Scarcely any news story induces sleep as swiftly and surely as congressional budget negotiations — a topic that features politicians bickering loudly over huge dollar amounts that lack meaning for most people, while their public posturing reflects little of what is actually going on in the back channels.
But it is also the story of a Republican minority within a minority that is getting its way because nobody else in Washington is reckless enough to promote a government shutdown.
Reckless is the proper way to describe the Republican position, because their demands clearly have so little to do with real fiscal and economic responsibility — and so much to do with satisfying the most extreme elements in their base.
How much does zeroing out the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or Planned Parenthood accomplish in terms of budgetary restraint for the future? Why is slashing the Environmental Protection Agency budget (at a time when the EPA is preoccupied with protecting us from Japanese radiation) promoted as a top fiscal priority? And what makes the Republicans insist that they must win those specific cuts in order to reach an overall budget agreement — even after the Democrats have come so far toward their numbers?
As Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has demonstrated — with startling graphs that can be found on his organization's website at www.cbpp.org — the Democratic position on cutting this year's budget has shifted markedly toward meeting Republican numbers over the past several weeks.
Since last December, when the Republicans reneged on last year's budget deal and threatened a Senate filibuster, they have kept increasing the pressure for greater cuts — and the Democrats have repeatedly sought to reach a compromise despite their misgivings about slashing federal spending in a stalled economy.
Indeed, at the moment, President Obama seems to be willing to accept additional cuts of $23 billion in his own proposed 2011 budget. That would mean overall cuts of $74 billion, which as Greenstein notes is precisely the amount that House Republican leaders agreed to pass in early February. But the Republicans have escalated their demands significantly over the past two months, reflecting the Tea Party slogan of "no compromise" with the president and the Democrats.
It is safe to assume that House Speaker John Boehner and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell want to make a budget deal, insofar as they have tried to do so over the past several months. But unlike their Democratic counterparts, the Republicans rarely stint in pushing toward their ideological goals, regardless of the potential problems that their intransigence may create. This partisan habit, developed over the past decade or so, is now putting the country's future in danger.
In this instance, Boehner, who certainly knows better than to risk a shutdown, is being propelled by freshman members who are even more right-wing than he is (and by his ambitious second, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor). But Boehner also knows that the right flank of his party will be almost impossible to satisfy - which is why a shutdown remains a real risk.
So how risky is shutting down the government? Mark Zandi, the respected Moody's Analytics economist who advised the McCain-Palin presidential campaign two years ago, says that closing down the government for two weeks or more could sufficiently undermine consumer confidence to send the economy back into recession. The last shutdown, during the winter of 1995, lasted for nearly three weeks.
No doubt Zandi is right to worry — and a shutdown might well do even more lasting damage to our economic prospects. But withdrawing tens of billions in federal dollars right now is certain to do grave harm to the economy, as well. Preventing the worst by capitulating to the tea party may be almost as damaging to the country as a shutdown itself. And of course the ideologues won't be satisfied anyway.
To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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