By Rep. Nick J. Rahall
The recent government shutdown and near default on our nation’s debt has cost our economy an estimated $24 billion.
Federal workers and military families experienced nerve-wracking uncertainty about their paychecks, and American businesses felt the pinch of a more than 16-day freeze on government purchases.
Critical government services and operations were disrupted, such as the issuance of industry permits, and government inspections and financing, that hurt both businesses and individuals. The closure of national parks and monuments hurt tourism and took money from the economy of countless communities, including many of our state’s own.
The fiscal fiasco resulted in yet another credit rating agency threatening to downgrade our nation’s debt, shaking international confidence in the U.S. dollar and economy, and increasing borrowing costs for businesses and individuals.
The sordid incident hurt our standing and prestige in the international community, and undercut our national security and military readiness.
And, perhaps worst of all, it further undermined the American people’s faith in their governmental institutions.
The one silver lining, perhaps, is that the Congress, albeit belatedly, did act before it was too late. The extremists, for now at least, did not get their way in forcing an unprecedented debt default. Everyone and every side had an opportunity to have their say. But, ultimately, majority Members in the House of Representatives, who for weeks voted repeatedly to continue a political standoff while proclaiming the aversion to shutdowns and defaults, at last, abandoned that reckless strategy and voted to end the crisis.
For now, we can breathe a collective sigh of relief, but this is a temporary respite.
We should hope and pray that cooler heads will prevail before we must revisit these issues early next year, and that the majority in the House of Representatives will not revive the threat of a shutdown and default to extract political concessions.
Meanwhile, there is talk of reviving some grand bargain, a massive multi-trillion-dollar legislative package that presumably would affect all aspects of the federal government, including Social Security and Medicare. Ironically, some believe that a grand bargain is a realistic option, when the Congress cannot even agree on a temporary spending bill.
I think such a proposal is the equivalent of tilting at windmills. And I certainly would oppose any effort to try to extract cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits in exchange for averting another government shutdown or raising the debt limit. Grand bargains put the emphasis on cutting for the sake of cutting, without sufficient regard for the human and economic impact of such cuts.
Instead, I hope budget negotiators would focus on what is practical and achievable. We should comb through the masses of reports on deficit reduction recommendations generated from all corners – there are a lot of them on the shelf, one just about as good as another – and enact several bills over a period of time that could show progress on the deficit. My own emphasis would be on strengthening financial management controls to eliminate improper payments and ensuring a fairer tax code by eliminating wasteful tax expenditures.
Our nation’s deficits, while still large and unsustainable, are declining. As a percentage of the economy, they are less than half their size since 2009. That’s because the economy is growing, albeit in fits and starts, and we should push ahead with policies that will keep it growing – with investments in education and workforce training, science and research, and building and repairing our nation’s infrastructure.
Congress’ focus should be on trying to restore the faith of the people in their governmental institutions, and keeping the reins of leadership away from those who would rather sabotage the government than find ways to make it work better for the people it was created to serve.
Members of Congress have a Constitutional responsibility to ensure a proper functioning government. There is no greater guide than our founding document, with its emphasis on comprise and consensus, to prevent yet another unnecessary and unwise government shutdown.
(Rahall represents West Virginia’s 3rd District.)