WASHINGTON — When it comes to politics, attention is now being lavished on the 2016 presidential campaign. When it comes to economics, the bright lights are on the Greek crisis. The nation’s capital seems almost sleepy, a relief from the bitterness of manufactured showdowns and an actual shutdown.
All of which could be a false dawn of comity and relatively rational governance. Unless Republicans in Congress begin negotiating in earnest this summer with their Democratic colleagues and the president, this fall could again be dominated by fiscal Armageddon.
A crisis is completely avoidable. The need to scrap the irrational budgeting process dictated by “sequestration” — a dreadful word that refers to artificial boundaries on what government should and shouldn’t spend money on — is obvious. This doesn’t mean we’ll dodge the crisis or finally toss sequestration into the fiscal dustbin.
Republicans, who suffered politically after every shutdown since the Clinton years, ought to be eager to forge a middle-of-the-road budget agreement and make life easier for their 2016 presidential candidates. If they can elect a president, they’ll have much more freedom to work their will.
But for many in the GOP, the temptation to repeat the past is irresistible. With control of both houses of Congress, they hope the House and Senate can agree on a budget and either force it on President Obama or blame him for a shutdown.
Let’s count the flaws in this thinking.
Republicans still lack complete control of the legislative process. The GOP used the Senate filibuster rules requiring 60 votes on bills to wield power with a minority of seats during Obama’s first six years. Democrats are doing the same thing in the final two.
The crucial event, little noticed, came on June 18 when Democrats mustered all but one of their 46 senators to block consideration of the defense appropriations bill.
Enough Democrats support the higher levels of defense spending the bill provided that Republicans thought they could get to 60 votes. But as Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) explained in an interview, even the staunchest pro-defense Democrats understood that Republicans were trying to box Democrats in on negotiations over other spending by passing the defense bill first — and by boosting military spending levels with budget gimmicks. It makes little sense to lift spending caps for defense but to keep them in place for everything else and force steep cuts in what Schumer called “bread-and-butter priorities.”
“We’re not waiting for the end,” said Schumer. “We’re heading them off at the pass.”
This means that the key to preventing a crisis is to negotiate on the whole budget and not pretend it can be passed in pieces. By making their position clear early on, said Schumer, who is expected to become his party’s Senate leader after the 2016 elections, Democrats have left plenty of time to reach agreement this summer on a compromise similar to the fiscal plan amicably worked out in 2013 by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA). “Let’s sit down and negotiate the way Murray and Ryan negotiated,” Schumer said.
The notion that Democrats, including Obama, could ever agree to what the Republicans are proposing is, well, absurd. As Jonathan Weisman reported in The New York Times this week, the Republicans are, among other things, proposing to cripple the Affordable Care Act, eliminate the federal government’s main family planning program, block enforcement of a variety of environmental regulations, and stop the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules.
And Shaun Donovan, Obama’s budget director, has made clear in a series of letters to Congress that the administration can never agree to the sharp reductions the GOP would make, for starters, to education spending, college loans, Head Start, federal enforcement of labor and worker safety standards, Social Security administration, and national service programs.
Republicans may control the House and Senate, but Democrats still have the White House and plenty of power. In these circumstances, some Republicans are level-headed enough to see that negotiations starting immediately are the only way to sidestep tomfoolery. “The reality is we still live in a divided government,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) told Weisman. “It’s time to sit down and see if we can make a deal.”
With Europe in turmoil and China confronting a stock market crash, Congress should do all it can to keep our economy steady. Draconian budget cuts and shutdown threats are not only bad politics but a deeply flawed and irresponsible approach to governing. The time to make a deal is now.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected] Twitter: @EJDionne.
Photo: Federal government shutdown, October 2013. (E.M.K. via Flickr)