Ask if its congressional leaders can inch away from the brink of government shutdown for more than five minutes.
This week began with Congress unable to agree on funding plans for the federal government. The crisis was apparently averted late Monday by a Senate vote and some nifty accounting by FEMA that will stretch its money until the end of the week, the start of the fiscal year. This marks the second time this year Congress has recklessly inched the federal government toward a shutdown.
The hang-up was over a fraction of the $4 trillion budget. A small slice is set aside for FEMA, perhaps $3.5 billion. Republicans wanted to offset that portion with spending cuts. Democrats said such a move was unprecedented.
Let’s begin with what FEMA does. It and other agencies spend money on disaster relief. With many Americans still recovering from natural disasters, including devastating tornadoes, floods and hurricanes of recent months, the dollars are putting our fellow citizens back on their feet. Alabamians know a thing or two about the awful weather and the need for assistance after the April 27 tornadoes that gashed across the state.
When compared to the overall needs of a nation and the relatively small amount dedicated to FEMA, holding up the budget to offset disaster spending seems petty and small on the part of conservative Republicans. “It is embarrassing,” Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., told CNN on Sunday. “Can we, once again, inflict on the country and the American people the spectacle of a near-government shutdown?”
Republicans countered that their offset — $1.6 billion in budget cuts — was so insignificant amid a sea of $4 trillion that Democrats can’t seriously object. Speaking Sunday on CNN, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., made that point, accusing his fellow Democrats of “chest-pounding and game-playing.”
While perhaps accurate, Alexander would have to concede that members of his own party in Washington are not immune to doing the same sort of posturing. We might even say holding up relief dollars in order to make symbolic cuts is a prime example of grandstanding.
A lesson for all sides is to remember that they don’t do their work in isolation. Fragile markets, both here at home and abroad, are watching the U.S. government for signs of maturity. Confident and responsible budgeting is needed.
One place in need of help is Joplin, Mo., where a tornado ripped through the town in May. “We can appreciate the efforts to get our national economy in better order, but we’re concerned about how that’s going to affect us,” Joplin Mayor Mike Woolston said last week.
On the other side are the remarks of a congressman favoring offsets. “I represent 600,000 people,” Rep. Phil Gingrey, a Republican whose Georgia district stretches from suburban Atlanta to west Georgia, told The Washington Post. “I think I know them. I think I know what they want me to do.”
That firm belief in holding relief money hostage to budget cuts, however, is subject to the direction the next ill wind blows.