Showdown or Shutdown?

The federal budget deadline looms, but is the fight on Capitol Hill only the dress rehearsal?

Barring an unforeseen development, the federal government will shut down Friday, as Democrats and Republicans have failed to come to an agreement on a budget deal of the 2011 fiscal year.  "There is no agreement on a number. There [is] no agreement on the policy issues," House Speaker Boehner reported. "We're continuing to work toward an agreement...But we are not there yet."   Late Thursday, the House of Representatives passed another continuing resolution (CR) aimed at funding the government for one more week and the military for the rest of the year, but the White House issued a statement indicating that president Obama would veto the measure.  Both maneuvers indicate one thing above all else: each party is determined to convince the public the other one is responsible for the government shutdown.

Why is there a showdown at all?  The Democratically-controlled 111th Congress, for the first time since 1974 when current budget procedures were enacted, failed to pass any budget at all.  Once again, politics played an important part in that decision. Democrats, knowing they were facing an uphill battle in the 2010 election, opted not to pass a budget weighted down with another trillion dollars-plus in deficit spending, as such a budget would be a gift for Republican candidates -- both congressional and presidential -- who would be campaigning on a platform of fiscal responsibility.

Yet in an attempt to defuse that reality, some Democrats are claiming that a White House agenda "so large and so time-consuming" left them with little time or political will to enact a budget.  They also claim that the bruising health care bill battle--enacted without a single Republican vote and against well-polled public opposition--had, as a former House Democrat who lost in 2010 told Fox News, "overloaded the circuits."

Thus, for the past six months, a series of CRs have been keeping the government open, with both parties trying to assess who might be blamed should the inevitable occur.  A Pew Research poll reveals an ambiguous public: 39 percent say Republicans would be more to blame for a government shutdown, 36 percent say the Obama administration, and 16 percent blamed both sides.  A Washington Post poll showed a 37-37 percent split, but indicated that Republicans might be in greater trouble with 61 percent saying Republicans were "playing politics" with the budget compared to only 51 percent of those polled accusing the Obama administration of the same thing.

Hence the gamesmanship embodied in the Republican attempt to pass yet another continuing resolution with $12 billion in cuts, despite Senate Majority leader Harry Reid's declaration that the CR is "a fantasy," and "a non-starter in the Senate" where Democrats maintain a majority.  Republicans were hoping to get Senate Democrats to reject the bill so they could be blamed for the final nail in the compromise coffin.  The White House's response was equally calculating;  despite announcing the president would veto the latest CR as is, the administration reiterated the idea that if the House came up with a "clean" version of a CR, as in one with less spending cuts and no policy riders, a deal might still be possible. The president emerged late Thursday night to announce that although the process was "further along," a deal had yet to be made.  In a statement announcing the impasse, the Mr. Obama sought to highlight the downsides of a government shutdown, and expressed the hope there would be an agreement by morning.

According to The New York Times, both House Speaker Boehner and Senate majority leader Reid indicated that their meeting with the president on Thursday afternoon "had moved negotiations forward" and that they would return to the White House at 7 p.m. in hopes of reaching a deal.  The paper further reported that Democrats claim both sides are close in terms of money, with less than five billion dollars separating them, even as Republicans insist negotiators are still divided over how deep to slash spending.  Both sides concede that ideological barriers remain "major obstacles" with the most serious being abortion funding and changes in EPA regulations.

Yet both leaders indicated such reports are misleading.  Senate leader Reid claimed the "numbers are basically there...the only thing holding up an agreement is ideology..." while Mr. Boehner contended that there "is no agreement on a number.  We’re going to have real spending cuts. I don’t know what some people don’t understand about this.” Earlier in the day, Mr. Boehner told ABC News that there is "no daylight between the Tea Party and me. What they want is they want us to cut spending. They want us to deal with this crushing debt that’s going to crush the future for our kids and grandkids. There’s no daylight there."

What Mr. Boehner is referring to is the reality that all of the current political strategy is about next to nothing with regard to the big picture.  The $3.7 trillion budget president Obama presented to Congress this year contains a deficit of $1.6 trillion, and in the month of February alone the federal government ran a deficit of $223 billion.  At most, the current impasse threatening to shut down the government is over $40 billion.  So why the intransigence?

No doubt this battle is a dress rehearsal for the real showdown, which begins with the debt ceiling battle in which Democrats insist that the current ceiling of $14.3 trillion must be raised, while Republicans insist it won't happen without major structural changes in government spending.  The fight continues when the battle over the 2012 budget begins, with Sen. Paul Ryan's (R-KY) Roadmap for America, so far the only serious long-term proposal for reducing America's debt, hovering in the background.  It culminates in the 2012 election, when Americans will vote to maintain the nation's current trajectory towards insolvency, or pull back from the abyss.  Since this current impasse is the smallest battle of the bunch, both parties will undoubtedly try to gauge public sentiment "on the cheap" to better prepare themselves for the future.

Predictably, Democrats have resorted to demagoguery to prevent any substantial budget cuts now or in the future. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) claimed the GOP budget plan is the “same tired formula of extending tax breaks to the rich and powerful at the expense of the rest of America--except this time on steroids.”  Incoming DNC chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz claimed Ryan's proposal would "literally be a death trap for some seniors" while Nancy Pelosi contended that six million low-income elderly would be “deprived of meals.”  Harry Reid claimed the Republican agenda is "extreme," a word Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) advised four of his Senate colleagues to use whenever they referred to the Tea Party, in order to sow disunity among Republicans.  Mr Schumer thought the call was private, but it turned out reporters were listening.  Apparently, Mr. Reid got the memo, so to speak.

If there is a shutdown, 800,000 "non-essential" government workers will go on furlough, but social services, such as Social Security payouts, Medicaid and food stamp operations, and unemployment benefits, will remain operational.  There is a certain irony in that, since the three largest social service programs, (aka entitlements) Social Security Medicare and Medicaid, which comprise nearly 60 percent of the budget, will have to be addressed if there are to be any serious reforms in federal spending.  Yet given the current intransigence and the attendant demagoguery, coupled with the insignificant stakes involved, it is hard to imagine what will occur when those stakes increase--exponentially.

Perspectively, Democrats and Republicans are currently arguing over how many thimbles of water should be removed from a tsunami of debt which threatens the entire nation.  And while each party is trying to blame the other for the mess, one compelling reality reveals the fraud of doling out equal measures of accountability:  no matter how flawed, Republicans have put forth both a short-term solution to the current impasse, and a long-term solution for America's financial crisis.  Democrats have offered nothing but criticism in return.  In the coming months, from the debt ceiling confrontation occurring in the next couple of months, to the election culminating in 2012, Americans are going to have to decide which approach constitutes genuine leadership.

Arnold Ahlert is a contributing columnist to the conservative website JewishWorldReview.