What the Budget Impasse is Really About

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 10:58 AM EDT

The current impasse over keeping the lights on in Washington seems like small beer: Republicans want to offset increased disaster aid with cuts to green vehicle technology that amount to about $1.5 billion — a pittance in the grand scheme of things. But this is part of a much bigger fight. As the failure of last week's House budget bill showed, the tea party faction of the GOP still holds the whip hand in Congress and they've made it crystal clear that they have no intention of accepting any of the usual norms surrounding the federal budget, whether it's spending levels or anything else. Remember what Stan Collender told us a few days ago: there's really no reason to be voting on a short-term continuing resolution in the first place. After all, we've already agreed on budget levels for the year. But:

The commonly assumed but unstated reason for a short-term CR is that the House GOP wants to have increased political leverage on budget and other issues by being able to hold yet another potential government shutdown over the heads of Congressional Democrats and the White House. This time it supposedly will be policy riders — changes in authorizations — rather than spending levels that will be the biggest points of contention.

....This will sound quaint to some and unimaginable to others, but there was a time when doing what the GOP apparently is planning by authorizing on appropriations bills was considered by most Members of Congress to be as much a major legislative sin as usurping another committee’s jurisdiction....In fact, authorizing in an appropriations bill has been considered so taboo on Capitol Hill that Republicans and Democrats on the authorization committee that would be affected by the proposal typically have worked together to prevent it from happening.

The tea partiers want lower spending levels and they want to hijack the budget process to tack on their pet policy proposals. They don't care if the former has already been agreed to or that the latter is a violation of long-established understandings from both parties. Just like they don't care that emergency aid has never required budget offsets in the past.

So while those offsets might be minor on their own merits, they're basically a bellwether: if tea partiers can force Democrats to cave in on that, they can force them to cave in on every other violation of normal procedure too. Agreements will become meaningless and the budgeting process will become almost literally a free-for-all. That's what this is all about.