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Government shutdown: How to avoid the fire next time

FinanceBudgets and BudgetingU.S. Debt CeilingU.S. CongressDemocratic Party

As The Times' editorial board noted Thursday, the Senate deal that reopened the government and raised the debt ceiling didn't resolve the dispute between Republicans and Democrats over fiscal policy, the 2010 healthcare law or other major issues. It simply bought time for the two sides to negotiate. Funding for the government runs out on Jan. 15, and the debt limit comes back into play on Feb. 7.

Some readers -- and pundits -- argue that we're still trapped in a dysfunctional cycle, doomed to reel from crisis to crisis. "So here we are -- and it's all to do over again in three months," wrote a Times reader identified as "frank.maunder." "Why not just have a 3 week Continuing Resolution? Or maybe a 3 day CR? That would let the Congress spend all its time voting on keeping the gov't open for another 1/2 week. They wouldn't have to do anything at all except pose for CNN."

Truly, the tea party wing of the GOP seems ready to have that fight again right now. The lesson its members took away from the shutdown debacle wasn't that they can't stop Obamacare, even by shuttering federal agencies and threatening the full faith and credit of the United States. It was that the GOP needs to be more resolute next time.

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If I were as despairing as frank.maunder, I might be unloading all my investments in bonds. But after chatting with Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), head of the New Democrat Coalition, I cling to shards of hope. The shutdown gave members the opportunity to start listening to one another, Kind said. And what they found, he added, was that "there’s a lot of common ground that we can build upon."

That's obviously not true for House members stuck in the ideological extremes on the left and right. And the rest may not find enough common ground for a Simpson-Bowles-style grand bargain that resolves Washington's long-term budget problems.

Still, there is a clear way out of the ugly cycle Congress seems to be caught in. If the House and Senate conferees on the budget resolution can agree on a spending blueprint for the rest of the fiscal year, we can get back to what folks like Kind lovingly refer to as "regular order" -- the disciplined annual process of deciding how much the government will tax and spend.

The key issue here is the sequester cuts mandated in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which Congress enacted to resolve the previous debt-ceiling crisis. Republicans don't like the cuts' blunt-force trauma, particularly on defense, but they do like the way they reduce the deficit. Democrats don't like the effect the cuts have in the short term, particularly on infrastructure and research, but they also like the way the deficit is shrinking.

The top House negotiator is House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), the author of three ambitious budget proposals that restrain or cut federal benefit programs in ways that Democrats cannot abide. But in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, Ryan played small ball, laying out ideas for ways to replace some of the sequester cuts with modest changes in entitlements. The ideas were so centrist, even famously liberal columnist Robert Scheer endorsed them.

The top Senate negotiator is Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the author of a Senate budget proposal that every Republican in the chamber opposed. Murray has voiced support for some changes to entitlement programs to replace some of the sequester cuts, but she also wants to raise revenue by eliminating some corporate tax breaks. In fact, Democrats have made increasing revenue a prerequisite for any reductions in federal benefits.

That's a real sticking point, and it's the main reason there's little chance of a truly grand bargain. But it doesn't mean the two sides can't come to an agreement over one fiscal year's worth of spending. About $91 billion separates the House and Senate budget proposals, which is roughly 10% of the total. Although admittedly that's a lot, the gap will be easier to bridge if entitlements are on the table. (It would be even less of a challenge if a tax-code overhaul were part of the mix, but that's a huge undertaking. And at this point, the two sides don't even agree on what the goal should be.)

And if they do agree to a budget, that agreement should do more than prevent a government shutdown in January. It also should -- should -- avert a fight in February over raising the debt limit, at least through Sept. 30. In the past, Congress has routinely raised the debt limit to accommodate the budget deals that are negotiated. Unless Ryan wants to flirt with default again, he should agree that the conference agreement will include an increase in the debt limit to match the level set in the budget resolution.

Then Congress can settle back into the routine it has abandoned in the recent years of divided government. Lawmakers agree on a budget in April that sets spending levels for fiscal 2015. Over the subsequent five months, they enact appropriations bills to fund government agencies at the agreed-upon levels. If they can agree to go further, they can call for changes to taxes and/or entitlements in the budget, then enact them through a reconciliation bill. That's regular order, and it's a familiar process to anyone who's been in Washington for more than three or four years.

Granted, the House's Shutdown Caucus can threaten the process by opposing a budget agreement that doesn't go further than Democrats are willing to go on Obamacare or entitlements. That's a problem as long as House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) refuses to move ahead without their support.

President Obama could be an impediment too if he ignores Republicans' determination not to backslide on the deficit, of if he insists that tax increases be the centerpiece of any deal. On Thursday, the president was dismissive of "short-term deficits," saying the fiscal problems were confined to "long-term obligations that we have around things like Medicare and Social Security." And the solution he outlined was the same one he's been advocating for more than a year:

"So the key now is a budget that cuts out the things that we don’t need, closes corporate tax loopholes that don’t help create jobs and frees up resources for the things that do help us grow -- like education and infrastructure and research," Obama said. "And these things historically have not been partisan. And this shouldn’t be as difficult as it’s been in past years because we already spend less than we did a few years ago. Our deficits are half of what they were a few years ago. The debt problems we have now are long term, and we can address them without shortchanging our kids, or shortchanging our grandkids, or weakening the security that current generations have earned from their hard work."

That's not an olive branch, that's a summary of the Democratic Party platform. But in the interest of sounding hopeful, let's call it just an opening bid. Negotiators are finally at the table, and they have two months to come up with a budget for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1. They have the chance to put 2 1/2 years of brinkmanship behind them, or at least put the budgeting process back on its normal track. 

That's not too much to hope for today. In a month, though, I might sound more like frank.maunder.

ALSO:

Congress: The joke's on us

Tea party backlash: Protest signs to cheer you up

Tea partiers shut down the government, and all they get is a T-shirt?

Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey and Google+

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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