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Thursday, October 3, 2013

In Praise of Piecemeal Budgeting

How the government shutdown could do some good

On Tuesday I had to explain to several jubilant European friends of mine that the United States had not, in fact, called it quits and reverted to the status of a British protectorate. Neither were we calling it quits and capitulating to Fidel Castro. (Americans did not suffer from this misconception—most were too busy discussing the finale of “Breaking Bad” to notice the disappearance of the national park system.)

It turns out that America still exists, but our government has pared down to essential services. Which sounds grizzly until you realize that “essential services” means roughly the same thing to the government as “essential features” does to a car salesman. We haven't put our tanks up on Craigslist or cut off the plumbing to the federal courts. What we have done is lost a good deal of commerce from businesses unable to acquire permits and the like, all the while accumulating paperwork to be dealt with when furloughed federal employees return. 

Congress has gotten used to living without budgets, preferring to kick the can down the road. Now we’ve sunk to the point of arguing about how hard to kick it.

If you haven't been following closely, you probably assume that around Monday night John Boehner threatened to hit the kill switch on the federal government unless Harry Reid gave him a duffel bag of unmarked bills and an escape helicopter. The final Republican proposals were actually far more modest. 

Recall by Monday that the GOP had switched to delay tactics rather than an outright defunding stratagem. The previous week, Ted Cruz had filibustered in a very noble attempt to boost his own Tea Party popularity without actually accomplishing anything else. The House called for more feasible budget proposals, and as of now the Democrats are the ones refusing to negotiate. 

The final Monday night Republican House budget proposals were twofold: first, to delay the mandatory implementation of Obamacare for individuals; a grace period has already been extended to many unions and large businesses. Second, they demanded an overtly political red herring, which aimed to treat congressmen and their staffs as different from all other federal employees in regard to employer-paid health insurance. Neither House could agree on a budget, and thus we had to mothball Yellowstone National Park. 

Republicans are now championing a strategy to deal with current budget gridlock and get Old Faithful spewing again: pass a budget piecemeal. Rather than issuing one giant budget, we could authorize from the bottom up, funding individual programs and agencies one-by-one rather than holding them hostage to the most divisive issues. Republicans have already written several bills to this effect, and each has been summarily rejected by Democrats. Yesterday Eric Cantor proposed separately funding the National Institutes of Health after a Democratic outcry about patients going untreated; Cantor's proposal has been turned down. A White House spokesman responded to earlier bills with, “These piecemeal efforts are not serious, and they are no way to run a government.”

I don't believe anyone up there actually knows how to run a government, given that we haven't passed a budget since 2009. (As you'll recall, Congress no longer bothers to do so, because that would come perilously close to doing its job.) We now fund the federal government via “stopgap” budgets, which are the fiscal equivalent of balancing more and more pizza boxes on top of the garbage bin instead of summoning the nerve to take the trash out. 

More to the point, we've already employed a piecemeal budget approach. When the government “shut down,” it did not actually cease to exist; it merely streamlined temporarily. A significant portion of the government—concerned with national security, public safety, the courts, and Social Security payments—remains in place. Agencies that exist through funding separate from the federal government, like the Post Office (solvent as hell) and the Fed (creates its own money with alchemy), can valiantly trundle on. Congress agreed that the functioning of certain elements of government should not be impeded by other budget matters. Monday night, shortly before the shutdown became a conclusive certainty, Congress and the president signed a bill into law funding various military and defense contractors—piecemeal. 

I like the piecemeal option. The bigger the bill, the more room there is for ridiculous pork barrel spending. Providing funding to one agency at a time forces more scrutiny, and at least provides average Americans with more time to add our own input to the budget process beyond “no” and “yes, reluctantly.” Plenty of agencies, when not allowed to hide in the small print, would look pretty shabby before an annual review.  

Could the Republicans be suggesting this chunk-by-chunk approach for childish political gain, rather than as a serious procedural suggestion? Almost certainly—they're congressmen. But if the Democrats truly feel the pain and suffering of the various innocent federal agencies they champion, they can and should accept the aggregate budget proposals the GOP is responding with. 

Until then, I'll be sneaking into Yellowstone to go camping. All of the bears are on furlough.