Oversight and Answers Needed, Not Posturing

Posted March 15, 2011 at 6:00pm

The negotiations, if that is the right term, over the remainder of this year’s budget, are getting more and more interesting. What seemed to be the Republican leaders’ strategy to avoid a shutdown — call it the “salami slice” approach — appears to be breaking down before the second slice has been carved.

Going through a series of two- or three-week short-term continuing resolutions and demanding $2 billion in cuts per week seems on the surface like a canny approach — when Democrats finally balk at the cuts and a shutdown follows, it looks like they provoked it over a trivial disagreement.

Of course, Democrats signaled last week and over the weekend that they would draw the line on short-term extensions after the second one. But now it is Republicans, from Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) to Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.), who are stepping back from the salami slice approach. Some are angling for a confrontation sooner rather than later. Some are responding to grass-roots, tea party pressure (even Cantor is being hit for being too compromising). Some realize extending this debate over a tiny share of the budget will detract from the bigger questions that will hit the fiscal 2012 budget starting in April or so.

Put all those reasons together, though, and it shows that a serious confrontation and a possible shutdown or set of shutdowns is growing more and more plausible.

For many freshmen and some of their conservative brethren, a plan to cut $61 billion from the fiscal 2011 budget was a major compromise to begin with; they did not want to hear that nearly half the fiscal year is already gone or that cuts implemented immediately can be counterproductive and even costly. They wanted results, and they wanted them now. And, of course, they had no patience for hearing about why any specific cuts were foolish or dangerous to public safety.

For them, a compromise at, say, $20 billion or $25 billion is utterly unacceptable, and the criticism in Virginia tea party circles of Cantor suggests it won’t be acceptable for their leaders either. Whether Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) can turn the focus to a longer-term deficit-reduction plan, using that as a rationale for tamping down the changes in 2011, is one of the key questions facing him as a leader and us as a country.

It is a question with far more than political implications. The Japanese catastrophe underscores the continuing fragility of the global economic recovery. It has its own repercussions for the U.S. economy in a host of ways. The European economic situation is not terribly rosy either. So the rationale for cutting spending immediately is shaky at best. Whether the GOP cuts would eliminate 700,000 jobs, as economist Mark Zandi has estimated, or 200,000 jobs, as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has suggested, there would be job losses — even without taking into account the economic impact of the earthquake and tsunami. They could be far worse if there is a shutdown. There is a strong case right now for another modest, protective stimulus. But it is not a case that could possibly pass muster in Congress.

Japan creates another challenge for Congress and the president. Our hope of finding some bipartisan agreement on energy policy and reductions in carbon emissions has been tied to an agreement to expand the use and availability of nuclear power. The problems cascading at multiple nuclear power plants in Japan have already altered our energy debate dramatically. We don’t know as of this writing, and may not know for some time thereafter, how serious the damage is to the reactors, and whether the result will be closer to Chernobyl or to Three Mile Island. The reactors are all aging, using designs that make them more vulnerable to big problems than are more modern ones.

How many existing U.S. reactors are similar and what is their status? Can they be retrofitted to make them safer from catastrophe? What about the newer plants — what would happen to them if an earthquake or other natural disaster of comparable magnitude to Japan occurred? What is the status of construction of new nuclear plants, especially in areas near potential fault lines? What is the status of security around nuclear plants — what would happen, for example, if terrorists tried to hit one or more? Do the safety features and redundancies built into the plants take into account all possible kinds of disasters? While we are at it, how safe is the electrical grid from disasters or attacks?

I do not want to rely for answers to these questions on the news media and their designated experts and pseudo-experts. If ever we had a need for serious, sober oversight hearings, and a need to cut back on the usual extravagant rhetoric on both sides, it is now. It would also be nice if Congress used this occasion for a new adult conversation, about the need for comprehensive energy policies on production and conservation, not ridiculous posturing over light bulbs. But now I am asking for way too much.

Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.