Sunday, March 06, 2011

A shutdown remains a very real possibility

It is counterintuitive, but the recent deal struck by Democrats and Republicans in Congress to continue funding the federal government for two weeks makes an eventual impasse and shutdown more likely, not less.

As Neftali Bendavid of The Wall Street Journal put it when the deal was in final negotiations, "Republicans and Democrats appear increasingly likely to reach a deal that would avoid a government shutdown Friday, but in doing so they are deferring and possibly deepening the challenge of reaching a longer-term spending agreement."

Both sides compromised to reach the agreement. Democrats agreed to the $4 billion in cuts Republicans insisted on, but Republicans agreed to make those cuts in areas Democrats had already identified.

As The New Republic's Jonathan Chait summed it up, the deal "simply front-loads all the spending cuts Democrats find acceptable. After this two-week extension passes, reaching a mutually acceptable deal will get all the more difficult."

The Virginia General Assembly -- like Congress divided with one party in control of each house -- managed to bridge pretty stark differences in its recently concluded budget negotiations.

Those differences pale in comparisons to the divide in Congress, though, and no one should expect this dispute to be resolved so easily.

That's unfortunate, because if both sides were sincere, there's no reason that substantial common ground on reining in the deficit couldn't be found.

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office, for instance, found 34 areas where there is significant overlap of responsibility, duplication and fragmentation among federal agencies.

The GAO found 47 other areas where better management or spending decisions could result in significant savings without impacting results.

Republicans leapt on the report as more example of waste in government, but Democrats should take a good look at it.

The Washington Post's Ezra Klein made an excellent argument for Democrats to embrace such reports and put their recommendations into action: "It's the people who believe in government who should be angriest and most insistent on taking action when it fails to work, not the people who believe government can't work and see failure and inefficiency as proof for their argument."

If money can be saved by eliminating duplication or making better spending decisions, Democrats should embrace that. Good government is efficient government.

Republicans, on the other hand, have proven multiple times how selective their dedication to deficit reduction is.

They proved it most spectacularly before they even retook control of the House of Representatives. They insisted on extending all of President George W. Bush's tax cuts -- adding trillions of dollars to deficit projections that were built upon them expiring at the end of last year.

They proved it again more recently when they voted unanimously against ending $40 billion in subsidies to Big Oil, at a time when profits are pouring because instability in the Mideast is boosting the price of oil.

House Republicans are also undermining their argument of rampant waste, fraud and abuse through some of the cuts they are recommending.

If it is so easy, for instance, to find billions of dollars of waste in federal spending, why target port security -- which nearly 10 years after 9/11 remains woefully inadequate?

A report by The New York Daily News found that federal funding for port security in New York and New Jersey would be cut by 66 percent under the Republican proposal.

Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y., and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, disagreed with the cut. "From a security perspective and a dollars and cents perspective, it's very shortsighted, it's dangerous, and it's wrong," he said -- although he voted for the plan that included the cut.

Republicans have also proposed deep cuts to border security, nuclear anti-proliferation efforts and money for State Department activity in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even housing assistance for homeless vets takes a hit.

Even putting aside the job-killing aspects of the Republican spending proposal -- several independent economic analyses predict the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs if spending is reduced to the levels they want -- it's hard to believe that the American people agree with these priorities.

Republicans and Democrats should come together to find smart cuts that improve government rather than gut it.

Radmacher is the editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times.

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