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End the $$ stalmate

BY WILL MATTESSICH | APRIL 06, 2011 7:20 AM

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No number of clichés about making beds or chickens coming home to roost could do justice to the idiotically predictable federal-budget situation. As the president and the GOP continue to assure the public of their inability to compromise, the prospect of a government shutdown looms in the nation’s capital.

Although a government shutdown is not quite as ominous as it sounds, Iowans can only hope that such a scenario is either averted or ended quickly. While we will not immediately feel substantial negative effects, a shutdown will result in millions, possibly billions, of tax dollars wasted — a wholly counterproductive outcome in a time of fiscal hysteria.

Unfortunately, such a scenario seems more likely each day the stalemate continues.

Some may be quick to blame one party or the other or attribute the budget battle to the current American attitude of hyper-partisanship, but the simple fact is that each budget created will have winners and losers, and the losers will vociferously oppose any loss of funds.

Although the current political climate does seem heavily polarized, Congressional recalcitrance on appropriations bills is nothing new. According to a study by Professor Ronald Meyer of the University of Maryland, done shortly after the late-1995, early 1996 shutdown, 68 percent of appropriations bills between 1972 and 1996 were enacted late.

A shutdown occurs when the president and Congress fail to agree on an appropriations bill for the fiscal year. Lawmakers can postpone the problem by passing continuing resolutions, but this Congress has passed two such resolutions and President Obama has said he will not support another one. During a shutdown, “nonessential” programs and services funded by federal money cease to operate.

This means that activities are suspended, employees are furloughed, and buildings are emptied, according to each agency’s shutdown plan. Essential employees continue to work, but everyone else goes home.

A few programs are exempt, including the IRS — so even if a new budget is not passed by April 18, we’ll still have to pay our taxes. The U.S. Postal Service draws in enough revenue to remain in operation. Law enforcement, critical health services, and national defense will all conduct business as usual.

There will, however, be some noticeable effects in Iowa. Travelers trying to obtain visas will not be able to do so while a shutdown is in effect, and many of the country’s national parks and monuments will be closed, resulting in a loss of revenue. In addition, a prolonged lack of funding will interfere with services for veterans, which could mean reduced operation of Iowa City’s VA Hospital (and subsequent reduction of assistance to some of Iowa’s neediest).

A government shutdown also exacerbates the very problem about which Congress was bickering. When lawmakers decide on a new budget, it must retroactively fund programs and workers that were not doling out services during the shutdown. A Congressional report immediately after the 1995-96 shutdown identified a loss of $1.4 billion in taxpayer money. That figure may be slightly skewed because some employees continued to work anyway or worked harder after the break, according to Meyer’s report, but lawmakers should apply one of their favorite buzzwords to the event and realize that government shutdowns are not deficit-neutral.

It’s difficult to assess the likelihood of a shutdown. Both parties agree it’s an outcome they do not want, yet both parties refuse to back down. The GOP in particular seems especially immune to appeals for rational compromises. In a desperate scramble to appease their party’s far-right elements, House Speaker John Boehner’s brethren continue to move the mark for their desired amount of cuts, even when the White House makes concessions. Hopefully, the squabbling lawmakers will put petty politics aside and save the taxpayers’ time and money.


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