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Government by brinkmanship

Republicans and Democrats in Congress are squaring off again in a budget dispute that could force the government to shut down. That's not what most Americans want from lawmakers.

September 22, 2011

Less than two months after a corrosive battle over the debt ceiling, Republicans and Democrats in Congress are squaring off again in a budget dispute that could force the government to shut down. That's the third such threat this year, with another looming in mid-November. The impasse this time is a disagreement over how much to spend on disaster relief, and whether to cut other programs to offset some of the spending. This is the kind of disagreement that should be easy to resolve. Yet not only are lawmakers proving themselves unable to settle these disputes without resorting to brinkmanship, House Republican leaders are managing the budget process in a way that sets up one artificial crisis after another. That's no way to govern.

Unlike mandatory spending programs such as Social Security and Medicare, federal agencies rely on annual appropriations to function. The government's fiscal year starts Oct. 1, giving Congress until Sept. 30 each year to provide the dollars needed to keep most government functions from shutting down. It's not unusual for lawmakers to miss this deadline for one or more agencies; in those cases, they adopt a continuing resolution to keep one or more agencies going at the previous year's funding levels until a new appropriations bill is enacted.

Lawmakers have yet to complete work on any of the 12 spending bills for fiscal 2012. To avert a shutdown, they must pass a continuing resolution by Sept. 30. But the House is scheduled to be on vacation next week, so the effective deadline appears to be Friday.

The right approach would be to pass a continuing resolution that would fund the government through the coming fiscal year at the level set in the hard-fought debt-ceiling deal. That level is $7 billion less than the current one, so the resolution should impose across-the-board cuts. Appropriators could then push through bills for the various agencies to adjust priorities without the threat of a shutdown hanging over their heads.

Instead, the House GOP leadership is backing a bill that would fund the government only through Nov. 18, putting the operations of the government again at stake in a game of budgetary chicken. It's also fighting with Democrats over how to refill the federal disaster relief fund, which is about to run dry. GOP leaders propose an additional $1 billion for disaster relief — but to offset that amount by cutting $1.5 billion from a loan-guarantee program for advanced-technology vehicles and parts. Meanwhile, many rank-and-file Republicans oppose the bill because they want more cuts than the debt-ceiling agreement calls for.

The fight over emergency funding seems silly. The root problem is that Congress and the administration invariably set aside too little money for disaster relief. Although it often makes sense to borrow additional money to rebuild roads, hospitals and other infrastructure damaged by unanticipated disasters, it's not unreasonable to choose instead to rescind money that was lying idle in the loan-guarantee program.

The bigger problem is using the budget process to enable repeated threats to shut down government. Public esteem for Congress, which was low to start with, fell further after the debt-ceiling debacle. But rather than trying to achieve their aims by legislating the old-fashioned way — by finding consensus — House Republican leaders seem to think that the only way to get anything done is to hold the federal government hostage. That may jibe well with the agenda of the "tea party" movement, which seems to have disproportionate sway in GOP primaries. But as Congress' shrinking approval rating shows, it's not what most Americans want from lawmakers.

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