Budget committee can’t fail
By: Ginger Gibson
November 18, 2013 08:01 PM EST
The budget panel — a conference committee created to help avoid another government shutdown — can’t fail.
Sure, the bicameral panel could throw its hands up at any point before the Dec. 13 deadline to reach agreement on new spending levels for the government and declare itself unable to compromise. In fact, many expect that will be the uninspiring outcome.
But it’s the rock-bottom expectations and typical Washington gridlock that are creating a perception that even if Democrats and Republicans just give up, it’s not actually their fault.
“It’s a failure — but it’s in the context of the systemic failure of the Congress,” Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said.
The conference committee, which was created along with the deal that ended the shutdown and lifted the debt ceiling, has been tasked with trying to find a compromise between the House and Senate budgets. Both sides want to avoid the scheduled $20 billion sequester cut in defense spending set to go into effect in January, but Republicans want to spare the Pentagon by cutting other programs, and Democrats want to fund defense and nondefense programs at higher levels.
If the conference committee reaches an agreement, it could avert those cuts and allow legislation to be crafted to avoid another shutdown. If it can’t reach a deal, Congress will have to keep relying on continuing resolutions.
Failure, according to some members, should be placed on the whole building, not the 29-member panel that was created as part of a deal to end the shutdown and lift the debt ceiling.
“The definition of utter failure is not being able to pass a CR at current law,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), a member of the conference panel, said, skipping right over the part of the process the committee is responsible for. “And I’m beginning to wonder if that’s possible.”
After two public meetings that yielded nothing more than talking points and sound bites, it still is unwise to declare the conference committee dead yet. Both sides insist they’re talking behind the scenes and trying to craft a deal even if it’s very small.
But most members think expectations are right where they belong.
“In a dysfunctional United States Congress, it’s not possible to set expectations low enough,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who also serves on the negotiating panel. “Expectations are low.”
A possible failure of the panel, led by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), is being cast as just another example of all the problems that plague Washington.
Neither negotiator should be blamed, Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) said, adding, “It’s my impression that both Congressman Ryan and Sen. Murray are engaged in good-faith negotiations.”
And as for the Dec. 13 deadline, those involved insist if it lapses, it doesn’t really matter.
“It’s a deadline without any consequences, obviously,” Ryan spokesman William Allison told National Journal last week. “If we don’t do anything, the government doesn’t shut down, there’s not a second sequester that hits, there’s not a debt limit, so if we fail to reach an agreement by Dec. 13, the world keeps spinning and everything’s fine.”
That doesn’t mean missing the deadline isn’t without consequences — there just aren’t any consequences for the conference committee.
Someone in Washington — leadership, the White House, an optimistic group of bipartisan lawmakers — is going to have to figure out how to keep the government from shutting down again when funding runs out on Jan. 15 or how to stop the nation from defaulting since the ceiling must be lifted by Feb. 7.
They can do so by reaching an agreement to pass a new continuing resolution to fund the government temporarily, though it will have to take into account a second phase of across-the-board spending cuts as part of the sequester. If that happens, the panel will have failed — but the government will keep on chugging.
The committee began work last month. While members delivered speeches about the need to strike a grand bargain — something that would address spending, taxes and the debt and deficit in the long term — most admitted the best goal was to aim small. So they set their sights on finding a budget number for the current fiscal year, which would allow appropriators to start crafting spending bills and avoid the need for more continuing resolutions.
And if the conference committee is successful, it won’t be the normal kind of victory — missing the regular deadline by months and still not adhering to a regular budgeting process.
“This spectacle of the shutdown and the debt default was very jarring to the American people and avoiding that, I suppose, is a victory of sorts, but that’s in the world of low expectations,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said.
Each day without a deal, the lines in the sand appear to be getting deeper for both sides and failure becomes a more realistic expectation.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who is on the negotiating panel, put it pretty simply: The only way he thinks a deal can be reached is if Republicans get what they want.
“We’re probably making progress if we get the Democrats to agree to just a continuing resolution that doesn’t bust the Budget Control Act caps, hopefully we can at least achieve that,” Johnson said, reiterating the position Republicans have taken in fiscal discussions. “There is always a demand for more revenue, and they’re not going to get more revenue.”
That scenario is nearly impossible. Democrats are unlikely to abandon their efforts to undo the sequester or close tax loopholes.
“The question is will the GOP close a single special interest tax loophole to stop defense cuts and help reduce the deficit? As long as the answer is no, any failure of the budget conference lays at their feet,” a House Democratic aide said.