Congress Fiddles While the Budget Burns

What are lawmakers advocating a shutdown trying to accomplish?

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Last week, the House of Representatives passed a temporary funding bill that would allow the government to continue operations in the absence of full-year appropriations, but tacked on a provision defunding the new health care law, the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). It's hard to see the Senate adopting that provision, much less the president signing it into law.

In a convoluted dance, Senate leaders of both parties have said that shutting the government down is not desirable and want to get to a vote on the measure. Majority Leader Reid, D-Nev., would like to strip out the defunding provision, Minority Leader McConnell, R-Ky., would like to keep it and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, wants to filibuster it to increase leverage for defunding Obamacare.

The nation is just one week away from the start of the new federal fiscal year and less than a month from reaching the debt limit and exhausting the nation's borrowing authority. Nero Congress continues to fiddle around making political points rather than solving the burning fiscal problems the country faces.

But it is worth asking at this point, what exactly is Congress, and in particular those who appear to advocate government shutdown brinksmanship, trying to accomplish? 

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

After more than 40 votes to defund it, House Republicans have more than amply demonstrated their dislike of the Affordable Care Act, and anyone who has heard of Senator Cruz also likely knows his determination to stop or repeal Obamacare as the leading voice saying the fight over defunding the law is worth a government shutdown.  

A government shutdown will not save money. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio – who was in leadership during the 1995 shutdowns - has stated that the costs of disrupting the government are high. As an example, guidance from the Office of Management and Budget to agencies indicates that even where the cost of shutting down a "non-essential" website for example, exceeds the cost of maintenance, a lapse in appropriations would require that the more expensive route be followed.   

A government shutdown is not likely to help the Republicans politically. If history is any lesson, a government shutdown will anger more Americans than it will please and almost everyone will blame the Republicans at the ballot box. The 32 House Republicans who were serving in Congress back in 1995 probably remember that after the Gingrich revolution swept Republicans into power in the 1994 elections, taking the Senate and the House of Representatives for the first time in more the 40 years, the blowback from the shutdown stalled the party's momentum. Furthermore, it helped a battered President Clinton win re-election in 1996, and the Democrats picked up eight Republican seats in the process. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

A government shutdown will disrupt the economy. Across the political spectrum, there is agreement that the uncertainty and inefficiencies inherent in a government shutdown would send a discouraging signal to employers and markets and further underscore the all too evident dysfunction in Washington.

And of course, the vote to eliminate funding for Obamacare will not pass – the Senate is controlled by Democrats who support the law. Indeed, Senator Cruz wants to filibuster the continuing resolution to force a supermajority vote (60 vote threshold) for an amendment to strip out the House defunding mechanism. It's clear this isn't going to happen. Besides that, defunding a law passed in 2010 doesn't repeal it.    

We get the message. Congressional Republicans hate Obamacare and Congressional Democrats and the president like it and want it to go forward. The Supreme Court upheld most of the law's provisions. That's the executive, judiciary and half of the legislative branch in favor. I'm not saying support is lockstep or unanimous by any means. But now is the time for our elected officials to govern, not squabble and re-litigate old fights and play to the partisans.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: There is no shortcut for making hard decisions. Each and every one of the 535 members of Congress fought for the privilege of governing the country. We need Congress to stop the posturing and get to work. We have serious fiscal problems and right now Congress is focused almost solely on actions we know will not address them.  

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