Washington may be quiet in August, but we are headed toward a busy budget season in the fall -- and not one that will reassure the leadership of the Defense Department.
There are three ways the coming months could go. Option one: "the mini-deal." In a fit of reasonableness, some or all of the appropriations bills, including defense, could be passed and land on the president's desk. This is a long shot -- none of the appropriations bills has been passed and landed on the president's desk, and any that violate budget limits and rules face a presidential veto.
Option two is an agreement between Congress and the president that greases the skids for those bills and pushes sequestration off -- forever, for several years, or maybe just for a year. Well, one can dream. But despite Senator Bob Corker's assertion that the White House and compromise-minded senators are talking about their agreements and disagreements, such a deal shows no sign of appearing. Lucy has teed this ball up several times in the last two-and-a-half years, only to have it swept away. Plus, we are heading into the 2014 election season, when dreams of a Republican Senate majority swirl through Mitch McConnell's head, while he and Minority Whip John Cornyn face uncompromising Tea Party opponents in their primaries. And whatever an ad hoc bipartisan group and the White House agree to has to run the Tea Party gauntlet in the House, which will club it to death.
Behind the third door is the grand surprise: We could watch the sequel of what we have seen for the last two-and-a-half years or more: "The Fiscal Cliff: The Return of the Precipice." Scene One: (Are you sitting down?) the appropriators fail and somebody proposes a continuing resolution. John Boehner rushes to the front of the group he purportedly leads, trying to get his caucus to support it. They don't, since he cannot rally the fractious Republicans, so he turns to the Democrats at the last minute (again) to save his bacon. Here, Nancy Pelosi could agree to save him from going over the cliff, or she could let the Republicans be responsible for shutting down the government. Last time, when Newt Gingrich did this in 1995 and 1996, it did not work out so well for the Republicans, but maybe memories are short in the Tea Party. Either way, we eventually get a continuing resolution, with headlines in the meantime full of sound and fury, signifying very little.
Scene Two drives us straight toward the debt ceiling fight, round two, sometime in November. The Congressional Budget Office told us this month that the estimated 2013 deficit through July ($606 billion) was 38 percent lower than it was over the same period in 2012. This might delay the debt ceiling scene by a bit; maybe not. If the debt ceiling fight is delayed, it will hit just as we face another round of sequestration -- 15 days after Congress adjourns (around Christmas) without a budget deal, we get another $100 billion plus reduction in the federal budget. With fun like this, who needs the theater?
We then head straight into Scene Three: the midterm elections of 2014, when there will be no incentives at all to solve the fiscal dilemma.