1. The government shutdown is over, and the threat of default has been averted. Is Congress done fighting now?
No, not yet. When they reopened the government and raised the federal debt limit two weeks ago, Republicans and Democrats also agreed to set up a conference committee on the budget that could theoretically address all the big tax and spending issues that have been causing so many problems in Washington.
The committee meets for the first time at 10 a.m. Wednesday, when all 29 members are due to give opening statements.
2. Great! Does that mean Congress is finally going to do something to create jobs and get the $17 trillion national debt under control?
Alas, no. After three years of fighting, Republicans and Democrats are kind of tired of beating their heads against the wall. Over the past few days, key figures in both parties have said they don’t think it’s possible to cut a “grand bargain” to solve big national problems. Instead, they’re just going to try to roll back the deep automatic cuts known as the sequester — or a portion of them — and replace them with other savings.
3. Wha t’s the sequester?
The sequester was created in 2011, during the last big fight over the debt limit. Congress adopted the Budget Control Act, which cut spending on agency budgets by $1 trillion through 2021. It also created a “supercommittee” to find an additional $1.2 trillion in savings over the same period. The supercommittee failed to reach an agreement, though, so the sequester took effect in March. It is on track to slice agency budgets by $109 billion a year through 2021.
4. Is that bad?
Pretty bad. Both parties are nervous about the impact, especially on the Pentagon. Most agencies are already operating at sequester levels, but the Pentagon would have to absorb an additional $20 billion in cuts on Jan. 15 if Congress fails to cut a deal.
5. Why don't they just cancel the sequester?
Because the Budget Control Act is pretty much the only thing Congress has done to successfully reduce spending since Republicans took control of the House in 2011, and they don’t want to give it up.
They’re willing to replace the sequester cuts — which mainly affect federal agencies — with cuts to mandatory spending, the so-called entitlements that include Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits, farm subsidies, civil service pensions and that sort of thing. But Democrats say they will make that trade only if Republicans agree to throw in some higher tax revenue by closing a few loopholes that benefit corporations and the wealthy.
6. Will that work?
Well, Republicans still don’t want to raise taxes. And Democrats still don’t want to cut benefits for the elderly unless the rich get hit, too. So it’s up to the conference committee to figure out whether there’s a deal.
7. Who’s on the conference committee?
The bipartisan, bicameral group is led by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who will bear primary responsibility for conducting any serious negotiations. But the full membership includes the entire Senate Budget Committee, as well as four House Republicans and three House Democrats. Here’s the list:
Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.)
Rep. Tom Price (Ga.)
Rep. Diane Black (Tenn.)
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.)
Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.)
Rep. Nita M. Lowey (N.Y.)
Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.)
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa)
Sen. Mike Enzi (Wyo.)
Sen. Mike Crapo (Idaho)
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.)
Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio)
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (Pa.)
Sen. Ronald H. Johnson (Wis.)
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.)
Sen. Roger Wicker (Miss.)
Senate Democratic Caucus:
Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.)
Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.)
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.)
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.)
Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.)
Sen. Jeff Merkley (Ore.)
Sen. Christopher A. Coons (Del.)
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (Wis.)
Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (Va.)
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine)
8. Are they optimistic?
Um, sort of. At the very least, everyone seems to agree it would be great to demonstrate to the world that Congress can actually do things. And they also seem to agree that they could do something very, very small, such as replacing half of the sequester for the next two years to get them through the 2014 midterm elections.
That would require them to find only about $100 billion in new savings — not so much in a $3.6 trillion annual budget.
9. How much time do they have?
They are supposed to issue a report by Dec. 13. If a plan got the support of half of the members from each chamber, it would then proceed to the full House and Senate for approval.
10. What happens if they can’t agree?
Well, the Pentagon would have to cut $20 billion more between Jan. 15 and Sept. 30. And we would have to worry about another government shutdown when the current funding bill runs out Jan. 15.
And it would get people worrying about default again. Enforcement of the debt limit has been suspended through Feb. 7, and unless Congress acts, the Treasury Department is likely to run out of borrowing authority sometime in March.
So basically: fresh crisis.
11. Holy cow! It never ends up there, does it?
No. Apparently not.