27/09 Governing by Crisis

Published: September 27, 2011
Thanks to some good luck and expert government accountants, theFederal Emergency Management Agency will limp, exhausted and nearly broke, to the end of the fiscal year on Friday. That removes its budget as the latest excuse for House Republicans to slash domestic programs they don’t like and momentarily defuses their threat to shut down the entire government to get their way.

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But, make no mistake, the threat has hardly disappeared. In fact, the country will probably be wrung through several more near-shutdowns as the 2012 budget process stumbles along, all prompted by conservatives in the House who will use any choke point to achieve their obsessive goal of shrinking government.
The next one will be on Nov. 18, when the temporary spending bill approved by the Senate on Monday night (and expected to be approved by the House) runs out. It was the House that originally proposed this seven-week bill earlier this month, even though its leaders could easily have passed a full year’s spending resolution and saved the country continuing — and costly — uncertainty.
After all, both sides agreed to the 2012 discretionary spending level of $1.043 trillion in the Budget Control Act of 2011, the ugly ransom paid to Republicans in the debt-ceiling crisis last month. As Stan Collender, a prominent budget expert, recently noted in the newspaperRoll Call, Congress could have passed a full year’s bill and still allowed the various appropriations committees to argue over individual agency spending levels without the threat of a shutdown.
But that’s not operating procedure for the current House, dominated by Tea Party members and furious spending hawks. They want that threat to recur, as often as possible, so that they can extort their political goals out of the Democrats in the Senate and the White House. There is no other reason for the current short-term bill, which is exactly the wrong way to manage the government’s annual budget.
For that matter, there was no good reason for this week’s near-shutdown. When it seemed likely that the summer’s bad weather might push FEMA’s disaster spending above its budgeted level, Republicans saw an opportunity for another phony fight designed to make them look frugal and Democrats careless with money. They used the occasion to try to cut an equal amount from a green-jobs program that the Obama administration has championed. Democrats stood up to this opportunism, refusing to let Republicans exploit the weather to cut spending, and the showdown was averted only when the extra money became unnecessary.
The next fight is likely to be over bigger issues. House Republicans have already made it clear that they want to slash the budget for the Environmental Protection Agency and curtail its regulation of air pollution through the appropriations process. They also want to cut back severely on a nutrition program for low-income women and children. And guess what is likely to happen if they don’t get their way? Another shutdown fight, and yet another, over more stopgap spending bills.
Each one of these confrontations has a high cost. They eat up valuable legislative bandwidth; they add uncertainty to the lives of federal workers, those who depend on federal programs, and the financial system; and they contribute to a cynicism and lack of confidence in the political system that damages everyone. They are a principal reason for the nation’s low esteem of Congress.
Republicans should think of the broad American public, rather than catering to the extreme elements of their base, the next time they push the government to the brink.

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