The Budget Process–What Went Wrong?

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To understand the breakdown in budget negotiations and the resulting government shutdown, start with the basics of the budget process. The Senate passed a budget. The House of Representatives passed a somewhat different budget. What is supposed to happen is that a conference committee with members from both houses reconciles the two budgets and sends the compromise to both houses to be passed. That didn’t happen this year because the Republican-led House refused to appoint members to a conference committee, holding out instead for the Senate to adopt their budget.

When the two houses are unable to agree on a budget by the beginning of the new fiscal year, what they usually do is pass a continuing resolution to keep the government operating at the current budget level. Democrats are willing to do that, although it means continuing the austerity budget known as the “sequester,” which they feel underfunds many of the programs they support. Without a continuing resolution, all discretionary government spending is cut off, resulting in a partial government shutdown. Spending that is mandated by existing law, such as Social Security payments, is not affected.

At the insistence of the “Tea Party” wing of their party, House Republicans support a continuing resolution to keep the government functioning only if it includes a provision to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act. The audacity of this demand is breathtaking. The Affordable Care Act isn’t even part of the discretionary budget that is under consideration. Its funding is already mandated by the law passed three years ago, which is exactly why the Republicans need new legislation to defund it. Having failed to stop it through the normal legislative process, and having run against it and lost in the 2012 election, Republicans want to use the threat of a government shutdown to accomplish what they couldn’t accomplish through normal democratic means. Having refused to negotiate over the budget for months, they now propose to renegotiate the Affordable Care Act–which isn’t even a part of the budget at issue–as a condition for passing any budget at all. If President Obama doesn’t agree, then he’s “refusing to negotiate”! And if the Senate won’t pass the House’s resolution with its poison pill attached, then it’s the Senate that’s shutting down the government.

What can one call this except a perversion of the democratic process? The Senate has passed a continuing resolution to fund the government unconditionally. A majority of the House would almost certainly pass it too, if the Republican leadership would let them vote on it! But so far Speaker Boehner hasn’t allowed that because it would anger the right wing of his party and perhaps cost him his job. Keeping ultraconservatives happy and John Boehner in his job is apparently a higher priority than honoring the will of the majority and keeping the government functioning.

President Obama is by nature a pretty flexible, conciliatory fellow. He first came to national attention with his speech to the Democratic convention about working together to overcome the division of Americans into “red states” and “blue states.” During his first term he seriously underestimated how little flexibility or cooperation he would get from the other party on anything. Now he is faced with a choice between making concessions that would reward undemocratic behavior or sharing the blame for the breakdown of the budget process. What he needs to convey to the American people is that extortion is not a good-faith negotiation. You don’t earn extra points or special concessions just by offering to do what you’re supposed to be doing anyway, in this case keeping the government functioning. First pass a budget resolution, and then pursue other legislative aims through the normal democratic process. No responsible president can ask for less.

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