Sunday, May 12, 2013 | 2 a.m.
The country will not hit its debt limit as soon as we thought, we learned last week.
As a result, Congress doesn’t know quite what to do with itself.
The Capitol seldom resolves money matters without the looming threat of a fiscal guillotine — at least not in the past few years. Debt ceiling, “fiscal cliff” — who can forget? (Though who wants to remember?)
Now, Congress is trying to work on a budget without such prods. But without them, there’s a palpable lack of urgency to do what lawmakers have for months been clamoring to do: sit down and publicly, painstakingly hammer out a compromise between Republicans and Democrats through regular order.
This year’s budget process was expressly designed not to work like this.
Adopting the basic structure of Nevada Sen. Dean Heller’s “No Budget, No Pay” legislation, Congress pledged itself to an early start: Each house would pass an initial proposal by mid-April. And they did.
That left almost six months wide open to find a happy medium through a conference committee, where representatives from the House and Senate iron out the differences between their two bills.
But despite pledges from budget committee chairmen to hit the ground running on that process, some have been dragging their feet.
In effect, lawmakers have become crisis junkies — unable to strike crucial deals when there’s no immediately critical junctures to tie them to.
For Republicans, negotiating without a debt limit exposes them to the possibility of having to negotiate on raising tax rates because raising the debt limit often functions as a trade-off for spending cuts.
“The debt limit is the backstop,” Rep. Paul Ryan, budget chairman in the House, told The Washington Post last week. “I’d like to go through regular order and get something done sooner rather than later. But we need to get a down payment on the debt.”
“We don’t feel that we ought to enable the Democrats to produce an outcome that raises the debt ceiling without doing anything about the debt,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said last week.
Democrats began pointing an angry finger at Republicans last week, accusing them of intentionally trying to push the country into a fabricated crisis in order to score political points on the subject of budget cuts versus taxes.
“When they are not willing to go to conference and they are not willing to work with us to compromise on the budget ... they are pushing us to a crisis,” said Sen. Patty Murray, budget chairwoman in the Senate. “Even before they know what they want, they are saying they are willing to risk a financial crisis to get it.”
But for as much indignation as Democrats are showing toward Republicans’ crisis addiction, even they can’t seem to fully shake the dependency on brinksmanship.
“Within the next few weeks, the White House, I’m quite sure this is true, will make an announcement that we have reached our limit — it’s not going to be the fall,” Sen. Harry Reid said last week. “There are some extraordinary measures they can take, but why do we want to do that? We are getting very close to the limit right now.”
One day later, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew confirmed what economic minds in both parties had determined: The country’s borrowing authority, which was supposed to expire in mid-May, would actually stretch for several months — possibly to Labor Day or later — taking away the fiscal incentive for Congress to act sooner rather than later.
That leaves it up to lawmakers to get to the negotiating table and follow the ordinary process — which for this Congress may be the most extraordinary measure of all.