Amid its fiscal dysfunction and the disdain that polls show almost all Americans feel toward it, Congress at least has remedied one disgrace — that of the United States government reduced to asking a charity to pay benefits owed the families of American troops killed in Afghanistan.
The Senate passed legislation Thursday to pay the death benefits, a day after the House passed the measure. President Barack Obama should sign the bill.
The Pentagon had announced that the government shutdown prevented it from giving survivors of fallen troops $100,000 to help pay expenses while they wait for other benefits to begin. Fisher House, a charity that works with veterans and their families, graciously said it would make the payments until the government reopened.
The partial government shutdown that began Oct. 1 shamefully shows no signs of ending, but there were reports Thursday afternoon as this editorial’s deadline arrived that congressional Republicans and the president were on the verge of agreeing to extend the debt limit through Nov. 22. The shutdown and a potential debt default have become intertwined. Temporarily putting off the risk of the government defaulting on its obligations would allow for negotiations on spending cuts and other larger budget issues.
That’s the thinking anyway. We don’t want to be unduly pessimistic, but previous negotiations toward a “grand bargain” on the budget have gone nowhere. Well, they produced the sequester.
The best course would be to reopen the government immediately and raise the debt limit past next fall’s midterm elections. Otherwise, the nation is back where it is now in six short weeks.
That the shutdown appears likely to continue potentially is more bad news for veterans. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki warned members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Wednesday that a shutdown that goes past Nov. 1 will affect the disability, education and other benefits owed more than 5 million veterans. In addition, the shutdown has led to the furlough of 7,000 Veterans Benefits Administration employees nationwide, including regional offices in Texas, further delaying the already backlogged processing of benefit claims.
It’s not always clear why one part of the government stays open and another one closes — politics plays a part, sure — but the shutdown’s effects are slowly starting to be felt nationwide. The effects range broadly, from the National Institutes of Health being forced to delay clinical trials of new cancer drugs to craft breweries stuck in sudsy limbo waiting for the government bureau that regulates them to reopen.
The shutdown has put the public’s health and safety at risk. The federal investigation of the West fertilizer plant explosion, for example, has been suspended. In addition, the shutdown means a high-level group of administration officials will miss its deadline for reviewing and recommending changes to the safety rules that govern chemical and fertilizer storage plants.
A salmonella outbreak, linked to chicken from California, has sickened almost 300 people in more than a dozen states. Furloughs have interrupted the ability of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to monitor the outbreak and analyze the salmonella strains involved.
The Chamber of Commerce, the National Federation of Independent Businesses and other business interests usually allied with Republicans appear to have had enough. They are pushing Republicans to raise the debt ceiling and, according to a New York Times report, are threatening to finance campaigns against the tea party Republicans largely held responsible for the shutdown, and who have been downplaying the potential harm a default would cause.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has said the debt ceiling needs to be increased by Oct. 17 or the government soon thereafter would not be able to meet all the payments due on debt already incurred. As we’ve written previously, no one knows exactly how devastating it would be for the government to default. A default might not bring on an economic disaster, but it would harm the economy. Sound minds don’t want to find out how severe the damage would be.
So more moderate Republicans are offering a short-term debt limit plan to President Obama as a way to find space for larger budget talks. They want concessions from the president and congressional Democrats but have had trouble reaching consensus with their tea party colleagues on what those concessions should be.
A temporary extension of the debt limit is better than a default, but without stronger leadership from everyone involved and more focus on national interests rather than party interests, it merely shifts the crisis to late November.
Just in time for the holidays. Joy.