It’s been a long couple of weeks. Our government just wasted billions of dollars on a shutdown that accomplished nothing and dragged down economic growth as a close encounter with the debt ceiling loomed.
And the deal that ended this impasse sets Washington up for another throwdown in January.
What happens in the next three months can forestall yet another government shutdown or a new threat of default. Congress has a last-minute reprieve and the chance to do what’s right.
First, the agreement starts a budget conference committee that is supposed to hammer out the differences between the House and Senate top-line discretionary spending numbers for the current fiscal year by December 13. That’s Friday the 13th, of course.
This is all well and good, but this process was supposed to happen back in April shortly after the House and Senate adopted their budget resolutions.
Instead, there was a lot of name calling and budgetary shadow boxing, with the appropriations committees in both chambers passing bills they knew were anathema to the other. And maybe anathema to their own chamber considering that out of 12 annual spending bills, only four got through the House floor and none got through the Senate Floor.
Second, the current continuing resolution funding our government would cost more than $1 trillion on annual basis, $986 billion of which is subject to the caps mandated by the Budget Control Act (BCA) that all parties agreed to back in 2011. The domestic discretionary part of that funding level complies with that law and actually clocks in at $1 billion below the caps. But the military discretionary side is about $20 billion over.
Absent a decision by the budgeteers, that Pentagon budget excess will get lopped off in January as across-the-board sequestration cuts kick in.
Some folks hope for a “grand bargain” that would balance the budget. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
I’d be OK with a petite agreement that sets funding at the Budget Control Act’s mandated levels and starts the discussion on a necessary tax overhaul alongside Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid reforms. Or a deal that reins in the deficit. Let’s just get the ball rolling.
Besides, beginning in fiscal year 2015, the Budget Control Act’s caps will rise each year until its end in 2021. That should make the law easier to live under.
Third, don’t spend the next three months backsliding into business-as-usual legislation that brought us to this point in the first place. The next item on the House’s agenda is a multibillion-dollar water bill that tries to make everyone happy. There’s already a $60 billion to-do list for the Army Corps of Engineers — an agency that gets less than $2 billion in construction funding each year. Instead of piling on more projects, Congress needs to do the hard work of figuring out which are the best investments.
Also, Farm Bill negotiators need to come up with a bill appropriately responding to our deficits. Instead of a trillion-dollar bill that increases subsidies for a sector experiencing record profits, they need to implement real reforms.
And a raft of tax extenders — annually expiring special interest tax breaks for everyone from NASCAR track owners to liquor conglomerates — is lurking. Congress will never escape this debt crisis cycle until it starts making choices and asking everyone to pull their fair share.
As a country we desperately need all our lawmakers to work together to take both big and small steps to put our country on a stronger fiscal footing. Diffusing the threat of an immediate default and reopening the government gave Congress another chance to do not what’s easy, but what’s right.
As Sen. John McCain is fond of saying, the public approval rating of Congress is so low that it’s down to blood relatives and paid staff. If our lawmakers can compromise and start (gasp) working together, the country can start digging out of the fiscal and credibility holes they put us in.
It’s time to make government work.