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The piecemeal budgeting trap

October 02, 2013|By Michael Hiltzik
  • President Obama speaks with NIH Director Francis Collins in 2009.
President Obama speaks with NIH Director Francis Collins in 2009. (Jim Watson / AFP )

The Republicans' Plan Q in the government shutdown cabaret (give or take a few letters) is their most transparent ploy yet: pass a few bills restoring the budget for popular or heartwarming programs, in the hope that these will chip away at the united front that Democrats are showing in the standoff. 

There isn't much to say about this scheme, beyond quoting Lily Tomlin: "No matter how cynical you become, it's never enough to keep up."

Piecemeal budget restoration like this is transparently a trap, and one of surpassing inhumanity to boot. It's also the reason we still have the sequester.

The GOP's idea is to pass five bills or so to relieve certain corners of the federal government from the shutdown. Having failed to pass the measures Tuesday, when they required two-thirds votes, they're trying again Wednesday under rules allowing them to pass by simple majorities.

The bills cover:

Grants for disease research at the National Institutes of Health, wages for the National Guard and the reserves, veterans' services, national parks and museums, and the District of Columbia.

These are among the highest-profile cuts in the shutdown. The last thing the House GOP needs is headlines like this one from ABC News, referring to the NIH cuts: "Shutdown Blocks Kids With Cancer From Clinical Trials." 

The party's hope is that they can paint the Democrats as heartless for denying those kids their cancer treatment. Think of it as a hostage-taking inside a hostage-taking. It doesn't seem to be working, since the Democrats are holding firm in insisting on an end to the entire shutdown.

Democrats fell into this very trap at the outset of the sequester. In April, after the Federal Aviation Administration announced that furloughs of air traffic controllers would lead to flight delays all over the country, Congress scurried to restore those funds, and just those funds, leaving the rest of the sequester in place. What a stupid move that was.

The sequester's impact on air passengers, who tend to be wealthier and politically better-franchised than the average voter (especially frequent flyers), was a great pressure point. Removing it allowed Congress and the country to forget about the sequester's impact on Head Start kids, housing aid recipients, and the unemployed, whose voices don't get heard much in Washington. Had the FAA cuts been left in place in an all-or-nothing negotiation, you can bet the sequester would have been dead within days.

The same thing would happen here. Relieve the pressure on veterans, guardsmen and guardswomen and their families, tourists, parents of sick children, and D.C. residents, and you can more easily overlook the shutdown's impact on everybody else -- furloughed meat inspectors, fraud enforcers, IRS agents, environmental safety officials, and everyone served by those government workers. 

President Obama gave a bit of his advantage away by signing a bill just before the shutdown began to maintain pay for members of the military and Defense Department civilians. Let's hope that's the last inch he gives. Everyone in the country is suffering from this ridiculous shutdown, not just the few people the GOP wants to "help."

Reach me at @hiltzikm on Twitter, Facebook, Google+ or by email.


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