Editorial: America's Short-Term Deal

Published Oct 18, 2013. In Herald-Tribune (Sarasota, Fla.).

Politics in the United States has come to this: Averting a self-inflicted crisis -- even for three or four months -- is cause for relief.

When both houses of Congress approved a Senate-initiated plan late Wednesday, the federal government's partial shutdown ended and, more important, the nation narrowly avoided the early stages of a historic credit default.

But the plan only funds the government through Jan. 15 and raises the debt limit until Feb. 7 -- raising the specter of another shutdown, posing further risks to America's creditworthiness and attracting more derision throughout the nation and the world.

The most frustrating aspect of the costly, wasteful 16-day shutdown and the flirtation with default was the simple fact that it was so easily avoidable.

By the first day of October, both Republicans and Democrats acknowledged that, if House Speaker John Boehner had allowed a vote in his chamber on a "clean" continuing budget resolution -- without language undermining the Affordable Care Act -- the resolution would have passed.

Democrats in Congress and President Barack Obama have been criticized for their unwavering support of the ACA and refusal to fix its flaws as part of a budget deal.

But the fanatical focus of Tea Party factions in Congress, bent on "defunding" the health-care law, led Boehner to reject the simple democratic principle of voting.

Even the conservative, anti-Obama editorial page of the Wall Street Journal on Thursday labeled the "shutdown caucus" as "politically dumb."

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Republican whose district includes Manatee and Sarasota counties, became a vocal opponent of the shutdown and failure to raise the debt limit in recent days.

"Jeopardizing the full faith and credit of the United States by defaulting on our obligations was not an option," said Buchanan, one of 285 members of the House to vote Wednesday in favor of the compromise.

Unfortunately, until the day before the U.S. reached the debt ceiling, default appeared to be an option. It didn't help that Buchanan voted previously in favor of a non-starter bill that would have approved temporary government funding in exchange for a one-year suspension of the ACA. It appeared then, and was clear later, that such legislation would fail, result in a shutdown and push the U.S. to its debt limit.

"Final passage at the 11th hour came at a cost of weakened public confidence in Washington's ability to manage the nation's affairs," Buchanan said.

He's right.

Another round of political brinksmanship would further erode public confidence -- on Main Street and on Wall Street, in the United States and throughout the world -- in Washington's ability to manage America's budget and its debt.

The plan approved Wednesday calls for appointment of a House-Senate conference committee on the budget. The credible, nonpartisan Concord Coalition issued a statement Thursday, reflecting just how low Congress has set the bar for governance.

"At a minimum," the statement read, the committee's "goal should be to prevent another shutdown and debt limit crisis early next year."

The coalition added that the committee "has the even more valuable opportunity ... to forge a bipartisan plan for comprehensive fiscal reform.

"A credible plan to do so would involve three key items that have the potential to attract bipartisan support: additional health care reforms that reduce projected spending, tax reforms that target wasteful subsidies, and a new set of spending caps to replace the 'sequestration' caps that were never intended to actually go into effect -- and that neither party fully supports."

Americans and their representatives must recognize the difficulty of this challenge: Absent unexpected economic growth at high levels, making the federal budget and the public debt sustainable will require a balanced approach.

Whether recommendations on sustainability have come from The National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform -- an 18-member, bipartisan panel convened by President Barack Obama -- or the Bipartisan Policy Center, a noted think tank, solutions lie in a mixture of spending cuts and new forms of revenue.

And, for those in Washington who have forgotten, achieving that degree of balance requires principled compromise.