Op-Ed: Short-Term Congressional Budget Fixes Only Prevent Total Disaster
Forbes | March 28, 2013
In a pleasantly surprising move, the normally moribund Congress passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government for the last 6 months of FY 2013. The President obligingly signed it. What’s more, the usual nasty and dilatory process was completed on time without excessive name-calling.
That made the CR a multiple winner. It got the country past 2 more cliffs. One was the blunt and thoughtless cuts of the sequester. The other was the expiration of the current CR. While mitigating some of the worst effects of the sequester, it maintained the total savings of the sequester. That’s a double win for a Congress that rarely scores victories.
That’s fine for now, but the CR is just one more short term stand-off between the warring Democrats and Republicans. They proved they can, when pressured, keep the Ship of State moving past cliffs, sequesters, debt ceilings, and other crises. But their short term fixes only prevent a total disaster. They give no long term certainty or direction to the country.
CRs are, in fact, a clumsy way to conduct the people’s business. They include all functions of government in one ugly package. They include some reviews of some spending, but they lack the careful scrutiny that is applied when all 13 appropriations bills are passed separately. Lacking a common budget target, legislators are forced to bundle all spending in to a CR.
In the past few years, frequent budget crises have become the rule for Congress. This year we avoided the cliff, dodged the debt ceiling, and now have eased the effect of the sequester. We will face another debt ceiling expiration in August, and probably have another CR in September. All of these could have been avoided had our political leaders agreed on a long term budget plan to stabilize the debt ratio at a reasonable level.
This year both the Republican House and the Democratic Senate have passed budgets. The Senate budget was the 1st in 4 years, and was a cause for public celebration. The bad news is that the House and Senate versions are poles apart. A compromise is considered highly unlikely.
The Republican budget balances after 10 years, and stabilizes the debt ratio at 55%. It raises no new taxes, and makes drastic cuts in health care spending. The Democratic budget lowers debt slightly, but does stabilize it. It increases taxes by $1 trillion, and makes small spending cuts. These budgets are reconcilable, but only if the politicians regard each other as the opposition, instead of the enemy.
Without a reconciliation, our budget process will move the country backwards into more CRs and more cliffs in 2014. We will survive, but continue to lurch from crisis to crisis.
Our economy will be denied the certainty it requires for a faster recovery.
What is lacking here is the Grand Bargain, a 10-year program to tame the long term deficit-drivers, and stabilize the debt so we can deal effectively with future emergencies. Every budget observer has a personal favorite version of the big compromise. The well-known Bowles-Simpson Plan is just one of many possible models.
Republicans are determined to raise no more taxes, and to reduce entitlements that are the long term debt-drivers. Democrats are equally determined to defend entitlements, and to impose more taxes.
Neither side can get everything it seeks. Yet, both sides remain adamant. Each believes that it can ultimately defeat the other, despite contrary historical evidence. Meanwhile, our economy underperforms at sub-standard levels. Uncertainties caused by the stalemate continue to confound markets and business decisions.
There is still time for compromise, but, so far, the will has been absent. The political parties and their leaders have to make an agreement. Nobody can do it for them. One day the light will dawn. They will begin to understand that compromise is strength, not weakness. The sooner that day comes, the better.