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This post assesses the task facing the budget negotiators on Capitol Hill.  It concludes that those negotiators could achieve real progress by laying out a budget plan based on those fundamental issues on which the two parties should be able to agree.  So rather than trading mini-concessions that would have little long-term payoff, the two sides instead should build the framework of a plan that would have true ultimate beneficial impact.

With the debt limit / shutdown standoff now on temporary hold (thank goodness), attention has shifted to the newly appointed conference committee for the fiscal year 2014 budget resolution, whose formation was a part of the shutdown-settlement deal.  This conference committee is just a bit late – given that it was supposed to produce a resolution to be passed by both chambers of the Congress back on April 15, and the fiscal year already is more than three weeks underway; but better late than never.

In fact, the budget conference committee faces a formidable task.  Job one will be to find a way past the new deadlines of January 15 (when the continuing resolution for the annual appropriations expires, and also when the second round of the budget “sequester” kicks in), and February 7 (when the Treasury again hits the debt limit).  These deadlines might suggest a game of small-ball – finding a few dollars here and a few dollars there to justify another punt, like the one that was played a couple of weeks ago.

But small-ball far understates the occasion.  The last few months have been a disaster for the economy and for U.S. business.  Both businesses and households reacted to the uncertainty of the indefinite shutdown and the impending default by going into a freeze – businesses on hiring and investing, and households on spending.  Meanwhile, government employees who weren’t getting paid and government contractors who were in economic limbo were not engaging in much commerce either.  All of this scrubbed off some of what little momentum the already stumbling economy had.  Washington cannot revert to this self-destructive pattern barely a quarter of a year later, when appropriations could again expire, and the debt limit could again constrain the nation’s ability to pay its bills.  In fact, any hint now of a relapse into shutdown showdown and default deadlock could impose an even greater economic toll.  The nation – in the person of the budget conference committee – must find a better way.

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If all goes well – a frightening thought – Washington is about to kick the can down the road yet another time.  This would be a good outcome because Washington seems just as likely to miss a mighty swing at the can and fall on its bum in the mud.

There is no realistic alternative to another can kick, after all.  This is October.  The fiscal year has already begun.  The federal government has been shut down for two weeks.  The Treasury is just about out of borrowing ability, and on the brink of default (to use the stark term).  This is a drain-the-swamp-versus-fend-off-the-alligators moment.  The Congress is not going to reform the nation’s tax code, Medicare and Social Security before the end-of-the-year holidays, as anyone who has watched our legislators work even at their finest knows all too well.  Think of 1981-1982 on Social Security, and in 1981-1986 on the income tax – and note that these were separate, multi-year efforts.  It is time for damage avoidance; that is the best we can hope for.

So if we are going to kick the can, we might as well kick it strategically.  Let’s think about our situation – what we must accomplish, and when.

What do we need to accomplish?

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