The budget crisis manufactured by congressional Republicans will never halt health-care reform, but it has already caused long-lasting harm. It will preserve the deeply damaging spending cuts, known as the sequester, that are costing jobs and hurting the lives of millions.
Most of the attention given to the House’s temporary spending resolution has focused on its provision to defund President Obama’s health law. The Senate voted Friday to drop that wording; if the House doesn’t agree, the government will shut down on Tuesday.
But even without the provision, the resolution is pernicious. It preserves through mid-December all the blunt and arbitrary sequester cuts that began in March, making it much less likely those cuts will be replaced with more-sensible cuts and revenue increases for the rest of the 2014 fiscal year.
The only other change to the stopgap resolution that Senate Democrats made is to limit its duration to mid-November, hoping to use the next six weeks to negotiate a more responsible budget. Many Democrats in both chambers would prefer a resolution that repudiates the sequester cuts now. But they are resigned to a resolution that simply continues the abysmally low spending levels of 2013 into the first weeks or months of fiscal 2014, which begins on Tuesday.
To insist on a fight would mean Democrats would have to bear partial responsibility for a government shutdown if a continuing resolution is not approved in time. That burden is now borne entirely by Republicans who are obsessed with stopping health reform.
But any hope that Congress will use the stopgap period to negotiate a better budget is slim. It has already been six months since the Senate passed a realistic budget to replace the sequester with cuts of $975 billion, mostly from agriculture supports and efficiencies in medical spending. It also raises $1 trillion in revenue by removing tax breaks enjoyed by corporations and wealthy individuals.
The House has not responded to the Senate budget. Its GOP leaders have refused to sit down with Democrats if revenue increases are on the agenda.
Manipulated by a Tea Party wing that wants cuts even deeper than the sequester, the leaders are no more likely to budge now. They know that once low levels of discretionary spending become law, the reduced budgets become the new baseline from which the right wing will demand more cuts each year.
The country will be stuck with the sequester-level cuts for the foreseeable future. More than 57,000 students will not get their Head Start seats back, and 140,000 poor families who lost their federal housing assistance will remain in unaffordable or substandard homes.
Thousands of scientists have been laid off, and vital medical research projects have stalled. More than 85 chief federal district court judges signed a letter last month saying their cuts have been so deep that public safety is at risk.
A continued sequester will force unnecessary and damaging furloughs of all FBI employees, and of 650,000 civilian employees of the Defense Department. And the economy will continue to sputter: The Congressional Budget Office estimates that ending the sequester could create as many as 1.6 million jobs.
The worst thing about governing by a stopgap measure is that it eliminates real debates about priorities, new investments, or tax reform. Such things are impossible when the threat of a shutdown is constantly looming.
Every day lawmakers argue about preventing a shutdown is a day they are not discussing what government should be doing for the country’s benefit.