Congress’s addiction to kicking the can down the road

Newsflash: Congress 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 will continue its trend of can-kicking this week when the House votes on extending 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.

If you were just overcome with sense of deja vu, it's because we've been down this road before. Many times.


When lawmakers couldn't reach a deal on the debt ceiling in 2011, they set up a series of drastic, automatic cuts -- so-called "sequestration" -- that would take effect if they didn't come to an agreement on cutting the deficit by the end of 2012.

By the end of that period, though, without a big deal at hand, Congress instead kicked the can down the road yet again, delaying those cuts by another two months. Congress will deal with the looming cuts in the coming weeks.

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 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.

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 the underlying problem isn't any 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.

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Sean Sullivan · January 21, 2013

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