Washington’s addiction to kicking the can down the road

February 5, 2013

News just broke that President Obama will propose a short-term deal to again delay the steep automatic spending cuts (a.k.a. the "sequester") that are set to take effect at the end of this month. We here at The Fix thought this was a good opportunity to look back at something we wrote a couple weeks back about how these short-term extensions have become the new normal in Washington, as Congress continues to fail to reach agreement on anything close to a grand bargain on spending cuts. The following post was written when Congress agreed to suspend the debt ceiling for three months, but it has been updated to reflect Obama's new proposal.

Newsflash: Washington is not particularly good at getting things done these days.

What it is very good at, however, is waiting till the last minute, delaying and — eventually, when all other options are exhausted — kicking the can down the road.

Congress continued its trend of can-kicking late last month when it voted to extend the debt ceiling for three months — complete with a trigger mechanism that prevents lawmakers from getting paid if they fail to produce a budget once that extension lapses. That came a month after a "fiscal cliff" deal on New Year's Day that included delaying the sequester for two months.

And now, President Obama is proposing a deal that would include a small package of as-yet-unspecified spending cuts and tax changes and would yet again delay the sequester (more on what the sequester includes can be found here).

In other words: For the third time in just more than one month, Washington is looking to put a Band Aid over its gaping fiscal wounds.

But it's hardly a new trend.


Other recent examples of this trend:

* Congress hasn't passed a budget in years, instead passing a series of continuing resolutions to keep the government running for a specified period of time. While that's not altogether unusual, this post from National Journal shows how the use of temporary CRs has increased in recent years.

* Congress couldn't forge a deal on the expiring Bush tax cuts in 2010, so instead it renewed them for two years. To Congress's credit, it did something permanent eventually, codifying the cuts for all but the wealthiest Americans in the fiscal cliff deal reached on New Year's Day.

* Congress renewed the payroll tax cut for two months at the end of 2011 and then for the rest of the year in February. Eventually, it lapsed in the fiscal cliff deal.

So when does it stop? At what point does kicking the can down the road become unacceptable?

Maybe soon.

Bascially, to this point, the American people have not lashed out at Congress's can-kicking style. The problem is that, when these deadlines get so close to lapsing and all the talk is about how disastrous it would be if there is no deal, kicking the can down the road becomes a giant relief for everybody involved, and the country simply moves on to the next crisis deadline. "We didn't get a big deal, but we averted catastrophe," is the overwhelming sentiment. That's human nature.

The fiscal cliff deal, for example, got relatively decent reviews from the American people, even though Congress failed to achieve anything close to a so-called "grand bargain" that was the point of the whole exercise.

But by kicking the can down the road, the underlying problem isn't much more solved than it was before Congress set itself up for a big confrontation, and that big confrontation will happen again, X number of days down the road.

If the American people are ever going to be fed up with that approach, it may happen soon. That's because Congress has kicked so many cans at once that they are all gathering in a relatively small space of time. With the fiscal cliff barely in the rearview mirror, Congress now faces self-imposed deadlines on the sequestration cuts, the debt ceiling and passing a budget.

And if lawmakers just continue to kick the can over and over again, at some point, you have to think that people start to ask for more.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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Aaron Blake · February 5, 2013