The Do-Nothing Congress Pretends to Do Something

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By Deborah Solomon

If you're a glass-half-full kind of person, you might view today's Senate agreement to move forward with a stopgap spending bill as the kind of bipartisan cooperation Washington so desperately needs.

If you're a realist, you'll see it for what it is: A complete abdication of responsibility to make tough spending and tax decisions.

Fiscal year 2013 begins Oct. 1, yet Congress hasn't enacted a single appropriations bill. Rather than having a much-needed conversation about U.S. fiscal priorities, lawmakers have once again kicked the can down the road until after the 2012 election.

This may be understandable, if not acceptable, in normal times. But these aren't normal times. The economy is still suffering and huge threats loom, namely the so-called "fiscal cliff" that everyone from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is warning and worrying about.

Ostensibly, lawmakers aren't dealing with these issues because they can't agree on how to tackle the nation's budget woes. Republicans want spending and tax cuts. Democrats want tax increases for the rich and to limit spending cuts that could further crimp the economy.

So it may come as a surprise that, as early as Thursday, the Senate is expected to approve a spending bill that actually slightly increases federal spending over current levels. The legislation was adopted by the U.S. House last week, 329 to 91, after Republicans dropped their demands for spending cuts proposed by Paul Ryan, the Republican vice-presidential nominee and House budget committee chairman. (The bill provides $19 billion more in discretionary spending than Ryan proposed and the House adopted in March.)

The Pollyannas in the room may see this as an encouraging sign. Unfortunately it has more to do with politics than policy.

Without a stopgap spending measure, the U.S. would be unable to fund its operations, necessitating a government shutdown. Republicans tried that once before, in 1995, with disastrous results. Rather than fight a heated, bruising battle ahead of an election, Republicans have chosen to take their ball and go home until after Nov. 6. How hard they ultimately play depends on what happens on Election Day.

Running out the clock may be a good strategy in basketball, but it has no place in Washington, when the health of the U.S. economy depends on what happens in Congress. It would be nice if lawmakers actually dealt with the issues voters sent them to Washington to tackle.

(Deborah Solomon is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow her on Twitter.)

Read more breaking commentary from Bloomberg View at the Ticker.

-0- Sep/19/2012 20:24 GMT