Compromise or Shutdown

Members of Congress left Washington for summer recess under a cloud — failure to allocate funds for Zika — and return under the same cloud, plus the chronic anxiety over a possible federal shutdown in the event of a general budgetary impasse.

All are agreed that the $1.1 billion Zika package must be concluded without further delay, and that a federal shutdown should be avoided at almost any cost when funding for the current fiscal year expires September 30.

Of course, what they don’t agree on is how to get there.

The always politically charged budget tussle will be super-charged this year as the 2016 election looms. Senators and congressmen running for reelection dread the prospect of being blamed for a shutdown, to be branded in attack ads from now to November as one of the malfunctioning cogs in a Washington that’s “broken.”

But Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) did not shrink from invoking the ultimate weapon of political mass destruction when he told reporters on Thursday, “The Senate is being run into the ground and unless it changes course … we’re headed straight for another government shutdown.” To dispel the notion that this was a mere scare tactic, Reid added that he had spoken with President Barack Obama, who backed the ultimatum.

The “course” Reid was talking about was the fight over the duration of the budget Congress will vote on. Technically, the issue is the “continuing resolution” (CR), an elastic measure that could either settle major funding issues before the end of 2016; or postpone them until next year. It depends on how long the CR is set for, long or short-term.

Briefly stated, conservatives want a long CR, extending into 2017, because, they say, Congress should not make such fateful decisions in a lame-duck session after the elections when lawmakers are rushed and less accountable to voters.

“Policies that come through in a lame-duck are typically not conservative or good,” said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action. Conservatives are still living the trauma of a year ago, when Republican leaders collaborated with the Democrats on a major tax-and-spending bill.

On the other hand, moderate Republicans and Democrats are for a short CR. Democrats want the budget finalized before the next administration (Clinton, they hope), so as to spare it the shutdown headache. Their Republican allies are reportedly anticipating heavy losses in November (to Clinton, though they hope not) and want to pass a budget for as long as possible while they still have majorities in both houses to get a favorable deal. They don’t want to be railroaded into a massive spending bill after the elections.

Reid warned Republicans that catering to the conservatives was not an option. “We are not doing anything into next year. The Republicans should be made aware of that right now,” he said.

Some dared the C word: Compromise. It would take the form of so-called mini-bus packages to fund selected agencies and departments — Veterans Affairs, Transportation, Energy, Housing — for the entire fiscal year, while providing only short-term funding for other agencies.

Such a split “would be smart,” senior appropriator Charlie Dent (R-Penn.) said. “It would be a terrible shame to just punt [government funding entirely] into the new year. It would be giving up on governing.”

The experts are not making any predictions on whether the lawmakers will give up on governing or get smart. We may be in for another season of congressional inaction, howlings on the hustings, and the corresponding editorial angst over the condition of the body politic.

It puts us in mind of something American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks said about Washington in a recent interview: After years in academia, he went to head AEI in Washington, where, for the first time, he met congressional leaders face-to-face. He found, to his surprise, that they were much better — more intelligent, sensitive, patriotic and responsible — than he had expected.

It gives reason for hope. They were not, after all, the gallery of miscreants supposedly betraying their constituents for every short-sighted political advantage. Not at all, said Brooks. They are capable people doing their best.

Why, then, is their best, so far short of the mark? Why couldn’t they vote the money to wipe out the Zika mosquitoes so that the whole state of Florida shouldn’t have to live in a constant state of anxiety over the dread disease? After all, it’s not really a controversial issue — we’re just talking about bug spray! Which is it, the Republicans or the Democrats who are in favor of hideous Zika-caused birth defects?

We consider one of two possibilities: Either, proximity to the beast leads to misperception (the denizens of Washington are highly skilled at making themselves appear better than they really are); or, they are as Brooks perceived them, but are caught up in historical forces not of their own making.

Either way, the American people are obligated to expose their folly and urge upon them the path of compromise, not an altogether untried art even in Washington.