on some worthwhile federal program, you have to pay for it with spending cuts elsewhere. But if you propose decreasing the federal government's revenue -- which also causes the deficit to go up, because of... well... math -- then you do not have to pay for any of it, because tax cuts come from a magical land of pixies and friendly gnomes (instead of from borrowing billions from China, as in the "real world"). And when Republicans really hate something -- like Obamacare -- then all of these rules get thrown out the window because Republicans don't care what happens to the budget as long as they get to vote against things they hate.

One is reminded of King Canute ordering back the tides.

I mean, seriously, guys and gals, this is the best you've got? A War On Math? Really? Wow. It's certainly going to be an interesting two years in Washington, folks!

Charles Fort would probably love it. Even if the birds hadn't started dropping from the sky. Because "odd data" is about to become the norm in Washington, to put it mildly.


Both the introduction and the talking points sections are running a bit long this week (insert your own "how can you possibly tell, given their usual length?" joke here, if you must), so we're going to hand out the awards in lickety-split fashion this week. Just to warn everyone.

The Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week was none other than Nancy Pelosi, for the speech she gave while turning over the gavel of the Speaker of the House to Republican John Boehner. It was a good speech, and a fitting end to her impressive speakership. And she didn't cry once.

All signs point to two years of tears and emoting from Speaker Boehner, something which is apparently now OK for male politicians, but not (yet) for female politicians. Or something. But let us not diminish Pelosi's week by bringing up such irrelevancies as Boehner's tears.

We're going to miss Nancy Pelosi wielding the gavel, but there's always hope she will one day lead the House once again. Until then, Pelosi picks up her fifteenth Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award.

[Congratulate House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on her House contact page, to let her know you appreciate her efforts.]


President Barack Obama earns a (Dis-)Honorable Mention this week, for backing down (once again) on an entirely reasonable proposal on having an end-of-life discussion with your doctor. Even before Sarah Palin could scream "Death panels!" the White House squelched their own proposed regulation. Perhaps it will be reintroduced later (the stated reason for withdrawing it was that it hadn't had enough time for public comment), but politically, the handling of the whole thing was pretty disappointing.

But the real Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week is Democratic lobbyist Lanny Davis, who formerly was a Clinton administration official. Now, to pay the bills, Davis has started a public relations firm. And he's signed up some clients with the ability to pay him a million bucks a year or more. The only problem with this cushy arrangement is that noticed. Last week, Davis finally decided to drop his client Laurent Gbagbo, the leader of the Ivory Coast who is still clinging to power and will likely have to be removed militarily so the elected head of government can take over. But he'll apparently continue to be paid a handsome sum by another African strongman, Equatorial Guinea's President Mbasogo.

No other Democrat even came close, this week. The Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week was Lanny Davis, by a country mile.

[Contact Lanny Davis at Davis-Block, to let him know what you think of his actions. His email address is right there, on the front page.]


Volume 150 (1/7/11)

This has been a week for momentous numbers, in a way, and none was more momentous to the Friday Talking Points editorial staff as realizing we have now written 150 of these columns.

Of course, this isn't really good news, since we often promise here to stop writing these things once Democrats wise up and learn how to frame issues in a media-friendly way. Much like the Augean stables of old, however, there always seems to be more work for us to do in this regard. Sigh.

Today also marks the wider distribution of this column, as we have been personally invited to post these Friday suggestions on a new website, Democrats For Progress. If we can figure out the technical challenges of posting there, hopefully DFP readers will soon become FTP readers as well, so wish us luck! Democrats For Progress joins The Huffington Post and Democratic Underground in our ever-widening FTP media empire. Of course, you can always check out this column every Friday evening at or (if that proves too hard to spell) at

Well, "every Friday" is a wee bit of an overstatement. We haven't posted a column here since mid-December, due to our two-part annual year-end awards columns, and due to us deciding we needed a week off between Christmas and New Year's Day.

But enough shameless self-promotion! Let's get on to the talking points themselves, shall we?

For new readers, these talking points are provided on a weekly basis for all Democrats to use in the coming week. Especially Democratic politicians who are going to be interviewed by the media, say on a Sunday political chatfest show.

But, in the immortal words of Rolf Harris: "That's enough, let's get on with it...."


   But it's OK for you, right?

House Republicans are about to kick off the legislative year with a grand political stunt. They're going to hold a vote on total and utter repeal of what they charmingly call "Obamacare." They know this effort is going precisely nowhere, because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is going to laugh in their face when they ask him to pass the repeal bill in the Senate. But that's not going to stop the Republicans from offering yet another sop to the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party. But for almost every single one of them, there is a glaring bit of hypocrisy at play here. So point it out!

"I notice that Republicans are trying to save average Americans from what they describe as the horrors of government-run healthcare (and all the rest of the disparaging things they ascribe to 'Obamacare'). Well, I'd like to ask them why almost every single Republican -- including the newly-elected Tea Party Republicans -- are apparently just fine with government-run healthcare, as long as they are the ones receiving it from the taxpayers. You heard me right -- Republicans are happy as can be with the evil of government-run healthcare if they are the ones getting it. They just want to deny it to everyone else, that's all. If I were a reporter interviewing any Republican in Congress who has not turned down their government-run healthcare, there really is only one question to ask when they demonize the concept: 'But it's OK for you, right?'"


   Some bills are more open than others

That sound you're hearing from Washington is the sound of promises being broken by the incoming Republicans. Crash! Another promise shatters on the floor. Smash! Another promise savagely obliterated. Again, Democrats should be pointing these out as they happen, because the Tea Party voters are not going to be happy with Republican excuses on these things (that's my guess, anyway).

"I notice that Republicans have changed their tune remarkably quickly on House rules. For the past four years, they've been bitterly complaining that Nancy Pelosi brought so-called 'closed' bills to the floor, without letting them go through committee and without allowing Republicans to add amendments on the floor. Now that they're in power, it seems John Boehner's promise to change all of this for the better was just empty talk. Boehner plans to bring his bill repealing the new healthcare law to the House floor -- with no hearings, no committee action, and no amendments allowed. His response? I quote: 'I promised a more open process. I didn't promise that every single bill was going to be an open bill.' How Orwellian of him! It seems, to Speaker Boehner, that some bills are going to be more open than other bills. Chalk it up as just another Republican promise broken in Congress' first week, I guess."


   Republicans attempt to repeal math

The answer to any contentious problem in Washington is, quite obviously (to listen to the Republicans talk), one simple concept: Repeal! That may be fine and good when it comes to tossing red meat to their Tea Party Republican base, but not so good when it comes to actual, you know, numbers. But that's not going to stop them from trying to repeal the pesky concept of math!

"Republican disparagement of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office is part and parcel of their bigger attempt to repeal the laws of mathematics, it seems. They've apparently declared a War On Math. Republicans, at this point, are much more concerned about symbolism over actual substance. Allow me to give you an example. Republicans are patting themselves on the back for cutting congressional staffing budgets as some sort of grand slashing of the deficit. I notice that they didn't cut their own pay five percent, just their paper-and-pencils budget... but we'll ignore that hypocrisy for the moment. Republicans are congratulating themselves on cutting 35 million dollars from the federal budget. Let's put that in perspective, shall we? Let's write it out -- $35,000,000 -- is going to be cut from a budget of 3.6 trillion dollars -- $3,600,000,000,000 -- or just under one one-thousandth of one percent of the budget -- 0.00097%. To be more charitable, let's figure it as a percentage of just the deficit -- where it adds up to a whoppingly large one-quarter of one one-hundredth of one percent of the deficit -- 0.0027%. Say the Republicans keep this frantic pace of deficit-cutting up, into the future. In one week, they managed this one small cut. Which means it will only take them seven hundred and fourteen years to solve our budget deficit -- for this year. I'm sure the American public of the year 2725 will appreciate such fiscal responsibility."


   Go ask Alice

In attempting to describe the Republicans inventive "new math," the phrase "faith-based accounting" crossed my mind. But then I read two much better attempts at framing Republican math-phobia, both of which were much better than my humble attempt. Here's the first, from Representative Peter Welch of Vermont:

"It's incredibly ominous that [Republicans] are waving away the CBO opinion. That's catastrophic for any opportunity to maintain budget discipline. If anybody can make up their own numbers, you literally institutionalize an 'Alice In Wonderland' budget process. It is beyond reckless and irresponsible."


   Enron accounting

The second example is from the ranking Democratic House Budget Committee member, Chris Van Hollen:

"This is a huge loophole for Enron-type accounting ... In the rule [House Republicans] pass tomorrow they are going to reiterate that the chair of the budget committee has the authority to come up with his own estimate of the budget impact of various pieces of legislation. And a week from now, when they get around to repealing health care reform I think you will see they will go down and say this has zero cost impact. It is a wholesale disregard of CBO estimates. After all, CBO is the one referee we have around here when it comes to the budget. So again, we are watching this unfold. But it does seem that they are putting in place the pieces to allow the chairman of the budget committee to literally make up the numbers as they go."


   Tea Party Republican

I've said this before, but it bears repeating now that the 112th Congress has been sworn in. It's time to stop referring to politicians as members of the "Tea Party" -- since there is no such political party in American politics. Instead, it's time to start calling them what they really are -- "Tea Party Republicans."

"I'm sorry, did you just refer to Congressman Jones as being from the 'Tea Party'? I could have sworn he was a Republican. There is no third American political party called the 'Tea Party' -- there are only Tea Party Republicans. Just like Blue Dog Democrats, the Tea Party Republicans are a faction within the Republican Party's base. But please, let's start calling them by their rightful title -- Tea Party Republicans."


   Constitution? What Constitution?

This one can be filed under "you just can't make this stuff up."

"While Republicans held a reading of the United States Constitution in the House of Representatives, it appears that some of them didn't get the memo. Two incoming Republican members missed being sworn in, and then they illegally cast votes in the House -- with blatant disregard and disdain for the Constitution itself. One Republican missed being sworn in because he was holding a fundraiser on the Capitol's grounds -- also a blatantly illegal act. Seems he was too busy grubbing for money to attend his own swearing-in ceremony. Illegally grubbing for money, I might add. Maybe it'd be a better thing if these Republicans read the Constitution every morning before beginning work, so they don't blatantly fall afoul of it later in the day."


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