If our cash-strapped federal government could afford it, a fine addition to the top of the Capitol dome would be the ticking clock from the television show “24.” Washington is constantly counting down from one crisis to the next.
The latest zero hour came Friday with a whimper. The across-the-board spending cuts known in Beltway-ese as “sequestration” officially arrived after a year and a half of hype. Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did not bust down the door, Jack Bauer-style, with a late-hour deal.
Failure is an orphan – especially here – so last week was more about blaming the other party for the cuts rather than coming up with a deal to avert them.
So start the clock again: March 27 is the new countdown date.
That is when government funding expires, and a shutdown would be more dramatic than sequestration, which President Barack Obama described as “not a cliff, but it is a tumble downward.” House Republicans are likely to put out a plan this week that would fund the government through September at the lower discretionary spending level dictated by sequestration.
“I think it’s a good way forward,” Coweta County Republican U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland told WSB-Radio’s Jamie Dupree. He added, “I think it’s great we’re doing this three, four weeks before the deadline.”
This is what qualifies for responsible governance these days: An opening bid on a stopgap spending measure debuting three weeks ahead of a possible government shutdown.
The self-imposed deadline pressure and constant ticking clock have become routine because a divided Congress cannot break the gridlock otherwise.
And people are starting to tune out. There has been plenty of sequester hand-wringing in Washington, but when Savannah Republican U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston spent a week in his military-heavy district – where furloughs loom – he found a lack of trepidation.
“There might be some indications of Obama fatigue, that this governing by crisis, governing by fiscal cliff, is wearing a little bit thin and people are getting skeptical about it,” Kingston said.
So the country is sick of it. Congress is sick of it. Is there a way out?
Sure, Georgia’s members of Congress reply, if the other party starts agreeing with us.
“It’s going to take some leadership on the Republican side of the aisle,” said U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a DeKalb County Democrat. “Perhaps the rank and file will rise up and put the nation’s interest in front of their own personal interests. Perhaps that might happen.”
Ticking-clock governance has its advantages for each party. When there was a countdown to tax hikes, Democrats ended up with a tactical victory in the “fiscal cliff,” with $600 billion in tax increases mostly on top incomes. This time, despite a muddled message of how the sequester was both bad and Obama’s idea but lower spending is good, the Republicans are coming away with smaller government programs — the party’s stated goal.
All eyes now are on March 27. Next will be a to-be-determined date in May when our old friend the debt ceiling comes into play again, and the perpetual countdown to crisis continues. Though it may seem like it, this show is not a rerun.