Time to stop play-acting and spit out the tea
The Republicans are not being serious about the deficit
THIRTY billion dollars is a lot of money for anyone except America’s government. In Washington it is a bagatelle: about what the feds spend in three days, or less than 2% of the predicted budget deficit for this year. Yet in the peculiar battle that is now raging over the budget for a fiscal year already half over, $30 billion is all that now separates the Republicans and the Democrats, who have been bickering for the past 14 months over the details. Because neither side thinks it can afford to back down, the risks of a government shutdown are rising fast; without an agreement, the government will run out of money on April 8th.
Some irresponsible people, on both sides of the political aisle, think that a temporary shutdown would not matter all that much. A fair few Democrats hope that the Republicans will be blamed for their intransigence, as they were at the time of the last shutdown, in 1995-96 (though they may be disappointed on that score, since public opinion swung against the Republicans in 1996 only after their leader, Newt Gingrich, made a fool of himself over a seat on Air Force One). Those of a tea-partyish persuasion imagine that they will be politically rewarded by their supporters for sticking to their guns, and that the only good government is one on enforced leave.
In the short term, it is true, a shutdown would be far from catastrophic; soldiers will continue to fight; aircraft will not collide; Social Security (pensions) cheques will mostly continue to be automatically sent out. But it would still be highly disruptive, not least for government employees who will not get paid, and it will inconvenience people and businesses in countless ways. That is no small matter while the recovery remains so fragile.
More worrying than a shutdown itself would be its implications. If the politicians’ attempts to resolve one year’s budget end in acrimonious collapse, what hope is there of reaching agreement on issues that require both sides to take much more political punishment? Later in April another battle looms, this time over the need for an extension to America’s debt limit, currently set at $14.3 trillion and now very close to being reached. A row over the fiscal 2011 budget might not alarm investors too much; a fight over authorising money that ultimately could be needed to pay international creditors is quite another thing.