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Outside editorial: Political theatrics aside, the long-term deficit must be addressed

Posted: February 21, 2011 - 7:03am

The following editorial first appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

By law, U.S. presidents have until early February to propose a federal budget for the spending year that begins the following October. So here we are hip-deep in review, debate and discussion of the 2011-2012 budget just proposed by President Barack Obama.

Yet, as we scan the proposal’s 216 pages, we’re wondering just how revved up we should get about the 2011-2012 budget proposal given that Congress still has done nothing to pass a budget for 2010-2011.

Obama proposed one a year ago, but the House and Senate failed to agree on a budget resolution. They failed to pass appropriations bills for the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Homeland Security, Commerce, Transportation and Energy. They failed to approve funds for the FBI or DEA or for education, health, environmental and veterans’ programs.

No House-Senate conference committees unified their respective appropriations bills into one because there were no respective bills to unify. No mutually approved appropriations were sent to the president for his signature or veto because none passed both houses.

In fact, the only budgetary duty members of Congress managed to perform in the election year of 2010 was to pass four temporary funding extensions, called continuing resolutions, that kept the government from turning off the lights, locking the doors and cutting off the millions of Americans it serves.

It is those continuing resolutions that have paid our military troops, air traffic controllers, park rangers, FBI agents and cancer researchers since Oct. 1. Continuing resolutions allow checks to go the private businesses that supply the Pentagon with artillery shells, body armor and toilet paper and the ones that completed the Interstate 64/U.S. Highway 40 reconstruction project in St. Louis. Continuing resolutions have kept low-income students in college by providing funds for the Pell Grants that make tuition and books affordable.

Contrary to anti-government stereotypes, it isn’t always like this. Obama proposed his budget for 2009-2010 in February 2009, and the House and Senate soon adopted a budget resolution. Most of the subsequent appropriations bills became law in October, with the final piece of budget legislation signed by the president on Dec. 19. Yes, Congress missed the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, but not by much, and three handy continuing resolutions covered the relatively minor gaps.

Federal budgeting is a complicated process, but not an inherently dysfunctional one. Yet after the passage of health care reform last March, congressional Republicans chose obstructionism as their election-year strategy, and their victories last fall seem to have convinced them that it pays off — at least for their party, if not for the nation.

But addressing substantive long-term budget deficit issues — not the short-term political theatrics we’re seeing at the moment — is a crucial challenge for elected officials of all parties with major implications for all Americans.

On more than one occasion, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has declared that Republicans will behave “as adults” in discharging their responsibilities as leaders.

In his Tuesday press conference, Obama said he hopes that new budget negotiations will involve “an adult conversation where everybody says, ‘Here’s what’s important and here’s how we’re going to pay for it.’”

Adults from both sides of the aisle working together on the budget process would be a welcome improvement.

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