For the second time this year, Congress is coming perilously close to allowing a budget dispute to shut down the federal government. If legislators cannot come to an agreement on a spending bill by Friday, then the government will be forced to shut down in a move that could devastate hopes for an economic recovery. Extreme procrastination fueled by partisan squabbling has become a disturbing trend in Washington; the current threat of a government shutdown is just the latest sign that Congress has become incapable of accomplishing even the simplest tasks before the last possible second.
This budget debate is especially frustrating because it is being held up by a debate over a tiny portion of the $4 trillion budget: federal funding for disaster relief. Congressional Republicans have made the unprecedented demand that new funding for FEMA can only come along with offsetting cuts to other programs. As a result, the United States is once again staring disaster in the face.
Even if Congress is able to come to a last second deal, it will mark the third time that it has waited until the last possible second to fulfill its basic obligations. In April, with just a few hours to go before a shutdown, President Obama, Speaker Boehner, and Majority Leader Reid reached an agreement that cut $38.5 billion in spending while funding the government through September 30th.
Just a few months later, Congress again brought the United States to the brink in their heated debate over raising the debt ceiling. Although the debt ceiling had been raised without incident 74 times since 1962 and 10 times since 2001, this time it took six months of incredibly heated partisan bickering to forge a deal just hours before the nation’s first-ever financial default.
The establishment of a deficit-reduction “Supercommittee”–which is responsible for finding $1.5 trillion in budget cuts before November 23rd–was a critical element of the debt ceiling deal. The Supercommittee is packed with partisan selections, however, and at this pace it seems certain that their negotiations will come down to the very last second as well. If Congress cannot agree to something as agreeable as funding for disaster relief, how can it be expected to agree on such large scale cuts?
Washington has been widely derided for being afflicted with partisan gridlock, but this year’s budget and debt ceiling debates show that the problem runs deeper than that. This isn’t gridlock: it’s an endless game of chicken that allows the House of Representatives to hold the American economy hostage at every opportunity.
What’s worse, these standoffs have very real consequences. The United States’ credit rating was downgraded because the debt ceiling debate dragged on for so long. A government shutdown would be a crippling blow to multiple sectors of the American economy. Furthermore, as we saw in August, even coming close to a shutdown could badly shake consumer confidence.
Yet Congress is once again willing to flirt with disaster, allowing the question of funding disaster relief for a mere 3 months–a mundane vote that both parties should be able to agree on–to escalate into a potential shutdown.
With this type of petty squabbling and procrastination that would make a high schooler blush, it’s no wonder that 8 out of 10 Americans disapprove of Congress’s job performance.
Copyright 2011 The National Memo