With the stroke of his pen the day after New Year’s, President Barack Obama extended a $5 billion farm subsidy program that he opposes and many farmers say they no longer need.
The day before, the U.S. Senate and House -- where there is broad agreement that the direct farm payments program should be scrapped -- both voted to keep the money flowing as part of a last-minute agreement to avert most of more than $600 billion in automatic tax increases and spending cuts slated to take effect this month.
The story of how an agriculture program widely seen as outdated lived to see another day in a capital obsessed with budget-cutting highlights the unintended consequences of the dysfunction that has taken hold in Washington, D.C. Obama and congressional Republicans have settled into what economists, government officials and lawmakers from both political parties agree is a damaging pattern of governing by crisis, to the detriment of economic growth, the government’s standing at home and abroad, and the nation’s fiscal health.
“Predictability and the rule of law are the key elements to a successful economy and a successful country, but the new normal is a crisis economy,” said former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, a Republican, in an interview. “It means that other countries that look to the United States to be the great stabilizing force that we’ve been start to have doubts about that. It’s a crisis in the political structure, and it means you’re on the road to economic decline.”
Obama said in his Jan. 14 news conference that the current pattern is “not a credible way to run this government. We’ve got to stop lurching from crisis to crisis to crisis.”
Congressional Republicans agree that failing to govern unless they are staring down an emergency is no way to do business. “Last-minute deals are just not a way to run the country,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican to whom it has fallen to broker many of the recent 11th-hour agreements with the White House, in a Jan. 9 interview.
Yet there is little evidence that the pattern will change any time soon. Over the next two months, Obama and Congress are facing a trio of deadlines: the need to raise the nation’s $16.4 trillion debt limit as early as next month, the scheduled imposition in March of $110 billion in across-the-board spending cuts, and the March 27 expiration of the current temporary measure to fund the entire government.
“Uncertainty is one of the greatest threats to national security -- fiscal uncertainty,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told U.S. troops in Vicenza, Italy, Jan. 17, calling the three looming deadlines -- the second of which could trigger at least $45 billion in defense cuts -- a “perfect storm.”