The budget theater on Capitol Hill just gets more and more complex, intriguing, and -- perhaps above all -- embarrassing. First there was tragedy in August 2011, when Congress passed a budget act that created an undemocratic process, stripping policymakers of responsibility for reductions in both defense and discretionary spending. That was followed by farce -- the Tale of the Fiscal Cliff, if you will -- last winter, when Republicans in the House borrowed votes from Rep. Nancy Pelosi to avoid a market meltdown.
Today, we are faced with a new play, perhaps the "tragical-comical-historical-pastoral" play that Polonius spoke of, or the Bard's earlier Comedy of Errors. Certainly, it's making a laughing stock of Congress. Watching Bob Corker verbally assault Ted Cruz on Thursday, Sept. 26, was almost worth selling tickets to see.
To add to the insanity -- we could call this part improv -- the writers keep changing the script at lightning speed even though the play has already begun. First, the Republicans threaten a shutdown if they cannot "defund" (not possible -- most of it is regulations and bureaucratic processes, not discretionary money) something called "Obamacare" (actually largely written by Congress, not by Obama). So government agencies dust off the playbooks on a shutdown, the ones written in the 1990s and rewritten in 2011. But when the Senate calls the GOP's bluff and strips out this provision, the House Republicans start to get cold feet -- the potato is being tossed back to them and, if opinion polls are to be believed, Republicans will pay when a shutdown happens. All of a sudden, the plot doesn't look so good.
Shift the scene, the writers say -- let's talk about the debt ceiling, instead, which Treasury Secretary Jack Lew says will arrive on Oct. 17. Let's put Obamacare on that bill. And while we're at it, let's load up the scenery with every other theatrical flat (a piece of scenery meant to represent reality but that is two-dimensional, with no depth) that we have invented in the last two years: tax reform, abolishing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, building the Keystone XL pipeline. Let's toss out perhaps as many as 20 pieces of legislation (which, in fact, are best left in the scenery warehouse).
And let's do it right away, they say, instead of wasting time on a shutdown. Oh, sorry, that script was improved onstage -- let's hold the debt-ceiling bill until we can round up enough supporting cast to pass it.
As if the public was going to take more seriously a stage setting that looked like the warped mirrors in a sideshow fun house.
The play will not end soon, sadly. A grand bargain on the budget would be a happy ending, but it is not in the script. It fell apart earlier in September, when the White House found itself talking to the wrong people in the Senate -- bit players who did not have the capacity to make a deal, and had no incentive to do so.
Now, similarly, the play will not end, because there is no enticement to end it. (Rather like Samuel Beckett's Endgame, is it not? Ends up where it started.) The fundamental problem is that of audience: Unrestrained gerrymandering to ensure conservative Republican districts over the past 20 years has led to a House Republican caucus consisting of members who are safe with their Tea Party voters and a handful of Republicans who are terrified of the Tea Party's reaction if they cut a deal. There are many reasons to criticize the Democrats for weak leadership and lack of imagination. But right now, it is the Republicans who look disorganized. The party is fractured and cowering in front of the footlights.
As this display of inept stagecraft continues, it's reasonable to ask: Does it matter? Is the republic safe and secure amid this ridiculous display? Or, as four military service chiefs testified in September, will military readiness and national security be the drive-by victims of this marching troop of actors on the road to nowhere? (OK, my metaphors, not theirs.) As Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, put it, "If the magnitude and speed of the discretionary cap reductions remain, the Army will not be able to fully execute the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance requirements.… Reductions in force structure and end strength [will happen], which in my view will add significant risk for the Army to conduct even one sustained major combat operation."
Go carefully, too, into this portion of the play. The testimony is before the House Armed Services Committee, whose chair, Buck McKeon, has been warning for two years that the sequester and budget cuts will turn the United States into a second-rate power. The specialty here is kabuki theater or, better yet, an Indonesian shadow play. Members of the committee, playing "members," appear to ask questions, and the service chiefs, playing "chiefs," appear to answer them. It is stylized, designed to elicit the most fervent support of national defense from the "members" and the most fervent pleas to stave off disaster from the "chiefs."
In reality, a sequester is still in rehearsal and will be until January. It will open out of town, while Washington plays out the current runs of Shutdown: The Drama and Debt Ceiling: The Crisis of the Markets. Later this fall, watch for the opening of The Omnibus: Will We Be Saved by the Appropriators?
If rehearsals go well, the Department of Defense (DOD) should know what to expect. It survived Sequester I; it could survive Sequester: The Sequel. Pentagon spending plans for the fiscal year (FY) drama that opens on Oct. 1 already assume that the DOD will get no more money in this coming fiscal year than it has in the fiscal year about to end. If a sequester happens again, it means something like another $20 billion to cut -- hard, but not impossible.
(Now, follow the subtext in the script. The Pentagon keeps talking about $52 billion in cuts if a sequester happens. But that assumes that the president's budget request for FY 2014 is real. What is real is the new sequester level of funding, and that's about $20 billion below the level of funding the department received in this FY after the initial sequester. There is some surreal theater going on here, too, as the financial staff at DOD scrambles around. It's a knockoff of a Pirandello play, this one called Six Financial Planners in Search of an Author.)
We are stuck in the existential land so well described by Jean-Paul Sartre in No Exit. The way out is not clear, and for now, the incentives to keep the drama going are strong. And those who might bring down the curtain are not yet visible.