By next Friday, the Senate and House are supposed to have reached agreement on a budget package, one of the to-do items coming out of the October government shutdown. It seems highly unlikely that any big deal will result, for a variety of reasons. But two were predictable: Congress is very polarized, and bipartisan budget committees rarely make big deals.
NBC News reports on Monday that there's "some optimism" that the Democratic-led Senate and Republican-led House will come to agreement — but only around "a very small deal." The budget conference committee was meant to reconcile budget bills passed by each chamber earlier this year, and was given until December 13 to finalize a proposal under the deal that ended the shutdown. But as National Journal noted last week, every little point of contention results in a large argument, both from inside the room and lobbyist pressure. That very small deal — if any — will likely include some agreement around the level of government sequestration, the spending cuts that kicked in earlier this year and are scheduled to increase in January.
Sequestration, you will recall, stemmed from the big picture, let's-reach-a-grand-budget-bargain talks several years ago. It was created in an effort to impose a harder deadline than the one Congress currently faces by offering a threat: reach a big deal, or blind, across-the-board cuts will go into effect. No deal was reached; the cuts went into effect.
Because such deals are rarely reached. "Since the end of World War II," the Associated Press' Tom Raum writes of the sad history of bipartisan failures, "more than a dozen high-profile bipartisan panels have been convened to tackle the nation's thorniest fiscal problems. Seldom have their recommendations spurred congressional action." Raum outlines successful negotiations that were never implemented — 2011's Simpson-Bowles — or those that couldn't reach agreement at all — like the 1982 Grace Commission. Raum continues:
Such panels "start off with a strike against them. Namely, that only the really tough stuff ends up on their plate," said William Galston, who was a domestic policy adviser to Clinton. "And, obviously, all of this gets harder if you're in a period of intense political polarization."
Which, of course, we are in. Below are the most recent polarization charts from VoteView.com, a project run by the University of Georgia's Keith Poole. The current 113th Congress is the most polarized since shortly after the Civil War. As Pew Research explained the divide in a July report, "Most representatives are elected from districts dominated by a single party, whose adherents have themselves grown less moderate over time." Giving us the chasms illustrated below.
There have been attempts to bridge that divide, most notably with the effort dubbed "No Labels." No Labels was an organization formed in 2010 meant to act as an ad hoc third party. It signed up Democrats and Republicans willing to work together on important issues — like the budget. As the Boston Globe reported over the weekend, the group hasn't accomplished much, if anything.
No Labels has been unable to advance, in any meaningful way, a single item from its relatively modest list of goals. Critics dismiss it as window dressing, with some congressional staffers comparing it to a high school civics project and going as far as drafting memos to their bosses urging them not to join.
For what it's worth, neither of the budget negotiators — Rep. Paul Ryan or Sen. Patty Murray — are No Labels members. No Labels has had one success: There are now "monthly breakfast meetings at which Republicans and Democrats listen to each other — or at least feign to listen."
There's one other reason that a big deal isn't likely before next Friday: Congressional leaders like Ryan and Murray are operating on different schedules. From The Post:
Rather than syncing up those final two weeks, the House comes in Monday and expects to adjourn for the year by Dec. 13, while the Senate does not return from the Thanksgiving break until Dec. 9 and has Dec. 20 as its tentative departure date.
Leaving leaders with only next week to resolve the trickiest issue facing a divided government. Good luck.