Aren’t we a lucky bunch? We just missed the chance to find out what it’s like to live without a government. The federal government nearly closed last week. A zero-hour deal between President Barack Obama and House Republicans spared the country the sight of a shuttered Capitol, closed national parks and an end to trash pickup in the District of Columbia. How did things get to this point?
House Republicans seem to be refusing to govern. It’s the House’s responsibility to draft budgetary legislation. Since Republicans took over at the beginning of this year, they’ve drafted outlandish budgets that cut programs like the Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants and Children while reducing taxes on the rich. Obama has made it clear that he wouldn’t accept cuts that imposed harsh burdens on the neediest Americans. Democrats in the Senate said “no” to this Republican budget. Rejection should have forced Republicans to make a more moderate proposal. This is how divided government normally works.
After the proposed budget returned to the House, a group of ideologues — mostly freshmen lawmakers elected on a Tea Party platform — hijacked the process. They demanded that the proposed budget cuts be doubled — even though Senate Democrats had made it clear that they would not accept the original cuts.
When the budget doesn’t pass before the fiscal year has begun, the government shuts down. This happened for a few hours in Michigan in 2007. It also happened in 1995, when former President Bill Clinton vetoed a budget approved by a newly-Republican Congress. Today’s Republican leaders knew that the last government shutdown hurt their party, and they didn’t want one to happen again. So, for months, they have kept the federal government going by passing “continuing resolutions” that fund the government for a few weeks at a time. The last resolution expired on Friday.
This time, lawmakers barely reached a deal to continue funding the government. Democrats offered last week to cut $33 billion out of the budget — an amount of money equal to what House Speaker John Boehner (R—Ohio) first said he wanted to cut. Because the budget has been so delayed, cutting $33 billion is actually cutting six month of spending. Cutting $1 from the budget in April 2011 has the same impact on government services as cutting $2 in October 2010 would have had over the course of the full fiscal year.
The final deal cut $38 billion. This is the largest discretionary spending reduction in U.S. history. Getting a budget passed was an accomplishment, but it shouldn’t have happened like this. Instead of a rational debate with all options on the table, Republicans proposed purely partisan cuts knowing that Democrats would refuse to budge on most of them.
The lion’s share of the deficit comes from obligations like Social Security and Medicare, which must be fully funded each year. Most of the budget fighting has been about smaller programs that the government can choose to fund from year to year. A better Republican leadership would work with Democrats to solve the problems caused by long-term obligations. Choosing to fight so bitterly over six months of spending makes it impossible for lawmakers to address greater structural costs. The last serious attempt to restructure one of these major expenses was the health care bill, which Republicans opposed as if their congressional seats depended on campaign contributions from insurance companies.
When a company spends more than it has, it looks for ways to make more money. It also cuts costs. Income taxes today are as low as they have been in decades. We saw economic growth under Clinton, when taxes were higher, just as we saw economic growth under almost every president before former President George W. Bush who cut taxes dramatically. Today’s Republicans aren’t fiscally responsible, they’re just anti-tax. Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan both chose to raise taxes to pay for their spending. In that respect, they understood fiscal responsibility far better than their successors.
If the Republicans were serious about fixing spending, they would consider tax raises. They would try to reform Social Security. They would have supported health care reform. Instead, they’re fighting tooth and nail to protect the rich and abandon the poor.
Seth Soderborg is an LSA junior.