WASHINGTON – You’ve heard it all before.
The government is headed for a fiscal crisis caused by partisan gridlock. The stakes are high. U.S. credibility is on the line. The economic recovery could be derailed.
Is this a faux crisis that will quickly pass or the real deal?
Now that Sen. Ted Cruz’s 21-hour talkathon on all matters crisis-related is finally over, it’s time to sort through the reality and the hype – and, as the Texas Republican’s performance made clear, the theater.
Some key points to keep in mind as we muddle through this unfun house:
• Mark your calendar – There are two dates to watch on the fall crisis calendar: Oct. 1, this coming Tuesday, is the start of the government’s next budget year. If Congress doesn’t pass a new budget by then, or at least approve a temporary spending bill, parts of the government would be forced to shut down.
It’s also when a big chunk of President Obama’s health care overhaul takes effect, unless Republicans manage to starve it of money.
Tuesday also is when the next installment of across-the-board government spending cuts, known as the sequester, kicks in if there’s no deal to cut federal spending in a big way.
The second deadline is Oct. 17, the date set Wednesday by Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew to avoid a potential default. If Congress doesn’t raise its debt limit by that date, it won’t have enough cash to pay all of its bills on time.
Then the government would start to default on its obligations. That’s a way bigger deal than a short-term government shutdown. It has never happened.
Yes, there has been similar hand-wringing before. Threats of a government shutdown and/or default have become increasingly common in recent years, particularly since the 2010 elections when voters elected to Congress a big tea party contingent made up of lawmakers intent on reining in the federal government and slashing spending.
• Anatomy of a shutdown – In truth, a government shutdown probably wouldn’t be that drastic. Think of it more as a government slowdown than an outright shutdown. It looks like the Obama administration will follow past rules regarding which federal employees work and which don’t. If that’s the case, less than half of the federal workforce would be forced off the job.
• Saving money, not – Government shutdowns tend to cost money, not save it. Already, there’s a lot of time being spent simply preparing for a shutdown, regardless of whether it comes to pass. The 1996 shutdown cost taxpayers $1.4 billion, according to estimates from the Office of Management and Budget. That’s a lot of money to make a point about the need to save money.
• Scenarios for default – No hype, a government default could have ramifications that ripple through the whole economy. Even the threat of a default had big ramifications in the summer of 2011, when the stock market dropped, the U.S. credit rating was downgraded (making future borrowing potentially more expensive), consumer confidence slipped and businesses stopped hiring. But because default is unprecedented, no one’s sure exactly what would happen.
• Health care wars – The president’s health care law has nothing – and everything – to do with the budget battle. Conservative Republicans latched on to this fall’s fiscal deadlines as the perfect leverage to reach a goal that’s eluded them for three years, driving a stake through what they derisively call “Obamacare.” So House Republicans approved a budget bill tied to a provision that would simultaneously defund it, a cause championed by Cruz during his filibusterlike marathon speech that ended Wednesday, displeasing many members of his own party, including Sen. John McCain, R.-Ariz.
But all sides know that this strategy is doomed in the Democratic-controlled Senate, setting up the potential impasse that could lead to a government shutdown and/or standoff on the debt ceiling.
Paul C. Light, a New York University professor who specializes in the federal bureaucracy and budget, says it’s “beyond belief” that legislators would allow the government to default, with dire consequences for both the economy and their own political futures. “If the tea party forces a default and the economy collapses,” he says, “that’s a party that’s going to be dead.”
• Comic relief – The budget battle sounds kind of like a movie called “Grim and Grimmer.” But even downer movies usually have some comic relief.
Sure enough, comics are finding laughs in the government’s budget travails and the fight over Obama’s health care law:
“ ‘Obamacare’ is coming, folks. Run for your lives. No, wait. Don’t run for your lives. That will make you healthier. And that is just what he wants.” – Stephen Colbert.
“If Republicans and Democrats can’t get together, there’s a strong possibility of a federal government shutdown. You know what the legal definition of that is? A government shutdown is when Congress continues not to work, but they do it from home.” – Jay Leno.
• Blame game – Who gets the blame for a government shutdown could well depend on whether the conventional wisdom is right.
Democrats believe, and many Republicans fear, that the GOP will take the hit, because they did last time, in 1995-1996.
• Crystal ball – The health care law will survive. Beyond that, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Many people think legislators motivated by self-preservation will pull off a last-minute compromise to avoid shutdown and default.
• Cruz control – Stunt or principled stand, Cruz’s talkathon against Obamacare scored 21 hours of cable television time to describe the president’s signature law in the most conservative terms. By noon Wednesday, when the Texas freshman finally sat down, tea party groups supporting him were in full fundraising mode.
Cruz gave his colleagues an ultimatum based on this logic: Vote against moves aimed at preventing a government shutdown next week or be branded a supporter of Obama’s health care law. Key votes on defunding, the debt limit and the budget are looming this weekend, and how it will all end is anybody’s guess.