Fiscal cliff. Debt ceiling. Sequester. Continuing resolution.
With each self-inflicted budget crisis produced with alarming regularity by congressional gridlock, new terms enter the national lexicon as brinkmanship forces last-minute votes on government funding, averting sweeping tax increases and avoiding a disastrous default on the national debt.
As another financial emergency comes to a head in Washington, D.C., it’s time to add a new expression to the debate. The doubleheader of a crisis now playing out as Congress tries to avert a partial federal government shutdown over the weekend and then begins talks to raise the debt ceiling by mid-October isn’t just irresponsible. It isn’t just reckless.
It isn’t even government by tantrum, which is what some observers have begun to call the maneuvers by some in the Republican Party to derail the Affordable Care Act (ACA) at any cost. Instead, these maneuvers deserve to be called out for what they are: congressional malpractice.
It’s a harsh but an apt descriptor for the current Republican strategy of bowing to extremists within the party so bent on undermining the ACA that they are willing to jeopardize the nation’s economic recovery by shutting down the government. Or, even worse, potentially tanking the economy by not raising the debt ceiling, which now stands at $16.7 trillion.
It’s worth noting that while spending does need to be reined in, the debt ceiling is not the vehicle by which to do so. (An increase in the ceiling is needed to pay for spending that Congress has already authorized.) Shutting down the government doesn’t save money, either.
No CEO would ever voluntarily lurch from financial crisis to financial crisis, and threaten to not pay employees or bills because of a policy spat. What makes this crisis particularly galling is that one of the chief criticisms of the ACA by the Tea Party crowd spearheading this foolhardy charge is that the health reform law creates “uncertainty” for companies.
It’s hard to imagine how policymakers could top the level of uncertainty now raised by the specters of shutdown or default. A shutdown would furlough federal employees in Minnesota and elsewhere, with those absent paychecks causing harmful economic ripples. Slowing the flow of medical research dollars in this state — something that happened during the 1995 shutdown — also would put a brake on a state economy braced by biotechnology.
If the debt ceiling is not raised, “delays in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans’ benefits, unemployment benefits and other essential government programs would have a direct impact on millions of Americans and in turn, would negatively affect the economy by pushing down consumer spending,’’ warned a new report from the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee.
Other side effects: roiled financial markets around the world and higher federal borrowing costs. The last time that Republicans sought to use the debt ceiling as leverage, the U.S. credit rating was downgraded and the Dow Jones industrial average dropped more than 2,000 points in the weeks leading up to the vote.
Fortunately, there were enough grown-ups in Congress in 2011 to get the ceiling raised. Among the Minnesotans who cast this unpopular but responsible vote: U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, Republican Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen, and Democratic Reps. Collin Peterson and Tim Walz.
Several more tough votes loom ahead, particularly for Kline and Paulsen. A short-term government funding bill is expected to come back to the Republican-controlled House this weekend after the Democratic-led Senate strips out language to defund the ACA. If the GOP doesn’t pass the funding resolution, the partial shutdown would begin next week.
Action on the debt ceiling is also needed before Oct. 17, the date when the government will not have enough money to fully pay its bills. Refusing to raise the limit or tying this to some Republican wish list of policy changes should be beyond the pale. It’s repugnant to think that deal “sweeteners” are needed to protect the full faith and credit of the United States.
As respected leaders in the majority party in the House, Kline and Paulsen not only have an obligation to avert a government shutdown but to ensure that cooler heads prevail on the more dangerous debt ceiling vote. The intransigence of some of their GOP colleagues likely means that some Democratic votes may be needed.
Seasoned budget observers are concerned that responsible members of the House are in short supply, particularly when it comes to the debt ceiling. Minnesotans should expect their entire congressional delegation to cast the adult votes on these important matters and hold them accountable in 2014 if they do not.