Why Congress’s Next Budget Battle Will Be Bigger

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The Senate’s deal to sidestep a government shutdown is a respite from, not a resolution to, the Congressional fiscal mire. It didn’t solve the substantive disagreements between the two parties about entitlements or taxes or the economic policies that foster job creation or even why the debt problem driving the budget brinkmanship exists. This was a manufactured crisis with a noncontroversial fulcrum, and the money involved was a pittance compared to the figures that will debated in mid-November, when the deal struck Monday night is poised to expire. That Congress was able to solve a problem of its own making is no reason for backslapping. All the familiar divisions remain.

If this installment of the spending fight was a minor bout, the next will almost certainly be a heavyweight tussle. Suzy Khimm has a good piece in the Washington Post that outlines some of the reasons the November budget battle will be a big one. Instead of sniping over a comparatively small slice of cash, Congress will be hammering out line items for the 2012 fiscal year, debating controversial riders and putting each other’s priorities on the chopping block, just as the deficit-reduction “supercommittee” is wrapping up its work in the run-up to a Nov. 23 deadline–and just as the GOP presidential primary is shifting into a higher gear. The timing will intensify what would already be a heated ideological debate.

According to budget analyst Stan Collender, there’s no need to re-litigate these issues so soon, since spending level for 2012 has already been set by the debt-limit deal. Collender argues:

There is absolutely no practical reason the CR shouldn’t be for the whole year rather than just until November 18 as House Republicans are insisting.  The spending level for the year was agreed to in the Budget Control Act that was adopted on August 2 and both parties should be required to maintain the deal they agreed to way back then, that is, a mere seven weeks ago.  There’s no reason to have a short-term CR with that spending cap in place.  The only reason is that the GOP wants to continue to be able to use the threat of a government shutdown multiple times in the future to get policies in place that otherwise would never be considered let alone adopted. This is not good budgeting or management.  It’s nothing more than fiscal terrorism.

Congress struck a deal yesterday in large part because FEMA gave it an out. It’s a temporary one. The $2.65 billion FEMA will be able to draw on through the deal is widely acknowledged to be insufficient; just a week ago, 62 Senators voted to allot the agency $7 billion to provide relief to victims of Hurricane Irene, the earthquake that recently rattled central Virginia, the Texas wildfires and other natural disasters. Congress will have to take up the offset question again soon.

Beyond the specific points of contention, the negotiating maneuvers alone augur a major fight. Over the summer, House Republicans turned a routine debt-ceiling vote into a giant, damaging clash over the size of government in order to leverage the budget cuts they wanted. The brinkmanship, which has been repeated three times already this year, serves two purposes for the GOP. The first is that it demonstrates to its fractious conference that the leadership is fighting as hard as possible. The second is that thus far, it has mostly worked.

This week’s fight showed that Democrats, sick of being captive by the demands of Tea Party members, are determined not to let it happen again. With neither side inclined to surrender, the November budget battle will likely result in another standoff. And it will probably end with Congress once again escaping a crisis of its own making as it faces down another deadline. It’s become an all too familiar story.