Don’t Expect a Shutdown to Change Much

With a government shutdown upon us, it’s worth pondering this drama’s endgame. Does anyone seriously think Democrats in the Senate or the White House will abandon the president’s signature legislative accomplishment in order to appease a few dozen congressional Republicans with an appetite for hyperbole? Hands? Anyone? Didn’t think so.

So, after some to-be-determined period of political squirming, Democrats and Republicans will reach a deal to fund the government at more or less current levels for either a shorter or a longer duration. The result will be a continuation of the current government by sequestration, itself a product of extreme dysfunction.

The prevailing view in Washington seems to be that sequestration isn’t a bad outcome. The across-the-board budget cuts haven’t brought the U.S. economy to a standstill, so what’s to complain about? It’s true that some of the most dire predictions about sequestration’s effects haven’t come to pass. The economy has continued to grow despite the fiscal drag. Like the impact of a government shutdown, however, the effects of sequestration are not felt uniformly.

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins has decried the “unimaginable” wastefulness of indiscriminate cuts to hundreds of medical research projects. By cutting off projects well under way, sequestration achieves the dubious trifecta of devaluing past, present and future federal investment.

The Financial Times examines the case of Fort Campbell, which straddles the Kentucky-Tennessee border. Due to sequestration, more than 3,000 employees, including military spouses, have endured temporary furloughs. The army hospital has limited nonemergency surgery. The commissary is closed one day a week. The economic impact that barely registers in many communities doesn’t go unnoticed in Fort Campbell. In Christian County, on the Kentucky side, the FT estimates that sequestration had a per capita impact of $3,900 -- equal to more than 10 percent of median household income.

Even if it were possible to wave a magic wand (or gavel, as the case may be) and pass a budget this week -- and then use it again to raise the debt limit in a few weeks -- the senselessness of sequestration would continue. And there is no indication -- wishful thinking aside -- that the obstructionist impulses of the Tea Party faction in Congress are close to being tapped out. Figuring out how to work around those roadblocks is House Speaker John Boehner’s primary task.

Yet it’s hard to believe that there are not solid majorities in both houses of Congress for replacing the ad-hockery of sequestration with a spending blueprint that values some kinds of government funding (military families, vital health research) over others (subsidies for wealthy farmers, a fleet of Ford-class supercarriers).

The harsh costs, in efficiency and effectiveness, to Congress’s budgetary incompetence are clear. Congress could take some of the sting out of this self-induced crisis by recommitting itself to regular order and regular means of funding government operations.

To achieve that, adamancy and preening will have to cede to compromise and conversation. No one should expect a budget shutdown to be quite so cathartic that it makes Washington -- God forbid -- functional. But it would be nice if it incited a modicum of common sense and decency.

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