Debt deal bottleneck

Whether or not the debt ceiling is raised before Tuesday’s putative deadline, one thing is sure: The debate has created a massive congressional logjam.

Nothing else has seemed to matter, even though advocates from disparate points on the ideological spectrum say there are plenty of topics crying out for attention.

Former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), erstwhile chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, told The Hill that the tortuous negotiations this summer amounted to “the biggest usurpation of time and energy that I have ever seen.”

“The whole activity of the Congress has been turned on its head,” Domenici said. “There has been no budget for two years, [which is] really incredible ... Continuing resolutions were not intended to operate the government for month after month.”

And it is not as though Aug. 2 will break the logjam. In fact, Washington is going to have to get used to the idea of perpetual fiscal crisis, for there is no end in sight. No appropriations bills have yet been enacted and Congress will have just three weeks to deal with them before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1, when the nation could once again face a government shutdown.

One key provision in the agreement that appeared to be emerging Sunday called for the setting up of a “super-committee” to propose further cuts.

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Given the toxic state of partisan mistrust and an almost absolute disagreement about what America’s fiscal priorities should be, those deliberations could gum up the works yet again.

Adding to public anxiety, Congress is displaying its dysfunction as the nation tries to haul itself out of the Great Recession. Poor economic numbers Friday revealed that GDP growth during the second quarter was an anemic 1.3 percent.

President Obama and Republicans accuse one another of intransigence. It is telling that Republicans even seem to hanker for the days of the Clinton presidency.

“We had difficult problems and nothing was easy,” said lobbyist and former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.), who, as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, was a pivotal figure during the budget negotiations of the mid-1990s. “But President Clinton was very engaged, and he was capable of defending himself in the tough battles with us.

“Everybody came to the table. I just get the sense that people, and I won’t be specific, aren’t engaged [now]. If someone does not offer a counter-proposal to whatever is on the table, then it is very hard to move the thing forward.”

In the absence of forward movement, other problems are languishing. Perhaps the most obvious example is that of the Federal Aviation Administration, where 4,000 workers have been furloughed since authorization for the agency expired 10 days ago. An additional 90,000 construction workers who are not directly employed by the FAA also have been affected.

Under normal circumstances, the issue might command national headlines. For the moment, however, it creates barely a stir beyond the circles of those directly affected.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) said at a news conference last week that the FAA dispute was “parallel to the debt ceiling” and that the failure to make progress on either question was “a warning to the country about how dysfunctional this Congress and its majority leaders are.”

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) urged that “we don’t have to wait until August 2nd” before resolving the FAA issue, and insisted that such a delay would be “outrageous.” But her pleas appear to have been in vain.

Despite some advertising by road-building interests and others on its behalf, there is no action yet on a new highway and mass transit reauthorization bill. The Senate and House have laid out proposals, but they agree neither on their length nor level of funding.

It is not just the FAA and highway bills that have been held up. Free-trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea have, at least in theory, been on the slipway for months. The financial stimulation they would deliver might be relatively modest, but advocates say the economy sorely needs it. There still is no credible timetable for their ratification.

Work on a new farm bill also is being held up — an issue that is being felt with greater keenness out in the heartland than in the precincts of Capitol Hill.
“Right now, there is one issue and one issue only in Washington, and that is raising the debt ceiling,” Adam Nielsen, director of national legislation and policy development with the Illinois Farm Bureau, told radio station WJBC in Bloomington, Ill., last week.

Nielsen pleaded: “Please do not try to write the farm bill in these deficit-reduction agreements. Please leave the policymaking where it belongs, in the House and Senate Agriculture committees.”

Those committees, however, cannot really make progress until they find out how much money they have to deal with, something that cannot be determined until a deficit-reduction plan is approved.

The debt-ceiling negotiations have affected K Street, too. Lobbying firms have taken a hit in part because more lucrative legislation has been held up.

But they also are being hindered by a more fundamental problem. Many of their clients are cautious because they are still waiting on the answers to basic economic questions. The debt-ceiling debate has left everything from interest rates to taxes up in the air — and susceptible to major change at a moment’s notice. Such an uncertain climate is hardly conducive to big spending.

“Almost every one of our clients from every sector has some level of concern and anxiety,” Marc Lampkin, senior Republican strategist for Quinn, Gillespie and Associates, told The Hill.

Obama insisted Friday that only “a simple vote” would be required to avert the crisis.

But, even if that does happen, the long dispute seems only to have further exacerbated ill feeling between the parties on Capitol Hill. That being so, business could end up being conducted in a more sluggish fashion than usual, even after the debt ceiling no longer clogs Congress’s arteries.

“We have more media than ever before in the whole history of the world,” Livingston said. “Yet members of Congress seem to have a difficult time talking to each other.”


Additional reporting by Keith Laing and Rachel Leven.