The deadline to pass a federal budget is Friday, and it looks like Congress is going to blow it.
Republicans were preparing to vote on a stopgap bill that would keep the government operating until, oh, next week. If they still can’t reach agreement, they might do another one. No hurry.
The fact is, Congress bickered and fought and resorted to brinkmanship and stalemates under divided government, and the same thing is happening under Republican control. No matter who is in charge, it seems, dysfunction and a disregard for working in a timely and efficient manner appear to be the one constant in Washington.
Republicans even got themselves a brand-new House leader, but the shine is wearing off quickly. Speaker Paul Ryan looks more haggard and hunted by the day as he tries to broker peace among his unruly factions, who have left him with so few votes that he now must look to Democrats to get a bill passed. Democrats, for their part, have exhibited a similar lack of urgency, comfortable in the knowledge that they are backed by a president with a veto pen.
Hanging in the balance is a $1.1 trillion spending bill, along with as much as $800 billion in tax extensions over 10 years. This could include a two-year suspension of the medical-devices tax favored by many in the Minnesota delegation.
So why should anyone care whether the government lurches from one Band-Aid to another? They’ll get a budget eventually, right?
Yes, but in the meantime trust in government corrodes just a bit more. Agencies are thrown into disarray, unable to plan even for this fiscal year, let alone the next. That means all of those who depend on the services those agencies provide — and don’t kid yourself, it’s everyone from the Medicaid recipient to the nation’s largest corporate interests — have just a bit more uncertainty in their lives.
According to Norm Ornstein, a veteran Congress-watcher with the American Enterprise Institute, the fight is no longer between moderates and hard-liners. “Now it’s a division between hard right and radicals,” he said. And between a House and Senate that, while controlled by the same party, have wildly different dynamics and concerns. A fourth of the Senate is up for re-election, and their majority is in jeopardy, Ornstein said. Meanwhile, the House’s fears are concentrated on primaries where GOP members may be punished with a challenge on the right if they bend on party orthodoxy.
Ryan is facing his first serious test of leadership, just weeks into his tenure. He must allay the concerns of those on his right, extend a hand to those on his left and bring the House to a budget that President Obama can sign.
Once Ryan finds a way to do so, he should move his caucus to far harder tasks that have fallen victim to Congress’ last-minute, minimalist approach: He could start with the nation’s outdated tax code and its struggling Social Security system.