September 27, 2013

Dan Demeritt: Fiscal failure is good for columnists, bad for everyone else

Every other Friday starts the same. A second cup of coffee and a sense of panic about how long I have before I get a friendly reminder from an editor about my column being due.

No matter how pressed I am for time, I can always count on a failure of leadership in Washington for column fodder. It felt like Providence this morning seeing all the news about a pending government shutdown, but opinion polls suggest few of you share my sense of good fortune.

What makes this political season unique is that there are two pending catastrophes at hand. We have a looming government shutdown on the Oct. 1 start of the new fiscal year and the potential for the federal government to run out of money before the end of October.

I will put my nearly two years of Capitol Hill experience to use to explain the two pending fiscal disasters in terms we can all understand. I give you the federal budget by way of the personal checkbook.

Congress has to appropriate spending for the various functions of government. Think of the appropriations process as writing out a check and signing your name at the bottom. The "paid to the order of" makes it clear where the funds should go and the signature at the bottom authorizes the financial institution to release the money.

In a perfect or at least functioning world, Congress would pass a dozen appropriations bills prior to the start of the fiscal year covering the various departments and agencies of the federal government. These bills would authorize spending for an entire fiscal year. Think of this as paying your household expenses on time after a careful review of the bill.

In recent years Congress has fallen into a habit of having to scramble and write one massive check covering most or even all spending across the federal government. Called a continuing resolution, these enormous and last-minute spending measures limits the amount of direction Congress can provide to agencies and the accountability that would be achieved through the orderly and timely passage of department-level appropriations bills.

CRs, as they are known, are the household equivalent of rushing around town writing checks without reviewing the itemized bills because pending disconnection notices are hanging over your head. At the end of the day, you're just happy to get home and find out the cable still works. It is a stressful and imprecise way to manage expenses.

I speak from experience.

The continuing resolution set to expire Monday was passed in March 2013 and totaled $984 billion in spending. For much of the spending, the authorization was continued at prior-year levels without considering how priorities have changed and whether a reallocation of resources is warranted.

If Congress does not act by the end of the day on Monday, the federal government will shut down for the first time in nearly two decades. Critical services will be suspended, and federal employees will be furloughed.

The bigger threat comes two weeks later when we are expected to reach the federal government's statutory debt ceiling and the U.S. Treasury will only have about $30 billion in cash on hand.

For you and me, having $30 billion in cash reserves is a problem easily managed. But when you spend approximately $60 billion daily, as the federal government does, it will not take long for Uncle Sam to be insolvent. Sometime before Nov. 1 the government will not have the money to pay its bills.

The full faith and credit of the United States is a critical cornerstone to our economy and our way of life. Defaulting on our debt or not having the ability to meet ongoing expenditures would be disastrous.

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