With a deal to resolve the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling apparently imminent (apparently), there's no reason not to start looking ahead to America's next manufactured crisis. The not-yet-passed agreement in the House and Senate outlines the three most likely upcoming dates.
December 13, 2013
Deadline for budget conference committee
Likelihood of crisis: Low
While the final agreement apparently doesn't establish a hard deadline of December 13 for procedural reasons, the date (a Friday) is the agreed-upon point at which the conference committee is expected to reach agreement on what a long-term plan will look like. That conference — led by Senate Budget Committee chair Patty Murray and House Budget Committee chair Paul Ryan — will do what should have been done months ago: try to blend the chambers' widely divergent budget proposals. That it should have been done months ago isn't our being hyperbolic. The Senate repeatedly called for a conference on the budget, but the House repeatedly declined to do so. So, will it work?
Raise your hand if you think the budget conference committee will be a smashing success.— Rick Klein (@rickklein) October 16, 2013
Given how much drama it took for us to get to this point, the pessimism of ABC's Rick Klein is very much warranted. But the worst thing that happens if December 13 comes and goes without any sort of "grand bargain" (if you'll pardon the phrase) is that Murray, Ryan, et al. have to work through the holidays. There's still time to come up with a fix amenable to both sides before anything bad happens.
January 15, 2014
Government funding ends
Likelihood of crisis: Medium
Which brings us to January 15. There's probably even odds that, as this date approaches, the conference committee will still be plugging away, trying to reconcile the Republican push for continued budget cuts and (almost certainly) long-term changes to the Affordable Care Act with Democrat calls for increased revenue and a rollback of the worst of the sequestration.
That the sequestration cuts will be part of that discussion is a certainty. In fact, the Democrats wanted funding to end before the end of January specifically to try and avoid further sequestration cuts that are mandated at that point under 2011's Budet Control Act. Remember that? It was the deal reached two budget crises ago to try and force a budget compromise by threatening deep, across-the-board cuts unless Congress worked out the sort of all-encompassing deal they're trying once again to reach. The intermediary crisis, if you'd forgotten, was the "fiscal cliff" at the end of last year, over many of the same issues.
The point is this: For three years in a row, Congress has tried to come up with a sweeping compromise between the two parties, has failed, and has left the economy on the brink of disruption by failing to fix the problem until the very end. The assumption coming into this month was that a shutdown of the government was such substantial disincentive to allow funding to lapse that it would prompt some sort of agreement between the parties. Nope. So there's absolutely no reason to assume that January's deadline would provide a similar disincentive.
February 7, 2014
The debt ceiling needs to be raised
Likelihood of crisis: High
But remember, it wasn't the shutdown that prompted a resolution this month. It was the threat of default on our debt. The agreement before Congress ensures that the Department of the Treasury will have the ability to keep paying the country's bills until early February. But then what?
Let's say there's no agreement in conference in December — a deeply possible situation. Let's say, further, that the Congress passes a short term funding measure in January, hoping to buy a little more time to reach a grand bargain. And let's say they don't into the first week of February. Then what?
Will they push everything out once again in the hopes that they can somehow reach agreement? Punt until after the midterm elections? Or will they again, as Ted Cruz's communications staffer tweeted on Wednesday, see this as a moment to try and force concessions? President Obama put his foot down this time, but with elections looming, does that position become more or less likely?
We will see, of course. Perhaps, as some senators suggested from the floor on Wednesday, this brush with calamity will inspire a new era of agreement and comity, allowing two deeply polarized parties to find common ground. Or, perhaps, we'll see our fourth straight year of crisis as the government tries to figure out a budget. Don't need a bookie to figure out which option's odds are better.