No, No! Anything But That!

Reports that Washington is gearing up for another fiscal showdown-cumshutdown already has us trembling, not having recovered yet from the post-traumatic stress disorder brought about the last time they tried to solve the nation’s budget problems.

House Speaker John Boehner got our minds briefly off poison gas in Syria late last week when he used a conference call to brief his congressional workmates on a weapon of mass destruction closer to home: the threat of a fiscal cliff in the upcoming confrontations with the Obama administration over spending and the debt ceiling.

As usual, there are some who relish the specter of another fiscal cliff, seeing it as a way to gain leverage for their agenda: scaling down Obamacare, broad tax reforms and getting approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

They hope the Democrats will get a glimpse of the cliff ahead and cry, “No, no! Anything but that! Here’s the economy. Take it!” Like in the Middle Ages, when sometimes it was enough to just show a heretic the method of torture and he would recant.

But Boehner, who has a longer memory than some of his younger, more impulsive colleagues, knows that this kind of national arm-twisting, aside from the obvious consequences of governmental dysfunction, can have unwanted electoral repercussions. Even if the Democrats were also to blame for the last fiscal trauma — and they were —the Republicans took the brunt of the blame in public opinion polls.

So the Speaker stressed to his conferees that he wants to move quickly when Congress reconvenes on September 9, and pass a short-term measure that would keep the government funded for about two months past the October 1 deadline. That would avert a second round of painful and unpopular sequestration cuts.

However, it’s no sure thing that the proposal will get sufficient support for passage from either party. Eighty House members have signed a letter to Boehner urging him to back a strategy of the conservative tea party movement to threaten government shutdown in order to get their way in eviscerating health-care reforms.

Then, too, the Democrats are made of sterner stuff than the heretics of yesteryear. When asked if Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) would allow his chamber to vote on Boehner’s tentative proposal, a Reid aide was non-committal. “First, the House actually has to pass it,” was his canny reply.

Indeed, despite the damage their party suffered in subsequent elections after the fiscal debacle of 1995–1996, some conservative House lawmakers are undeterred. They argue back that shutdown led to budget reforms. In other words, the reasoning goes, “True, both guys get a black eye, but somebody does win in the end, and it’s worth the pain.”

But it’s questionable how much was won. The futility of these legislative bloodlettings is illustrated by the following figures:

After 2.5 years of budget battles, the federal government is on pace, this year, to spend $3.455 trillion. That figure represents only a modest improvement over 2010 when it spent $3.457 trillion.

Using a different measure of the size of government, the federal payroll has shrunk from 4.3 million employees in 2010 to 4.1 million employees today, including both military and civilian. An achievement, to be sure. But that’s still more than the populations of 24 states.

One important category of governmental size — rules —has increased despite the constant assault on big government. The Code of Federal Regulations, the bible of regulatory Washington, is a rule book that swelled from 165,494 pages in 2010 to 174,557 pages in 2012. Enough to make a Byzantine bureaucrat blush.

Whether such gains and losses are worth the cost to the nation in frayed nerves, a weakened credit rating, dismaying dysfunction, and a “sequester” that even its own authors are desperate to be rid of, will be decided once again in the next session of Congress.

Meanwhile, the states are trembling at the prospect of a second-round sequestration, across-the-board cuts in federal spending that would go into effect if the impasse is not settled by October 1.

If irresolution prevails, federal funding for the states would be chopped automatically by approximately $4.2 billion for the 2014 fiscal year. A range of programs are at risk, including Meals-on-Wheels, Head Start, public housing assistance, money for schools with low-income students, food inspection, scientific research grants, and environmental protection programs.

We hope that Mr. Boehner, Mr. Reid and friends can work it out before then.

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