Temporary budget fix, but bigger problems remain

The Congress has passed legislation that will end the partial shutdown of the federal government and allow for more borrowing to avoid a default.

That’s progress, Washington style. It’s tantamount to bailing a floundering lifeboat with a teaspoon.

Still, it had to be done.  The country–make that the world–was seriously questioning whether the United States was about to sink.

Yes, Americans can return to national monuments and hyper-sensitive Wall Street can calm down… for now, thanks to an act of legislative triage.

But really significant problems remain.

Washington’s political dysfunction is reaching new lows.  The legislative and executive branches could not reach agreement on even the most basic responsibility—funding the government—until it approached a crisis.

Ideologues rail against compromise, but no government can function without give and take.  In negotiations, an astute minority doesn’t overplay its hand, and a wise majority never squeezes the minority into humiliating submission because it knows that roles will one day be reversed.

But now deals in the nation’s capital are harder to come by than parking spaces. Trust is a scarce commodity.

While the politics swirl, and conflict drives the news cycles, the country continues a steady march toward fiscal peril.

The debt has reached $17 trillion and continues to climb.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, entitlement and other mandatory spending will rise by $1.6 trillion, or 79 percent, over the next ten years.

The bi-partisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (Simpson-Bowles) concluded in its 2010 report “Our nation is on an unsustainable fiscal path. Spending is rising and revenues are falling short, requiring the government to borrow huge sums each year to make up the difference.”

The commission recommendations include a balanced approach of spending cuts, tax, health care and Social Security reforms to bring spending back in line with revenues.  It’s a reasoned framework for a legitimate negotiation to repair the country’s fiscal house.

The Congress is supposed to have that debate now; it’s part of the legislation to avoid default and send government workers back to their jobs.  But we’ve heard that tune before, and it’s difficult to be optimistic given the magnitude of the challenge and the history of inaction.

A continuing resolution to fund the government and raise the borrowing limit for a few months is to fixing the debt what putting gas in your car is to rebuilding the engine.

Somehow Washington has to regain its footing, rededicate itself to the altruism of public service and ensure that we’re not repeating the same fight a few months from now.




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