The Next Shutdown

As I blogged last week, we are facing another government shutdown. This time, the issue is disaster relief. The GOP wants to pay for it by cutting green car subsidies (known to sensible people the world over as corporate welfare). The Democrats are opposed, partly because they like the corporate welfare but mostly because they don’t want to set a “precedent” for offsetting disaster relief.

I really don’t follow that logic at all. Disaster relief counts toward the deficit just like everything else does. In fact, I would argue that a substantial part of our deficit has been created by a refusal to offset unexpected expenses like wars, recession relief and disaster relief. The entire reason for having PAYGO is to stop the bullshittery of Congress declaring a crisis and engaging in an orgy of unfunded spending. It’s not like the Democrats are in any kind of hurry to get the relief money out. If they were, they would’t be threatening a shutdown.

Offsetting disaster relief serves another purpose: forcing Congress to figure out how much relief is actually needed. We have gotten far too used to legislators just naming a figure and rushing the funds out the door, sometimes throwing in some pork for good measure. Does anyone expect spending discipline to be followed in a “We must pass it now! NOW NOW NOW!” situation? Force people to prioritize and we’ll get the relief we need … and only the relief we need.

It’s not like Congress is fumbling desperately for spending to cut. Here is a story from the Chicago Tribune about the explosion in farm income over the last few years:

They’re enjoying the fattest times in memory. The money pouring into Corn Belt bank accounts isn’t just setting a record. The latest government figures show farm income blowing past the previous high of $84.7 billion in 2004 to top $100 billion this year. Land values have soared and debt is being paid down aggressively.

There’s no end in sight to the boom times. A small crop this year and continued strong demand set the stage for another bonanza next year, and probably the year after that.

Depending on your accounting, we’re talking about $25 billion a year, at least, ten times the amount in dispute.

Then there’s this:

A shutdown wouldn’t be a good thing for the economy, but it wouldn’t be a fiasco on the scale of defaulting on the national debt. Similarly, a shutdown wouldn’t make any politicians in Washington look particularly good, but at this point, there might be more upside for the two parties in confrontation than there is in continued unsatisfying compromises.

That’s a particularly popular interpretation among Democrats, who worry that Republicans have become too accustomed to legislating through fiscal brinksmanship, and the only way to reset the budget process and end these constant threats of shutdowns and defaults is to let a shutdown actually happen and show Republicans what that means for them, both economically and politically. This shutdown, because it’s over relatively little money, and because Democrats feel comfortable saying “we shouldn’t be cutting jobs spending to pay for disaster aid” over and over again, offers a way to carry that strategy out in a relatively controlled fashion.

Remember when the Democrats were the party of grown-ups? When the GOP threatened shut-downs to cut spending, it was called reckless partisanship. Now it’s just “resetting the budget process”.

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