Poll: Whom would you have blamed?
It appears that Congress has narrowly averted a government shutdown for the third, but probably not the last, time this year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced Monday night that a deal had been reached on a bill to fund the government through mid-November, giving Congress about six weeks to complete work on the appropriations bills for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
The breathtakingly petty dispute at the heart of the latest impasse was over funding for disaster relief. Congress invariably puts too little money into the Federal Emergency Management Agency's account for disaster response, and it invariably passes one or more emergency appropriations bills during the year to replenish the fund. Typically, lawmakers don't cut spending in another part of the government to offset the new spending on infrastructure repairs and other aid to devastated communities. Instead, they just borrow the money.
This time, House Republicans proposed to pay for $1 billion in new funding for FEMA and other relief agencies by cutting $1.5 billion in as-yet unused loan guarantees for manufacturing electric cars and other advanced-fuel vehicles, as well as $100 million from a loan guarantee program for clean energy that backed the now-bankrupt solar-cell developer Solyndra. Some Republicans have suggested that the Obama administration rushed to aid Solyndra as a favor to a big campaign donor.
Senate Democrats opposed the cuts and sought a bigger amount for the new fiscal year, triggering the standoff. The solution wasn't a good-old-fashioned compromise, however; it was FEMA reporting that it could stretch its existing relief funds until Saturday, when the new fiscal year begins. That means no emergency appropriations are needed, just a stopgap bill to continue funding the government after Oct. 1.
Such a stopgap should be noncontroversial even for this group of lawmakers. The Senate acceded to the House's proposed funding level for disaster aid in the new fiscal year. And the two sides already hammered out an agreement on overall spending levels as part of the hard-fought debt-ceiling deal in August. Granted, there are plenty of House Republicans who aren't satisfied by the deal and want to cut spending more. But with the cuts to the loan guarantee programs off the table, there should be more than enough Democratic votes to make up for the GOP defections.
So why did the two sides go to the mat over a dispute involving less than 0.2% of the $1-trillion budget for discretionary programs? I suspect it reflects each side's belief that the public would blame the other guys. On the one hand, you have Democrats resisting even a tiny cut in spending at a time when the national debt is growing faster than a weed tree. On the other, you have Republicans playing politics with disaster relief, seeking to eliminate loan guarantees that could support thousands of new jobs.
Who was being unreasonable here? Take our poll, leave a comment or do both!
-- Jon Healey
Photo: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) talk to reporters about the latest budget standoff with Republicans. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press