Congress got back from its Presidents Day recess Monday and immediately got down to the pressing business at the top of its calendar.
The House was to spend the next few days reauthorizing and amending the Violence Against Women Act. The Senate was to confirm a judicial nominee and then get down to the contentious but more or less foreordained confirmation of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense.
And on Friday, March 1, the $85 billion across-the-board government spending cut – the dreaded “sequester” – is to automatically go into effect. Depending on which party is doing the talking, the cuts will range from inconvenient and mildly annoying to deeply painful and economically damaging.
Whatever. Congress is leaving town Thursday night for a long weekend. But both parties are expected to go through the motions Wednesday of seeking to avert those cuts by passing measures they’re confident the other side will reject.
Congress has shown no sense of urgency in dealing with the impending cuts, but that’s because the public has yet to feel their impact – and may not until the end of March or April.
The Obama administration has predicted dire consequences from the cuts: weakened military, long waits at airports, large furloughs of government employees, layoffs of food safety inspectors, curtailed hours at national parks.
The administration even issued fact sheets for all 50 states and the District of Columbia highlighting the impact of the cuts. House Speaker John Boehner’s home state of Ohio, for example, would lose more than $47 million in education funds.
But Republicans like Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma says $85 billion is such a small percentage of the overall federal budget that there are ways to make cuts so Americans won’t feel them – at least not very much.
Indeed, some Republicans favor legislation that would replace the across-the-board cuts with targeted ones, leaving it up to the White House to make the unpopular choices of which programs get cut.
However, Congress faces a very real, very serious deadline on March 27. That’s when a temporary, six-month funding measure for the federal government expires. It was passed last September when Congress couldn’t agree on a budget or pass the individual funding bills for government departments.
Unless Congress shows a little more urgency about dealing with that problem, the government really will shut down, enraging the heretofore-apathetic public. We doubt the members of Congress who were here for the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996 much care to repeat the experience.