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US budget standoff goes down to the wire

Text by Jon FROSCH

Latest update : 2011-04-08

If Congress fails to reach a deal on the federal budget, a government shutdown will put all "non-essential" federal services on hold. FRANCE 24 spoke to a former advisor to Bill Clinton for insight on what this means and what could happen.

As the midnight deadline fast approaches, Congressional leaders remain embroiled in negotiations to reach a deal on the 2011 federal budget. If Republicans and Democrats fail to heed President Barack Obama’s calls for compromise, the US government will lack the legal authority to spend funds on “non-essential” services and workers. That scenario would put 800,000 federal employees out of work, stall the salaries of US combat troops, delay tax refunds, close down national parks and monuments, and stop passport and visa applications dead in their tracks.

Democrats have accused Republicans of blocking a potential agreement on roughly 34.5 billion dollars in cuts because of their objections to federal money being used toward abortion and family services, healthcare reform, or regulation of greenhouse grass emissions. Republicans have refuted these claims, saying that the two parties are not on the same page in terms of how drastically to slash the budget.

The last US federal shutdown

The US government shutdown of 1995 and 1996 ensued after Democratic President Bill Clinton and the Republican-controlled Congress failed to agree over funding for Medicare (government-funded healthcare for the elderly), environmental protection, and education in the federal budget. Clinton vetoed the spending bill sent to him by Congress, resulting in the suspension of non-essential government services and employees on November 14.

The approval of a temporary spending bill reopened the federal government just five days later, but the bill expired before a durable agreement was reached between Clinton and Congressional leader Newt Gingrich. Consequently, the government shut down for a second time on December 16 and remained closed until January 6, 1996, when Congress voted to end the shutdown and a budget compromise was reached.

France24.com spoke to William Galston, a political theorist at the Brookings Institution and former domestic policy advisor in the Clinton administration, for further insight on the matter.

F24: What are the sticking points preventing Democrats and Republicans from agreeing on a budget?

WG: We don’t know for sure. My understanding is that as of late this morning, the two parties were describing the disagreements in different ways. Democrats said they had agreed with Republicans on the numbers [the amount of money to be cut from the budget], but that there were differences on ideology. Republicans say there is not even agreement on the numbers. My hunch is that they are both sort of telling the truth, and that Speaker of the Republican House John Boehner (as Speaker of the House, Boehner is Congress’s top Republican and therefore acts as the leader of his party’s negotiations on legislation) has a number he can live with if all of the other ideological issues are settled in a way that satisfies him. It is, alas, not unusual for issues of ideological disagreement, such as abortion, to figure in these budget debates. The American political system is highly polarised along ideological lines. It is very difficult to keep those disagreements out of fiscal discussions.

F24: What has been the role or influence of the Tea Party movement in shaping the Republican position on the budget?

WG: There are 82 new Republicans in Congress right now. At least half of them have never held public office before. Many were sent by conservative constituents who became disgusted with the Republican Party and therefore turned toward the Tea Party movement. So these officials were not sent to Washington to compromise. And because they are new in politics, they have not experienced the negative fallout that can come with a government shutdown. House leader John Boehner has the toughest job in Washington, because he is under this pressure to keep the focus on underlying ideological differences between his party and the Democrats, as well as on the fiscal numbers.

F24: If no compromise is reached, what are the likely consequences for the two parties and for the president? Who has the most to lose?

WG: Nobody has the answer to that question. I just saw a survey this morning to the effect that 37 percent of Americans would blame Congressional Republicans, 20 percent would blame Congressional Democrats, and another 20 percent would blame President Obama. Those numbers are difficult to interpret. If people are negatively affected by the shutdown, it could result in a general dissatisfaction and mistrust of both parties and the political system in the US, which is already very widespread here.

F24: What happens during a shutdown?

WG: Different federal departments and agencies have lists and definitions of which services and employees are essential and therefore cannot be suspended during a shutdown. These agencies have identified a relatively small fraction of their work force that is needed to keep basics running. Many of the programmes now that send monthly checks to the elderly as part of our Social Security system, for example, are now automated enough so that a handful of people can keep those checks flowing. But on the other hand, someone who just turned 65 and is eligible for payments and needs to initiate them is going to have a problem, because that process requires a worker that would be considered “non-essential”. So new participants in the system get disrupted.

F24: How does a government shutdown get resolved?

WG: A budget agreement needs to be reached between the two parties of Congress for the government to reopen. Once the government shuts down, one party or the other, or both, need to budge. A compromise needs to be reached.
 

Date created : 2011-04-08

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