The imperfect storm

As members of Congress prepare to depart for the August break at the end of the week, they will be packing talking points from their caucus messaging packets that seek to explain why Congress hasn’t accomplished very much since the last time they went home.

With congressional ratings bouncing around at an all-time low, it is hard to imagine that whatever they have to say will have any resonance with voters.

ADVERTISEMENT
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) tried to put a unique spin on congressional inaction when he said that politicians should be measured not by how many laws are passed, but by how many laws were repealed.

Of course, that’s kind of like multiplying by zero, because by either measuring stick, you get nothing of consequence.

The real reason this Congress hasn’t done much is that nothing happens until it really has to happen.

By that metric, the legislative branch will start to be really, really busy in October, November and possibly December.

There is an imperfect storm brewing in the fall. I say imperfect, because the government won’t shut down at exactly the same time that the nation reaches its credit card limit, although it all may happen roughly around the autumnal equinox.

The House and Senate never reconciled their versions of the federal budget resolution by the statutory deadline, which means that the two bodies have been marking up (and passing in the House) their various spending bills without regard for how much the other body is spending. Republicans who run the House and Democrats who run the Senate are about $70 billion apart in their expectation of what the government should allocate for discretionary spending.

They have about nine days in September — the amount of time they are both in town that month — to reach agreement, or big chunks of the federal government will close down.

Come November, the federal government will reach its statutory debt limitation, which means that the House and Senate will have to agree to legislation to increase the nation’s credit limit so we don’t default on our debts. The last time we hit the debt limit, lawmakers came up with a sequester that has ratcheted federal spending down to 2009 levels.

Another deadline is ticking along as well: ObamaCare’s individual mandate is set to go into effect in 2014. The president gave the business community an extra year to comply with the new law, given its complexity, but he hasn’t budged when it comes to sticking it to the younger Americans who will mostly have to face this personal deadline.

So, three deadlines are coming up that should compel Congress to act: a government shutdown, a possible default and a costly mandate on individuals.

There has been inside-the-Beltway chatter about fundamental tax reform and entitlement reform. But you can’t get entitlement reform, which includes small changes to the consumer price index, unless you get more revenue that will theoretically come from a smarter tax code.

From a universal deal on tax and entitlements, you can find a way to resolve the sequester problem that has bedeviled the appropriations process.

Some Republicans have said that they will shut down the government if ObamaCare isn’t repealed — an interesting negotiating tactic, but dumb public relations if carried out to its logical extreme. Shutting down the government over something that is largely unachievable is not a good way to govern. A better outcome for Republicans would be to get the president to agree to delay the individual mandate for as long as the delayed the business mandate.

I wonder if any of these machinations will matter to the bulk of the American people. They see Washington argue and fulminate and carrying on, and they get frustrated because they don’t see political progress that will lead to stronger economic growth.

I read the other day that a sizable number of American families can’t afford diapers for their children.

If you can’t afford diapers for the kids, you don’t have time to keep up with the nonsense in Washington. Hopefully, whatever compromises that come out of this imperfect storm will eventually make the economy work for America again.

Feehery is president of Quinn Gillespie Communications and spent 15 years working in the House Republican leadership. He is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog and blogs at www.thefeeherytheory.com.