Are you married? Do you know someone who is? Then let’s consider the following scenario.
Two people live under one roof. They both spend way too much money, though on different priorities. Actually, not that different. They fight about this a lot. In fact, they like the drama.
Finally, they reach the point where they are hardly speaking to each other. They have their paychecks in hand, but each refuses to deposit the money into their joint checking account until the other agrees to their priorities. They say they are fighting based on principle.
The bills are coming due, but there’s no money in the bank. That’s their short-term problem. The bigger problem is that they are deeply in debt. In fact, within a few weeks, their loan will mature. They do have the ability to extend the loan, but they each postpone the appointment with the loan officer, as they have in the past, in order to gain leverage to get more of their own way.
If this were your marriage, I would hope you would seek help. If it were your friends’ marriage and they came to you for advice, what would you say?
If you wanted to help ruin the marriage, you’d place all the blame on one of the partners and encourage the other to stand their ground until the bitter end.
If you wanted to help save the marriage, you’d remind them that no one ever gets everything they want, which is a good thing because it’s relatively rare that one person is completely right and the other completely wrong. You’d tell them to pay their bills and meet with the loan officer soon so that the bank would not lose faith in their creditworthiness. And then you’d tell them to adopt a budget that allowed them to live within their means and pay off their debt over time.
So why don’t voters do the same with Congress?
On Sept. 30, the federal government runs out of money unless Congress adopts a continuing resolution to keep funding it. Members of Congress have been squabbling over that, much like our fictional married couple that refuses to deposit their paychecks into their account.
Failing to pass a continuing resolution would result in a government shutdown. What would that mean? Not much if it were really brief. On the other hand, in written testimony Sept. 18, Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, told Congress that a shutdown of three or four weeks would reduce the nation’s fourth quarter domestic product by 1.4 percent. For an economy still recovering from recession, that would be a completely unnecessary self-inflicted wound.
Meanwhile, another debt ceiling deadline is approaching when Congress must extend the federal government’s borrowing limit. Like our not-much-longer-married couple, this is seen by many in Congress as a negotiating opportunity. Best-case scenario is Congress creates a stopgap solution that solves nothing long term. Worst-case scenario, Uncle Sam becomes a deadbeat dad.
All of this could be avoided if Congress could agree on a budget, on time, that sets out priorities and instills discipline. But Congress hasn’t passed a budget of any kind since 2009, and it was nowhere near balanced.
It isn’t just in budgetary matters where congressional gridlock is hurting America. The farm bill expires Sept. 30, and Congress can’t agree on a new one. That leaves farmers in limbo. Sept. 30 was the expiration date for No Child Left Behind – Sept. 30, 2007, that is. Public schools across this country have tied themselves in knots over a deeply flawed law that should have been reformed and reauthorized six years ago. Instead, it’s still the law of the land.
Finally, after years of delay, Congress finally passed a highway bill last year, but it only provided funding for 27 months and not the five or six years that are needed to plan major road-building projects.
Congress, in other words, is a dysfunctional marriage with a lot of unnecessary drama that’s hyped up for the benefit of future campaigns. Unlike our fictional couple, however, Republicans and Democrats have to live with each other.
Meanwhile, we voters are proving to be terrible marriage counselors. Judging by the people we elect and re-elect, we obviously value conflict over cooperation, and stalemate over statesmanship.
Apparently, we voters like the drama, too. Maybe we’re the ones needing counseling before next November.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.