Six Fiscal Issues that Could Shut Down Government
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The Fiscal Times
April 5, 2011

If you look closely enough, you can see the steam rising from the dome of the U.S. Capitol, as lawmakers brace for what is likely to be one of the most consequential budget and spending battles since Democratic President Bill Clinton went to the mat with Republican congressional leaders Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole back in the mid 1990s.

The looming conflict between President Obama and the scrappy conservative Republicans and Tea Party activists in the House and Senate is likely to get downright ugly before differences are finally resolved – with the outside possibility of a government shutdown by the end of this week. There will be bruising fights over virtually every facet of federal budget policy – from reordering spending levels for scores of domestic programs and government agencies to possible cuts in defense to the funding of Medicaid and other entitlements to the implementation of the new health care reform and financial regulation laws.

With a big push from scores of combative conservative and Tea Party freshmen, Republican leaders in the House and Senate are demanding massive cuts in spending for the remainder of the current fiscal year and more consequential budget savings and entitlement reforms in the coming years to address the deficit. Many are threatening to prompt a government shutdown or even a default on U.S. borrowing if necessary to get their way. Obama and Senate Democratic leaders say they are willing to meet the Republicans half way in responding to their demands for more spending cuts – but will go just so far before digging in their heels.

William Gale, a senior fellow in economics at the Brookings Institution, says that the fixation on whether politicians can avert a government shutdown late this week or prevent the Treasury from defaulting on bonds later this summer are distractions from more fundamental challenges – including the long-term debt, reining in defense spending and raising tax revenue. “As usual, politicians aren’t discussing the right issues,” he said. “The big issues are fundamental, but they are not these crises everyone is running around about.”

But Republicans say they won’t turn their attention to more fundamental, long-term issues until they have it out with the White House and Democrats over more immediate concerns. And they are driving the agenda for the time being. So for those keeping score, here are six of the hottest, most pressing fiscal issues to keep an eye on in the coming days and months:

1. Spending Cuts
Just about everyone in Washington is holding his breath to see whether there will be a government shutdown this weekend – something that a majority of experts surveyed by The Fiscal Times predicted will occur. But no one wants to be held responsible for a shutdown – especially Republicans who got blamed by voters for the last two shutdowns, back in late 1995 and early 1996.

So House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will have to decide later this week whether to accept an offer by the White House and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to cut a total of $33 billion from domestic spending for the remaining six months of fiscal 2011, or insist on the $61 billion the House passed earlier this year. Some Tea Party freshman are insisting on even more in savings, to fulfill a campaign pledge to slash $100 billion from this year’s budget.

Vice President Biden entered the talks last week, and signaled – probably prematurely – that a deal was at hand. Boehner has dampened optimism with a series of ominous warnings that the two sides are still far apart, promising to “fight for the largest spending cuts that we can get to keep the government open.” Even if the dueling sides agree at the last minute to a budget plan to get them through the remainder of the year, there may not be enough time to work out the details, and they may have to agree to a seventh and final temporary spending resolution before they seal the deal.

A major stumbling block to a final deal are the so called “policy riders” or amendments which take direct aim at many programs important to the Obama administration and Democrats. One rider would cut $600 million from funding for Planned Parenthood and other health care services for low-income, uninsured women. Another provision strongly backed by the 87 House GOP freshmen would defund Obama’s signature health care law.  Republicans also want to strip $1.6 billion from the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget to cut overall funding by almost 30 percent below last year’s levels. They would also eliminate funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Democrats have called the riders non-starters in the increasingly strident and high octane debate.

2.  The Debt Ceiling
Raising the debt ceiling has never been an easy lift for Congress and the White House, but this year it will be exceptionally difficult. The debt ceiling, first imposed by Congress in 1917, limits the amount of obligations that may be issued by the U.S. government to finance its general activities or that can be borrowed from trust funds, including Social Security, to fund daily operations.

Congress has voted to raise the debt limit 10 times since 2001 after the usual squabbles and accusations about which party drove up spending more. But this year, the new crop of freshmen lawmakers closely aligned with the Tea Party are threatening to vote against or filibuster legislation to raise the ceiling unless it’s linked to a plan for long-term deficit reduction, and tax and entitlement reforms. Just last week, Sen. Marco Rubio, a prominent conservative Florida freshman, came out against authorizing an increase to the limit, arguing that doing so would be “putting off the tough decisions until after the next election.”

With the federal budget deficit projected to rise to $1.6 trillion this year, the government is on course to breach the $14.3 trillion statutory debt ceiling (the accumulation of all of its deficits) between April 15 and May 31 – potentially triggering the first default on borrowing in U.S. history. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner have warned of “catastrophic” economic consequences if the government defaults on its obligations. There are a few gimmicks the Treasury can use to buy some additional time, but once those are exhausted the government would begin shutting down, Social Security checks would be held up, and the financial markets would likely tank.

3. Long-term budget reforms
There is no shortage of ideas in Washington for how to go about fixing the long-term deficit. By one count, there are at least a dozen proposals – large and small – for containing long-term domestic and defense spending, Medicare, Medicaid and other health care programs, overhauling the tangled tax code, revamping Social Security and putting the government on a more sustainable fiscal path.

Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.