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Pincus: Who will stop kicking the fiscal can down the road?

The Capitol Dome silhouetted against the rising sun

The Capitol Dome silhouetted against the rising sun in Washington, DC. Photo Credit: Getty Images

WASHINGTON - Can Congress function as a legitimate partner with the executive branch in dealing with the nation's fiscal problems? The next two weeks offer yet another test following two years of kicking the can down the road.

The last time President Obama and lawmakers tackled deficit reduction, the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 - signed into law on Jan. 2 - increased the budget deficit for this year by $330 billion, and through fiscal 2022 by almost $4 trillion, says the Congressional Budget Office.

Though that action postponed the "fiscal cliff" and is known for raising taxes on those earning more than $450,000 a year, what the measure primarily did was make permanent the lower Bush taxes for 98 percent of Americans.

What is looming now is the March 27 deadline for agreeing on funds to keep the government operating through the remainder of fiscal 2013, which ends Sept. 30. Right now, $984 billion to do just that is contained in the 269-page fiscal 2013 continuing resolution (CR) that the House passed last week.

The House CR contains the fiscal 2013 appropriations bills for the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments - but not for other federal departments or agencies, essentially limiting them to their 2012 funding levels. In addition, all are subject to sequestration, the across-the-board cuts in defense and non-defense discretionary spending. Those were the result of the 2011 Budget Control Act, another botched attempt to cut the deficit.

About $59 billion worth of fiscal 2013 sequester cuts are accounted for in the House-passed CR. If no legislative changes land before March 27, an additional $26 billion will have to be cut from fiscal 2013 spending before Oct. 1.

When a majority of the House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats, voted for the sequester in August 2011, the thinking was that in 2012, members of Congress would not be so stupid as to allow such a mindless approach to occur.

They were, it did, and the nation is paying for it, unless some solution is found.

Meanwhile, the White House is taking heat from Republicans and the news media for not sending Congress the president's fiscal 2014 budget by Feb. 4, as required by law. But what budget figure should the Obama administration realistically use? Congress has yet to agree on the overall fiscal 2013 budget. Should the White House use the $1.066 trillion for discretionary spending in the 2011 budget act, or should that figure be lowered an additional $100 billion to reflect sequester's impact - assuming Congress does nothing about sequestration in the next two weeks? If Congress doesn't change the 2011 budget act limits or the sequester, and the Obama administration proposes a larger budget figure, that could set the stage for another round of cuts. That's assuming, of course, an Obama budget passed.

White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Monday, "I don't have a date certain for you on the president's budget. . . . It's being worked on."

The first or second week in April would appear logical for the Obama budget to appear, but what it contains may still depend on what Congress does in the next 14 days.

Now it's now up to the Senate to act.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., the new chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told reporters Thursday that she has been working with the panel's ranking Republican, Richard C. Shelby, Ala., on the Senate's CR.

Following the House's lead, Mikulski wants to add to the measure her panel's fiscal 2013 appropriations for the Agriculture, Commerce, Justice and Homeland Security departments. She believes there are few, if any, differences with the House on these, and in turn she expects no Senate changes in the Defense and Veterans Affairs money already in the CR.

Mikulski also wants to give the same type of flexibility to other federal agencies in dealing with the sequester that the House has given to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. She told reporters Thursday what she had in mind would be "enhanced transfer reprogram authority" so that not only Hagel but other secretaries and agency heads could move fiscal 2013 money around.

Whatever changes the Senate makes will have to be approved by the House or taken to a House-Senate conference. In the past, differences between the bodies could be negotiated, but times have changed.

Now the question is: Can the Senate get the job done? The chamber, run by the Democrats, has its own set of operational problems that have been well documented in recent years. Last week, former Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., joined the critics' chorus. While his focus was on the Senate's lack of oversight, particularly over national security and foreign affairs, the weaknesses he cited could be easily applied to government spending and tax policies that got the country into this mess.

Webb cited a lack of time for senators to develop expertise to deal with serious issues in an article entitled "Legislative Irrelevance." It appeared in the National Interest, a bimonthly publication of the Center for the National Interest.

"The electoral process has become more obsessed with the necessities of fundraising . . . as the political messages themselves have been reduced to blunt one-line phrases," he wrote. In his article and during a discussion last week at the Center, Webb correctly put part of the blame on print reporters who don't take time to explain issues while the electronic media push politicians who lose sight of reality "as the cameras roll and the ever-present microphones are thrust into their faces putting one a mere five minutes away from a YouTube blast that might ruin his or her career."

Of course, even passage of a fiscal 2013 CR will not solve the deficit problem, nor end the country lurching from one fiscal crisis to another. In January, Congress only temporarily solved the debt limit issue. That will come up again by August.

This roller coaster has no end in sight.

Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post and writes the Fine Print column.