Federal lawmakers have narrowly avoided<NO1><NO> an embarrassing and unnecessary government shutdown. But we see little reason to cheer.
In recent weeks, congressional leaders have shown what can only described as a California-like commitment to dysfunction and intransigence.
Here, in the Golden State, we're accustomed to the budget process being held hostage by the political fringe. We're used to seeing state employees and residents kept in the dark and contractors brought to the point of accepting IOUs while a team of legislative leaders known as "the big five" hammer out a multi-billion spending plan behind locked doors.
But Americans have not seen such antics at the federal level since 1995, the last time the government was brought to a standstill.
With a deadline of midnight Friday creeping ever closer, it looked as if it was going to happen again. But then, with less than a couple of hours to spare, House Democrats and the White House came to terms on a plan that reportedly will cut $39 billion from the budget and, most important, will allow the government to continue operating until the end of September.
A visibly pleased President Barack Obama said that the last-minute deal with congressional leaders occurred because "Americans of different beliefs came together."
The House and Senate were expected to quickly approve a stopgap measure until a broader bill and be approved within the week.
"This has been a lot of discussion and a long fight," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said. He called it "the biggest annual spending cut in history," saying it would reduce government spending by $500 billion over the next decade.
Still, we're left to wonder why the nation was forced to go through all of this. What was accomplished? All indications were that congressional leaders were already in agreement on the central issue — the amount of spending cuts to be made in the near-term. The primary hang-up appeared to be Republican demands on policy changes, namely the elimination of federal funding for Planned Parenthood and a reduction of authority for the Environmental Protection Agency.
Although Planned Parenthood provides medical examinations for women, screenings for cervical cancer, counseling for couples and other services, that was not was this was about. It was about abortion.
For this, House Republicans dragged out talks, leaving millions of federal employees in doubt when they left work on Friday about whether they were coming back on Monday. The brinkmanship also left in the lurch Americans planning to visit a national park or a federal museum, those who needed help on their taxes and many others who would be in need of the government's help.
<NO1><NO>In the end, Republicans were not successful in reducing funding for Planned Parenthood or cutting the authority of the EPA. But, according to the Associated Press, congressional Democrats and the White House apparently did agree to a ban on the use of federal or local government funds for abortions in the District of Columbia.
Certainly, $39 billion in cuts is significant, but in terms of overall federal spending, it was hardly worth threatening a government shutdown. There are bigger issues to tackle.
Still unresolved is the primary issue of what to do with the government's long-term debt crisis. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee, drew heat this week from Democrats over his proposed federal budget which he contends would cut more than $4 billion over the next two decades. As we've noted, Ryan's plan is a non-starter in that he protects — and expands — Bush-era tax cuts while protecting defense spending. But it has the singular merit of addressing a major source of spending at the federal level — Medicare. Few Democrats, including the president, have been willing to go there.