America Hasn't Had a Budget For Over Three Years, So Don’t Expect One Anytime Soon

At midnight on Monday, September 30, the government began a partial shutdown when both houses failed to pass a budget by midnight to be signed by President Obama. As a result, some damage was done to America’s economic recovery, important services like passport processing were disrupted, and roughly 700,000 federal employees were sent home without pay. Depending on the technical definition of a budget, the last time Congress passed one was either the 2009 spending bill under Obama that combined nine normal separate bills, or the bipartisan spending bill of 1997 under President Clinton. Given the continued and indeed seemingly more rigid divide in Congress, it is unlikely that America will have an official fiscal-year budget anytime soon.

On September 20, the House passed a temporary budget bill of $986 billion by 230 votes over 189, which included a provision to defund and thus delay the implementation of Obamacare by a year. Seven days later, the Senate passed its own temporary budget bill at 54-44, which would fund the government until November 15 and which did not include any postponement of or changes to Obamacare. To make matters more complicated, congressional Republicans have been rocked by internal conflict as House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) initially tried to get more conservative members, especially Tea Party Republicans, to pass the Senate budget. Despite this, Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) held a press conference vowing to fight on, claiming that “the only thing we want to shut down is Obamacare.”

Each side ended up drawing battle lines that it did not back down from and communication ceased between House Democrats, Republicans, and their aides and staff. Despite the divide between the GOP establishment and Tea Party Republicans and the looming danger of the U.S. defaulting on its debt by October 17 if it cannot end the shutdown and vote on the debt ceiling, little to no progress has been made despite talks finally being held. The lines are so firmly drawn that Vice President Joe Biden has been reportedly cut out of any future negotiations by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), because the Democratic caucus believes he is too willing to give in.

Republican Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who was in office during the last government shutdown in 1995-1996, has publicly denounced Republican attempts to force Democrats to defund Obamacare, and even Mitt Romney joined in and said House Republicans should defund Obamacare through elections and the ballot box instead. But it turns out that House Republicans are actually accurately representing the views of their own constituents. Recent polling by Pew Research shows that voters of both parties are largely unwilling to compromise, with 44% saying the Republicans should give ground and 42% saying the Democrats should.  

Now all that remains to be seen is which side will will break first, or if a miracle will happen. As BBC had so eloquently put it, “[Obama] has said he will not compromise. Republicans in the House have also said they will not budge. Both sides, it seems, have taken the words of Shakespeare to heart. Once more, unto the breach, the U.S. government goes.” The concern with the debt ceiling is that unless it is raised or a debt deal is struck, the U.S. will default, and that the last time that nearly happened in 2011 Standard and Poors downgraded America's credit rating.

Maybe it’s time that all of Congress locked themselves away and took oaths of secrecy, like during the Constitutional Convention, in order to come up with a much needed compromise to reduce the debt and not make demands over Obamacare that will almost certainly scuttle the prospects for negotiation. This way no one will fear being blamed and being voted out for daring to work together or for having accepted realistic measures like cuts to welfare and defense programs. A grand debt-reduction and budget plan would also be the best face-saving measure for both parties. And after all, with opinion polls of Congress as low as they are, it surely can’t hurt for them to try for once. America can’t operate without a real budget indefinitely.