Budget showdown fizzles

Wednesday - 8/1/2012, 2:00am EDT

(Timesaver summary: It should take you just about two minutes to read the entire column today. It's about the sequestration fight that's been going on for almost two years. No big deal. It only involves your job, your income and your career. Or you can cut to the chase with one quick question: Am I going to be furloughed or fired next year? Quick answer: Probably not. Have a nice day! MC)

Usually in the traditional game of chicken, one person or side gives in at the last minute. X is declared braver (or dumber) than Y. But not always...

In Congress, the game is played all the time. Sometimes out of genuine conviction, more often for partisan political gain. Sometimes the stakes are high, sometimes not. But when the House and Senate are involved, often both sides come off as losers which is not easy.

Watching the budget-making process in Congress is similar to observing two rival (and often inept) groups of explosives trainees try to build, then disarm, a bomb. It holds your attention because you never know whether it will end with a whimper or a bang. Usually the outcome is a whimper. Like now...

Despite its dismal, bipartisan track record of not getting its work done on time (or in some cases ever) Congress is preparing to take another vacation, starting this week.

This time last week, both political parties were predicting gloom and doom if the other side didn't buy its spending cuts, tax-cuts program. The government would be gutted by automatic across-the-board sequestration cuts in January. Layoff letters would start going out — this week — to hundreds of thousands of federal contractors. Government agencies (already offering an unusual number of mid-summer buyouts) would begin leaking stories about services that would be reduced or eliminated (like closing national parks or reduced weather monitoring) because of the budget impasse.

The object of the political budget game is to make sure members of the opposing political party either cave or, if shutdowns and layoffs happen, that the opposition takes the blame. During the last big government shutdown during the Clinton administration, Democrats "won" the battle for public opinion. Most people, and most of the media, blamed the GOP for the shutdown.

Politicians hoping to scare voters used the threat of layoff letters (which are mandatory by state or federal law) coming at a time of already-high unemployment. They warned that the job cuts and furloughs could send the economy back into a deep recession. In yesterday's column, we boldly predicted that this end-of-the-world scenario might be delayed. Guess what?

On Monday the Labor Department pulled the rug out from under some budget hawks. It said Defense contractors (the jewel in the crown in the sequestration argument) do not have to send out early warnings letters of possible layoffs. Some politicians were counting on the fact that the threat of those you're-fired-maybe! letters before the election would let their side prevail.

Shortly after the Labor Department's quickly publicized ruling was made, Rep. Howard P. McKeon (R-Calif.) blasted Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. McKeon, chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee, said her action was partisan and it did a disservice to tens of thousands of government contractors who deserved an early warning. Democrats countered that it was right and proper, and there was no point in scaring people any earlier than necessary.

But like little kids telling ghost stories, it appears that some of the up-for-re-election statesmen have scared themselves while trying to scare the opposition, and us.

Late Monday the Associated Press, thanks to leaks from both sides, reported that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) were talking about a compromise that would give Congress more time, next year, to work on taxes, budgets and avoiding sequestration.

After two years of commissions, studies, super-committees and deadly deadlines, nothing. Why are you not surprised?

Your Turn

Today on our Your Turn radio show, Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, will talk about the latest action in Congress and pay comparisons between federal and private-sector pay.

Our guests will also include Federal Times editor Steve Watkins and writer Andy Medici. Their topics: How safe are you at work?, the latest on GSA, the the Postal Service default.


NEARLY USELESS FACTOID

By Jack Moore