It has been more than 40 days since the House passed a budget for 2011, cutting spending by $61 billion. The task was left undone by the previous Democrat-controlled Congress, the first time since 1974, an embarrassing feat for a body charged with holding the purse strings. Today that task remains incomplete, and the moment until a partial government shutdown is growing near, easily measured in hours, not days. It's time for action and leadership, not press conferences and finger pointing.
But yesterday a press conference is exactly what we got. Following a joint meeting among President Barack Obama, Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) in which no agreement on the budget was reached, the president appeared before the media. His message? He shouldn't have to shepherd this process through Congress; in other words, he shouldn't have to lead:
I shouldn't have to oversee a process in which Congress deals with last year's budget where we only have six months left – especially when both parties have agreed that we need to make substantial cuts and we're more or less at the same number.
But shouldn't the president lead when members of his own party refuse to come to the table? You see, President Obama isn't the only member of the "Me? Lead?" club. Majority Leader Reid, who is responsible for passing a budget through the Senate, has failed to bring the House budget up for a vote or offer a credible alternative. Indeed, when questioned by reporters following his meeting with Boehner, Reid resorted to pointing fingers. The Washington Post reports:
Reid continued to accuse Republicans of not being "fair and reasonable" in their demands for higher cuts and specific changes to social and regulatory policies. Asked if he would be willing to reach $40 billion in cuts, however, Reid demurred.
"I'm not negotiating here what we're going to do ultimately," he told reporters.
What Reid plans to do, ultimately, remains a mystery. He says his party has gone as far as it can go on budget cuts and, likewise, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he would not support Boehner's latest round of cuts, as The Hill reports. Their motivation is the same as it has been all along – play politics with the budget.
So it remains that the parties stand at an impasse, leaving the government teetering on the brink of a partial shutdown. But despite President Obama's apocalyptic warnings, a shutdown is not the catastrophe he paints it to be. Even if Congress and the president fail to reach agreement, Social Security checks are still mailed, and essential services continue, including military, law enforcement, VA care, and others.
During the 1995 shutdown, approximately 800,000 federal workers were initially furloughed. Given the growth of the federal workforce since then, today that number would likely be higher. Still, that leaves most of the federal workforce and military still working. In fact, the Department of Defense, power grid maintenance, border patrol, Coast Guard, air traffic controllers, inpatient and emergency outpatient medical care, and other vital services continued. But, in anticipation of a partial shutdown, Congress should immediately pass a Department of Defense appropriations bill to ensure that our military is fully funded in any scenario. Speaker Boehner is pushing for just that, and this is certainly an area where bipartisan support should be expected.
Remarkably, a partial shutdown is a reality simply because the Democratic leadership is drawing a line in the sand over a few billions of dollars in cuts, what Fox News' Megyn Kelly accurately described as "teaspoons in the ocean." The United States is $14.3 trillion in debt, and according to a CBO report, the federal government ran a budget deficit of $223 billion in February. Meanwhile, the Senate sits on its hands over cuts that amount to a few days of deficit spending. Heritage's J.D. Foster explains:
With all the focus on legislative tactics, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the battle is between the modest spending cuts passed by the House and Senator Reid's shamefully puny cuts. The issue is not whether the course of government will change dramatically. It won't. President Obama and congressional Democrats already drove spending rapidly higher. Even under the House bill, spending would continue to grow substantially. This battle is only the first of many.
The budget aside, there are other national priorities that are falling by the wayside while Congress focuses on a budget that should have been dealt with last year. Unemployment remains stuck at 8.8 percent, American men and women are at war in Afghanistan, U.S. forces remain in Iraq, the United States is engaged in Libya and energy prices are soaring. The next budget process is already underway and Congress should be focused on creating the conditions for job growth and a stronger economic recovery. In short, there is other work to be done.
Yesterday, President Obama said, "The only question is whether politics or ideology are going to get in the way of preventing a government shutdown." It has already gotten in the way, Mr. President. The fact remains that the House passed a budget, the Senate has not, and Democratic leadership is posturing for political gain. Nero fiddled while Rome burned.
Perhaps if President Obama were more willing to lead in 2010, when his party first abdicated its responsibility to pass a budget, Congress and the American people would not be where we are today – staring a partial government shutdown straight in the eye, all while trillions of dollars in debt await future generations. Majority Leader Reid and President Obama now must put politics aside, agree to modestly cut spending, move the process forward and avoid a shutdown.
The head of the largest federal employees union said his group will sue the federal government for workers' pay if there's a shutdown. Their claim? A violation of the 13th Amendment's prohibition against slavery.