Fundamentally Unserious

The Capitol Hill budget battles taking place this week show, once again, how fundamentally unserious Congress is about the nation’s fiscal health.

Both sides will spend the next week trying to work out the numbers and reach a deal that would continue funding the government until the end of the 2011 fiscal year, in September. They want to end the stop-gap measures that have funded the government since last fall. The current funding measure runs through April 8; if a deal can’t be reached by then, the government will shut down.

Republicans want $61 billion in cuts. Democrats have agreed to $30 billion. Many hoped a $33 billion deal had been struck Thursday, but House Republicans said that wasn’t the case.

Tea Party Republicans have amped up pressure on Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). They want a fight on this budget measure and expect the Democratic controlled Senate to agree to this number. But that’s not going to happen. If the Tea Partiers have their way, the government will shutdown.

Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) is salivating at that thought. He and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) want to paint Democrats as reasonable while they want to portray Republicans as extreme. They have good reason for believing this strategy will work: a recent Washington Post/ABC NEWS poll shows that the GOP will be blamed (45% to 31%) for a government shutdown. Democrats also point to a recent CNN poll that shows growing dissatisfaction with the Tea Party.

Reporters uncovered the Democrats’ strategy earlier this week when they heard Schumer, on a conference call, reveal the party must emphasize the GOP’s “extreme” cuts in non-defense discretionary spending (NDDS). They point out that NDDS makes up only 13% of the federal budget and, if the Republicans have their way, these austerity measures will wreak havoc on the lives of ordinary Americans.

Democrats argue that the GOP only wants to make ideological cut and want to de-fund NPR, Planned Parenthood, Obamacare, and foreign aid. They point to their $33 billion offer, and note that it’s the largest single-year cut in history. It’s those crazy Republicans inflicting draconian cuts on Americans that’s the problem, they argue.

Republicans roll their eyes at this. They note the $33 billion dollar cut is less than 2% of the $1.5 trillion dollar deficit. Many Tea Partiers want to make this their fight, believe they should make a stand here, feel they’ll betray their supporters if they cut a deal with Senate Democrats, and are prepared for a government shutdown.

But that’s foolish. Republicans need to pick their battles. As the philosopher Sun Tzu said: “he who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.”

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) will reveal his 2012 budget next week. Ranking Republicans have promised, for months, that it will include significant entitlement reforms and will set the stage for the 2012 presidential campaign.

Tea Partiers shouldn’t miss the forest through the trees. The current budget dispute is a mere prelude to the main event. There are many rounds to go in this fight. They shouldn’t blow public good will on matters of little consequence. To cut government, they must show they’re responsible and mature.

Democrats plan to paint them as extreme regardless of how they behave, or where they cute. Do they want to spend their energy fighting over a pittance? Even if they got their $61 billion cut, it wouldn’t come close to the record deficit recorded in February alone ($223 billion according to CBO estimates).

Insurgent Tea Partiers should also recognize that their tools are limited. They are fundamentally unserious if they make their stand here. It’s not the time or place. They should recognize, as Speaker Boehner does, that they control only ½ of 1/3 of the federal government.

This isn’t the time to go for broke. The Speaker recognizes this. He’s doing all he can to broker a deal and prevent a shutdown. He can read the polls, and knows this will be calamitous for the GOP.

The Ryan budget is the first in a series of seminal moments in the budget battle. A vote on raising the debt ceiling will follow. The 2012 presidential campaign, though, is the big enchilada. Republicans must show they’re serious. But they must be serious about the big things. As columnist Charles Krauthammer repeatedly notes: the 2012 campaign will be about the size, scope, and reach of the federal government. Republicans can control Washington only if they win back the White House.

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