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Government shutdown: How to avoid the fire next time

October 17, 2013|By Jon Healey
  • President Obama speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House about the reopening of the government Thursday after a 16-day partial shutdown.
President Obama speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House about… (Olivier Douliery / MCT )

As The Times' editorial board noted Thursday, the Senate deal that reopened the government and raised the debt ceiling didn't resolve the dispute between Republicans and Democrats over fiscal policy, the 2010 healthcare law or other major issues. It simply bought time for the two sides to negotiate. Funding for the government runs out on Jan. 15, and the debt limit comes back into play on Feb. 7.

Some readers -- and pundits -- argue that we're still trapped in a dysfunctional cycle, doomed to reel from crisis to crisis. "So here we are -- and it's all to do over again in three months," wrote a Times reader identified as "frank.maunder." "Why not just have a 3 week Continuing Resolution? Or maybe a 3 day CR? That would let the Congress spend all its time voting on keeping the gov't open for another 1/2 week. They wouldn't have to do anything at all except pose for CNN."

Truly, the tea party wing of the GOP seems ready to have that fight again right now. The lesson its members took away from the shutdown debacle wasn't that they can't stop Obamacare, even by shuttering federal agencies and threatening the full faith and credit of the United States. It was that the GOP needs to be more resolute next time.

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If I were as despairing as frank.maunder, I might be unloading all my investments in bonds. But after chatting with Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), head of the New Democrat Coalition, I cling to shards of hope. The shutdown gave members the opportunity to start listening to one another, Kind said. And what they found, he added, was that "there’s a lot of common ground that we can build upon."

That's obviously not true for House members stuck in the ideological extremes on the left and right. And the rest may not find enough common ground for a Simpson-Bowles-style grand bargain that resolves Washington's long-term budget problems.

Still, there is a clear way out of the ugly cycle Congress seems to be caught in. If the House and Senate conferees on the budget resolution can agree on a spending blueprint for the rest of the fiscal year, we can get back to what folks like Kind lovingly refer to as "regular order" -- the disciplined annual process of deciding how much the government will tax and spend.

The key issue here is the sequester cuts mandated in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which Congress enacted to resolve the previous debt-ceiling crisis. Republicans don't like the cuts' blunt-force trauma, particularly on defense, but they do like the way they reduce the deficit. Democrats don't like the effect the cuts have in the short term, particularly on infrastructure and research, but they also like the way the deficit is shrinking.

The top House negotiator is House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), the author of three ambitious budget proposals that restrain or cut federal benefit programs in ways that Democrats cannot abide. But in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Ryan played small ball, laying out ideas for ways to replace some of the sequester cuts with modest changes in entitlements. The ideas were so centrist, even famously liberal columnist Robert Scheer endorsed them.

The top Senate negotiator is Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the author of a Senate budget proposal that every Republican in the chamber opposed. Murray has voiced support for some changes to entitlement programs to replace some of the sequester cuts, but she also wants to raise revenue by eliminating some corporate tax breaks. In fact, Democrats have made increasing revenue a prerequisite for any reductions in federal benefits.

That's a real sticking point, and it's the main reason there's little chance of a truly grand bargain. But it doesn't mean the two sides can't come to an agreement over one fiscal year's worth of spending. About $91 billion separates the House and Senate budget proposals, which is roughly 10% of the total. Although admittedly that's a lot, the gap will be easier to bridge if entitlements are on the table. (It would be even less of a challenge if a tax-code overhaul were part of the mix, but that's a huge undertaking. And at this point, the two sides don't even agree on what the goal should be.)

And if they do agree to a budget, that agreement should do more than prevent a government shutdown in January. It also should -- should -- avert a fight in February over raising the debt limit, at least through Sept. 30. In the past, Congress has routinely raised the debt limit to accommodate the budget deals that are negotiated. Unless Ryan wants to flirt with default again, he should agree that the conference agreement will include an increase in the debt limit to match the level set in the budget resolution.

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