High Stakes and Hijinks in Washington's Government Shutdown Debate

If Republicans and Democrats don't reach a deal on the budget in the next nine days, the federal government will shut down for the first time since 1995. This is now our third trip to the brink in two months. In the last five weeks, two temporary funding agreements -- known as continuing resolutions, or "CR"s -- have kept the government lights on. There is growing sense that the third time will not be a charm for Washington.

Government shutdown doesn't mean the entire federal government shuts down and the U.S. enters a Hobbesian jungle of lawlessness. "Essential services" will continue. Bombs will still fall on Libya. Social Security checks will still go out. Air traffic will still be controlled and national security measures will remain in place. The mail will still be delivered.

But federal contractors and employees could face furloughs or worse. In 1995, the government closed 368 National Park Service sites, left 200,000 passport applications unprocessed, stopped work at 609 toxic waste cleanup sites, turned away new research patients at the National Institutes of Health stopped accepting new clinical research patients, and slowed veteran services, according to this excellent explainer from CNN.

Washington faces the prospect of government shutdown because Democrats and Republicans can't agree on what should be in the next budget -- or rather, what shouldn't be in the next budget. Democrats, who have already accepted $10 billion in cuts to pass the last two continuing resolutions, say they're willing to cut another $10 billion this year. Republicans, who initially unveiled a plan to cut $30 billion, now say they want $60 billion in cuts, and they've included numerous Democratic favorites in the cuts.

The latest news has Republican House Speaker John Boehner reaching out to Democrats to hold hands on a deal that would cut about $30 billion but spare Democratic causes like Planned Parenthood, which conservative GOP members would like to add to the scrap pile.

If you're interested in the politics of this story, check out our Politics Channel for coverage. If you're interested in the impact of the this story on our budget debate, I think this graph from the Washington Post just about says it all. Sixty billion dollars is 2% of our 2011 deficit and a fraction of a percent of our ten year debt burden.

Washington Post.

If we're going to cut $3 to $4 trillion from our debt in the next decade, even cuts as deep as the conservative wing of the Republican Party wants won't hardly get us one-third of the way. I've heard the argument: How can liberals say these cuts are simultaneously too deep and not deep enough? Well, if you brush one tooth for an hour and pretend its dental hygiene, you're both scrubbing too hard and cleaning too little. Similarly, you can't hack away at 18% of the budget while keeping taxes at historical lows and entitlements at historical highs while pretending it's good deficit reduction.

I'm not so much interested in what happens before the government shuts down, if it does. I'm more interested in what happens when the government opens again. Will Republicans follow Sen. Tom Coburn's lead and accept tax raises? Will Democrats follow Sen. Dick Durbin's lead and accept that, as Brookings' Henry Aaron put it to me, "that there is no way for us to get well fiscally without median earnings taking a hit in some fashion"? I'd like to think the lights turning off and on in Washington could represent a more fundamental reset.