Editorial: Make a Deal

Government Shutdown Would Confirm Public Distrust of D.C.

Posted March 1, 2011 at 5:38pm

First the good news: House Republican leaders and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) agreed on terms of a two-week spending measure to prevent the government from shutting down at the end of this week.

The essence of the agreement gives both sides the opportunity to say they are getting their way — the extension would cut $4 billion from fiscal 2011 spending, proportionate to GOP demands to slash outlays by $61 billion this year. But the programs to be cut are in line with President Barack Obama’s budget request.

Now the bad news: The deal may not stick and the government may shut down after all. And even if it does stick, it’s only for two weeks — during which either a longer-term agreement needs to be reached or another short-term one, keeping the threat of shut-down alive.

A government shutdown would not be the end of the world, of course. “Essential services” — the military, FBI, Border Patrol, Social Security, Congress, etc. — would continue to operate. National parks would close and passports wouldn’t be processed, causing inconveniences more than emergencies.

But a shutdown would represent a huge failure of Congressional and presidential management — the inability of the nation’s leaders to perform one their basic functions. Prime blame should legitimately fall on Democratic leaders of the last Congress, who chose for political reasons not to pass a 2011 budget or any of the 12 appropriations bills needed to fund the government.

The 111th Congress is history, however. The spectacle of a government shutdown will redound to the discredit of current officeholders. As is customary, each party will point fingers at the other — and, right now, the polls indicate that the public is prepared to blame them about equally.

A shutdown could happen this week if the Reid-GOP agreement is torpedoed. It’s not clear that Senate Democrats will follow Reid. Some want a longer-term CR, as does the White House. That might be a good idea to ward off frantic deadline-chasing, but House Republicans aren’t buying it.

If a deal is reached this week, what happens next? In two weeks will we face another crunch? And two weeks later, another? Will government agencies not know from week to week what their spending levels are for the rest of the year?

The chances of an impasse seem high. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) told an audience in Nashville, Tenn., last weekend that if Democrats “won’t eat the whole loaf at one time, we’ll make them eat it one slice at a time,” referring to the $61 billion package that Democrats hate and that Obama has vowed to veto.

Moreover, a shutdown is not the worst eventuality that could result from the inability of the parties to come to terms on spending. Next month or sometime in May, Congress will have to pass an increase in the federal debt ceiling.

It’s all too likely that this will be the occasion for more demands for controversial cuts — possibly without any attack on the entitlements and tax expenditures that are at the root of America’s fiscal crisis. A default on the nation’s debt obligations could ensue.

The games of chicken need to end — with a responsible deal to fund the government through the fiscal year and an agreement on long-term fiscal stability.