The notion that Republicans, controlling only the House of Representatives, could pressure President Obama into defunding Obamacare last month was a clear case of unrealistic expectations. After a brief, partial shutdown, reality set in and the government was reopened - without any changes to Obamacare and with funding lasting just through Jan. 15. As we negotiate the post-Jan. 15 government funding measure, Republicans should agree on realistic, achievable expectations consistent with the fiscal principles of our party.
First, let's separate Obamacare and its funding from the funding of ordinary government operations. Obamacare is proving to be the disaster many of us feared. We should try to find some relief for people most harmed by the bill's innumerable unintended consequences. But the only long-term solution is full repeal, and that will not happen between now and mid-January. So, while we continue to wrestle with the Obamacare disaster, we should focus our budget negotiations on what is achievable now.
Second, let's follow the law that already set next year's spending level. In return for increasing the debt ceiling by $2.1 trillion just two years ago, Congress and the president agreed to spending caps on discretionary spending. Those bipartisan caps are working. In 2012 and 2013, we reduced government spending two years in a row - for the first time since just after the Korean War. Some budget conferees want to ignore that law and spend more money. But that additional spending would require additional taxes and/or borrowings, both of which are already excessive. We should not do either.
We can, and should, discuss alternative ways to achieve the savings of the current law. Those spending restraints are mostly imposed on the 35 percent of government spending that is annually appropriated at the discretion of Congress. Too much of these cuts fall on our defense budget. We should substitute savings from some of the unsustainable mandatory spending programs - the other 65 percent of government spending - that are the real budget busters over time. But we must not abandon the only modicum of spending discipline we have achieved in years.
Third, let's be willing to give the various federal agency heads discretion in managing a sequester. Under current law, if Congress passes spending bills above the statutory caps, automatic across-the-board cuts kick in and bring spending back down to the statutory limits. But, as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree, across-the-board cuts are not the best way to limit spending. Some government spending is sensible and necessary, and some is not. Let's give agency managers the discretion to cut the wasteful and the unnecessary.
We know this is manageable. In April, the Senate approved a bipartisan bill to give the Federal Aviation Administration the flexibility to halt furloughs of air-traffic controllers and, instead, cut lower-priority spending. The result was a more efficient FAA. The scheduled savings were achieved with no furloughs, no control-tower closings, and no flight delays.
Finally, we can end government by manufactured crisis. When we reach the end of a fiscal year, if Congress has not passed legislation funding the government for the next year, funding should continue automatically at the previous year's level. Such legislation would permanently prevent government shutdowns and guarantee a little bit of savings. It would prevent unnecessary, counterproductive disruptions of our government and economy.
I hope colleagues on the budget conference committee and I can agree on ideas that are attainable. I am proposing four reasonable and practical steps that are fiscally prudent and would avert future fiscal cliffs and shutdowns:
De-link Obamacare funding from the funding of ordinary government operations.
Enforce the spending restraint to which Republicans, Democrats, and the president agreed.
Give federal agency managers the authority and flexibility to enact those savings in the smartest way.
And make Sept. 30 just another day by ensuring that funding automatically continues if appropriations are not enacted by the end of the fiscal year.
These policies would not solve our fiscal crisis themselves. But they would affirm some modest fiscal discipline and restore ordinary government functions. That would at least be a good start.