Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a leader in the push for an early deal on federal… (Patrick Semansky / Associated…)
In addition to being a bastion of pro-business conservatism, the Wall Street Journal's editorial board occasionally acts as an unofficial GOP campaign advisor, suggesting how Republicans should wage their political battles to win the White House and both chambers of Congress. I know, there are plenty of you who believe The Times' editorial board does the same for Democrats on a daily basis, so I'm not being critical of the Journal. I'm just saying.
Anyway, on Friday the Journal's editorial writers did something unusual: They urged House Republicans to stop trying to make deeper cuts in federal spending than Congress had already agreed to make. Instead, the editors urged them to heed the call by Sens. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) to pass a continuing resolution that would fund the government into early 2013 at the level set last year, in the debt-ceiling compromise.
That's what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has proposed as well, but the Journal sees the continuing-resolution approach as a way to derail a nefarious plan by Reid to force a government shutdown and stick Republicans with the blame.
Clearly, this is a bit ... complicated. Let's roll the camera back a bit.
Prodded by "tea party"-friendly House Republicans, the GOP pushed Washington to the brink of a shutdown in early 2011 in an effort to cut spending more deeply than Democrats and the White House wanted to. The cycle was repeated a few months later, when Republicans again demanded deep spending cuts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. That dispute was resolved -- just before the government would have been forced to shutter some agencies and stiff selected creditors -- when the two parties agreed to a deal that raised the debt ceiling but also cut deeply from projected deficits.
As part of that deal, Congress enacted into law the amounts that could be appropriated for fiscal 2012 and 2013. But the peace brought about by that agreement didn't last long. In March, House Republicans pushed through a budget for fiscal 2013 that lowered the limit on appropriations by $18 billion, or close to 2%. Since then, the House had passed GOP-penned versions of seven of the 12 annual appropriations bills that stuck to the lower limit.
Although the Senate Appropriations Committee has been working on its own versions of the bills, Reid has refused to bring any spending bills to the Senate floor because, he argues, the House didn't comply with the law. House leaders retort that the law sets spending limits, not mandatory levels.
They're technically correct. And Reid's refusal to follow the usual process smacks of an abdication of the Senate's responsibilities, not unlike his refusal to bring up an annual budget resolution. Nevertheless, the House GOP's approach to the spending bills this year has been nothing if not provocative. Given how bitterly the two sides fought over the budget allocations in last year's debt-ceiling law, it was obvious that Democrats considered them to be floors as well as limits.
The Journal had effusively praised the House's budget plan, calling it "the best chance in decades for serious government reform." Now, however, the question is whether sticking to that plan will result in yet another budget tussle that could shut down the government and discredit Republicans. Funding for federal agencies runs through Sept. 30, so any shutdown would happen just weeks before the November elections.
DeMint and Johnson, along with a number of their House GOP colleagues, see a trap looming, and the Journal agreed. In light of the repeated acts of brinkmanship by House Republicans in the last two years, it's easy to see why the GOP and its allies might be worried about being blamed for a shutdown, even if it stemmed from Reid's stonewalling. Besides, Republicans were the ones who picked this fight by calling for lower spending levels than Congress agreed to less than a year ago.
This may seem to be just inside-the-Beltway shenanigans, but there's a larger point: Congress has far better things to do than spend weeks scrapping over whether to cut $18 billion from a $1-trillion budget. The real challenges are the sluggish economy, stubbornly high unemployment and a yawning budget gap. There's also the looming "fiscal cliff" on Jan. 1, when numerous tax breaks expire and deep spending cuts kick in.
All those weighty matters will probably have to wait until after the election to be resolved, considering the gulf between Republicans and Democrats on how to fix the economy and eliminate the deficit. In the meantime, there's no point in causing further damage (to the economy and to Congress' reputation) by playing another game of chicken over a government shutdown.