Congress's Continual Game of Political Chicken

Crisis to crisis management is no way to govern.

By SHARE
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Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The proposal from the House of Representatives to push off the debt ceiling crisis for three months came with an ironic rhetorical frame: If the Senate will, in that time frame, pass a budget, we can start facing our long-term fiscal challenges instead of managing crisis to crisis. Oh, and if they don't pass a budget all lawmakers will stop drawing salaries.

The basic idea that crisis to crisis management is the worst form of governance for our country is right on the money: Short-term continuing resolutions and other stop-gap measures ensure inefficiency because government agencies are hamstrung by their inability to plan beyond a few months. And absolutely the Senate should present a budget that lays out a vision for how to put our country on a path towards a healthy fiscal future. But, the politics over the debt ceiling in the last three years have been a leading contributor to the culture of avoiding hard decisions in favor of incendiary rhetoric we see in Congress today.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

The debt ceiling debate in the summer of 2011 spawned the so-called "super committee" and so-called "fiscal cliff." So, in the past two years we've seen the creation and failure of the super committee, an underwhelming fiscal cliff deal that paired special interest tax breaks with an increase to the rates for higher income individuals, and a short delay of the looming threat of sequestration, the across the board spending cuts that were supposed to motivate the super committee—and Congress—to come together to act.  In the next two months we have another opportunity to avoid the sequester and the expiration of the current continuing resolution, the bill that funded government for six months at fiscal year 2012 levels in lieu of passing actual appropriations bills. And of course a debt ceiling vote is on the horizon.

All of these crises are manufactured. Those willing to put off raising the debt ceiling to make a political point are willing to hurt our economy and our standing in the world to make that same point.   

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At the root of these manufactured crises are a winner-take-all approach to the disagreements between and even within the political parties. At each crisis, Democrats and Republicans demand a total victory and a grand bargain only to end up placating one another with crumbs of a bad deal and promise to revisit the issues at the next manufactured crisis. Our nation cannot afford this continual game of political chicken. We cannot afford the impact of defaulting on our debts. Policymakers need to work together and come up with reforms to spending, taxes, and entitlements. No more political theater, no more back room discussions on grand bargains. It's time for the hard work of legislating solutions to the nation's fiscal challenges.

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