There are many reasons why the budget fight that will take pace over the next few weeks and months will be more difficult than any of the close-to-debacles that have occurred in recent years.
The reasons include John Boehner (R-OH), who was already the weakest and least effective House speaker in modern times, being even weaker; a president with what at best is tepid support from his own party in Congress; an increasingly frustrated tea party wing of the GOP that no longer sees procedural compromises as satisfying; increasingly defiant House Democrats, who see less and less value in supplying votes to enact must-pass legislation when the Republican majority is unable to do it; and a seemingly hopeless split in the House GOP that makes further spending reductions, standing pat at current levels or spending increases impossible.
Add to this “crisis fatigue.” So many actual or man-made economic and financial disasters have occurred in recent years that the kinds of things that used to scare Congress and the White House into compromising — like possible federal defaults and government shutdowns — no longer motivate them to act.
But none of these admittedly depressing factors are what makes this year’s budget cliffhanger so difficult. This year the biggest complication is that the budget fight isn’t really about the budget: It’s about Obamacare, and that makes it hard to see what kind of arrangement will garner enough votes to avoid the kind of shutdown and debt ceiling disasters that have been only narrowly averted the past few years.
It’s one thing if the debate is just about coming up with a spending cap or deficit limit. If, for example, one side wants spending at $20 and the other wants $10, there should be some number between those two that eventually will make a deal possible.
But what happens when, like now, the budget is the legislative vehicle but the real debate is over something else entirely? What that happens, there is no number that will satisfy everyone in the debate and the budget process — which is designed to compromise numbers rather than policy — becomes an incredibly in effective way to negotiate.
That’s when all of the other factors I noted above kick in. If the budget process can’t be used to settle the debate, an ad hoc negotiation between the leaders is needed. But in the current political environment it’s not at all clear who has the authority to negotiate let alone who has the ability to convince his or her colleagues that a deal deserves to be supported. And that’s if a deal of some kind is even possible.
This is a far cry from the situation that existed in 1995-96 when President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich could negotiate with each other with the confidence that their respective political parties would support whatever deal they cut.
Add the fact that there’s little time to negotiate — the first potential government shutdown is just two weeks from today — and you get a budget debate that may well be the most difficult and unpredictable yet, and that’s saying a great deal given what we’ve already been through the past five years.