Congress’s Fiscal Fiasco Forces Americans to Wear Badge of Shame

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, meets with reporters, discussing immigration, student loans, and Obamacare, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, July 11, 2013. The GOP leadership rejected the immigration bill passed by the Democratic-controlled Senate. Boehner said House committees will continue their work on a step-by-step approach to immigration reform, calling the current laws a broken system. 
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Norm Ornstein
Sept. 18, 2013, 3:30 p.m.

As read­ers of my past columns know, I was not ex­actly op­tim­ist­ic as we ap­proached crunch time over the debt lim­it in 2011. But I am far more pess­im­ist­ic now. At a din­ner I at­ten­ded Monday night with a host of those in­di­vidu­als deeply in­volved in fisc­al mat­ters, it be­came clear that there are no talks go­ing on now — neither form­al nor back chan­nel — to avoid a series of crises over spend­ing and the debt ceil­ing. The House ma­jor­ity is in pro­found dis­ar­ray, un­able to muster ma­jor­it­ies for any­thing on the spend­ing front as the new fisc­al year ap­proaches.

In a mis­guided at­tempt to mol­li­fy his rad­ic­als and avoid a gov­ern­ment shut­down over the de­mand to abort Obama­care, House Speak­er John Boehner has in­stead turned the fo­cus to the debt ceil­ing. His earli­er as­sur­ance that he and his party would not play games with the na­tion’s full faith and cred­it turned in­to a pledge weeks ago in­to to in­voke the “Boehner Rule,” in­sist­ing that the debt lim­it be raised only by an amount equal to ad­di­tion­al new spend­ing cuts — mean­ing tril­lions of ad­di­tion­al dol­lars piled on to the $2.5 tril­lion in cuts already made (but of course with no spe­cif­ics about what he would want to cut). And it is clear that a slew of Re­pub­lic­ans in­side Con­gress, bolstered by forces out­side like Her­it­age Ac­tion, will push their cru­sade to crush Obama­care by hold­ing the debt-ceil­ing host­age.

In 2011, when the in­tens­ive ne­go­ti­ations between Boehner and Pres­id­ent Obama broke down, Sen­ate Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell stepped in at the el­ev­enth hour to fill the va­cu­um and avert a de­fault. When Boehner de­clared that he would not par­ti­cip­ate in any ne­go­ti­ations over the fisc­al cliff, Mc­Con­nell stepped in with Vice Pres­id­ent Joe Biden to fill the va­cu­um. This time? There will be no Mc­Con­nell; the minor­ity lead­er is so cowed by the chal­lenge to his re­nom­in­a­tion from the right that he will not be a party to any “com­prom­ise.” And the in­form­al ne­go­ti­ations between Obama, his Chief of Staff Denis Mc­Donough, and a group of Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors led by Bob Cork­er have broken down, at least for now.

At this point, I will be sur­prised if we do not have at least one par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down with­in the next month or two, and I fear there is a high chance of a real breach in the debt ceil­ing, one that may not last for a long time, as­sum­ing that the mar­kets re­act vi­ol­ently to something they still be­lieve will not really hap­pen, and that voters re­act to the no­tion that the U.S. will pay its cred­it­ors in China be­fore it pays its troops in Afgh­anistan. But a de­fault this time will have dev­ast­at­ing con­sequences, mean­ing a down­grade in our cred­it by all rat­ings agen­cies and a spec­tacle to the world of spec­tac­u­lar, self-de­struct­ive dys­func­tion.

I could go on, but I want to fo­cus in­stead on the dam­age already oc­cur­ring from the 2011 deal, via the se­quester. The mind­less, across-the-board budget cuts in do­mest­ic and de­fense dis­cre­tion­ary spend­ing were openly and de­lib­er­ately de­signed not to oc­cur — the idea was to spur the “su­per­com­mit­tee” cre­ated by the deal to do a broad­er fisc­al bar­gain, along the lines of the Simpson-Bowles pro­pos­al, to avoid se­quester cata­strophe. But the “no-taxes” pledge killed the chance for that broad­er deal. We have had one year of the se­quester, and are ap­proach­ing the second tranche. The dam­age to the coun­try and the fab­ric of gov­ernance was not im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent — this was not like the roof of the Amer­ic­an house on fire, but more like a par­tic­u­larly po­tent group of ter­mites eat­ing out the found­a­tion. But its im­pact is be­com­ing more ap­par­ent and more alarm­ing.

This Au­gust, I went with my fam­ily to Gla­ci­er Na­tion­al Park, a place of awe­some beauty, which re­minded me again that our na­tion­al parks are a crown jew­el of our won­der­ful coun­try, and that our park rangers are them­selves won­der­ful monu­ments to pub­lic ser­vice. But I could see small signs of the de­teri­or­a­tion caused by the budget cuts — fa­cil­it­ies closed or cur­tailed, main­ten­ance de­ferred. In sev­er­al parks, such as Yel­low­stone, private con­tri­bu­tions kept the worst dis­rup­tions from oc­cur­ring, but that will not hap­pen when the second wave of cuts take ef­fect. Roughly 279 mil­lion people vis­ited na­tion­al parks in 2011; the parks are more than nice places to vis­it, be­cause they gen­er­ate huge amounts of eco­nom­ic activ­ity and jobs in the areas around them. Hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in cuts will jeop­ard­ize bil­lions of dol­lars in eco­nom­ic activ­ity.

Then there is the FBI, which faces staff re­duc­tions of 3,000 and two-week fur­loughs without pay for 36,000 agents and their sup­port teams. As a con­sequence of stu­pid and de­struct­ive se­quester cuts, the FBI, ac­cord­ing to former Dir­ect­or Robert Mueller, is go­ing to have to move re­sources away from vi­ol­ent crime and white-col­lar busi­ness fraud to cov­er the more-press­ing con­cerns of cy­ber­se­cur­ity and na­tion­al se­cur­ity. Great tradeoff, isn’t it?

Now con­sider the Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health. Fran­cis Collins, the re­mark­able sci­ent­ist head­ing up the agency, has said that the se­quester is dev­ast­at­ing med­ic­al re­search: 650 grants that have been rated in the top 17 per­cent by peers in terms of po­ten­tial for suc­cess will not be fun­ded this year, along with a num­ber of oth­ers that have been fun­ded for years but can­not be re­newed be­cause of the cuts. No one can tell which of these re­search pro­jects would have res­ul­ted in a med­ic­al or sci­entif­ic break­through — but the odds are over­whelm­ing that some of them would. For no good reas­on, we are sharply re­du­cing the chance of ex­tend­ing lives and al­le­vi­at­ing suf­fer­ing. In the mean­time, young sci­ent­ists are de­mor­al­ized. Some will leave the field, and oth­ers will ac­cept bet­ter op­por­tun­it­ies in China, Singa­pore, Aus­tralia, or oth­er coun­tries eager to fill the va­cu­um left by our mind­less policies.

A ra­tion­al polit­ic­al sys­tem would find a way to bring budget dis­cip­line without en­dan­ger­ing these areas, along with food safety, home­land se­cur­ity, na­tion­al de­fense, the air-traffic sys­tem, and on and on. In­stead we are ca­reen­ing to­ward eco­nom­ic dis­rup­tion triggered by out­rageous de­mands that jeop­ard­ize the eco­nomy and en­danger the most vul­ner­able among us. Shame­ful is the only way to de­scribe it.

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