Bad Leftovers

Why there's little hope for a solution to Congress's budget woes.

Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Amid the Syria fracas, budget politics are reportedly "warming up" on the Hill. But is it really just a case of "reheating the leftovers" and hoping someone will still find them appetizing?

From the White House side, the president is still holding out for a deal and is willing to talk. The trouble is, he has been talking with Senate Republicans who cannot make a deal on the budget. For a couple of weeks, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and sometimes Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, sat down with a new gang of eight, including people like Sen. Bob Corker and Sen. John McCain who have no jurisdiction to cut a budget deal. Where was Patty Murray, chair of the Senate Budget Committee? Where was Jeff Sessions, ranking member of that committee? Where was Mitch McConnell? (Answer: off fighting a right-wing primary challenger.) Or Barbara Mikulski, Richard Shelby, or even Harry Reid?

They certainly were not in those talks, and nobody from House Speaker John Boehner's crowd was in the room either. It is hardly surprising that, after a couple of weeks, everyone declared failure and disagreement and scheduled no new meetings.

Amid the Syria fracas, budget politics are reportedly "warming up" on the Hill. But is it really just a case of "reheating the leftovers" and hoping someone will still find them appetizing?

From the White House side, the president is still holding out for a deal and is willing to talk. The trouble is, he has been talking with Senate Republicans who cannot make a deal on the budget. For a couple of weeks, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and sometimes Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, sat down with a new gang of eight, including people like Sen. Bob Corker and Sen. John McCain who have no jurisdiction to cut a budget deal. Where was Patty Murray, chair of the Senate Budget Committee? Where was Jeff Sessions, ranking member of that committee? Where was Mitch McConnell? (Answer: off fighting a right-wing primary challenger.) Or Barbara Mikulski, Richard Shelby, or even Harry Reid?

They certainly were not in those talks, and nobody from House Speaker John Boehner’s crowd was in the room either. It is hardly surprising that, after a couple of weeks, everyone declared failure and disagreement and scheduled no new meetings.

While negotiations continue to flounder, the forces that would divide and conquer — or, perhaps, just lead straight over the cliff to a government closure in October, debt default the same month, and another sequester in January — are actively looking for ways to jump, Syria or no Syria. The conservatives that Boehner cannot control are working on the first step: a continuing resolution that would keep the government open but provide discretionary funds at the same level ($988 billion after the 2013 sequester) that agencies have been trying to manage this year.

Some folks, particularly the right-wing Americans for Prosperity (AFP), supported by the Koch brothers, are calling for an even deeper reduction: $967 billion for discretionary spending. AFP has suggested it will take names and remember them well if House members vote for anything above this level.

What’s more, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew told Congress in late August that the government would run out of room under the current debt ceiling in October, earlier than expected. So that fight and the budget fight may get blended as deadlines approach. The Syria debate may just push everyone to sign a short-term deal, but that will just mean continuing to fight about the same issues up to and perhaps through a looming fiscal 2014 sequester this coming January.

Frankly, short of a turnaround by those House Republicans who are determined to get spending cuts come hell or high water, it is hard to see a way out of the dilemma. Although perhaps a step in the right direction, more talks with people who in fact can make a decision would not necessarily deliver the votes.

In a way, letting a sequester happen may be the only politically viable outcome. It’s automatic, nobody has to make a tough decision, and everyone can blame the process. It is in some ways similar to base closures, whereby we create a commission, let it come up with the closure list, and then force the president and Congress to accept or reject the list as a whole. No one in office decides what gets closed, and everybody gets to blame the commission.

It should be an interesting fall, consuming all these familiar budgetary leftovers. But it is not clear much will change, once we’ve finished digesting.

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security. Twitter: @GAdams1941

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