US budget battle


Playing “chicken” has become standard in the now never-ending budget battle between the US Congress and President Obama. This time no-one is blinking. The fourth major stand-off between House Republicans and Obama over fiscal issues since 2011 appears set to precipitate tomorrow a closedown of government offices and a default by the government on its debts from mid-October.

Agencies like the FBI, the Education and Defence Departments and Environmental Protection Agency will have to severely limit operations while the issuing of pension cheques to the elderly is likely to be delayed.

At issue is an attempt once again by the president to raise the legally prescribed $16.7 trillion debt limit to allow the government to cover day-to-day spending. Republicans who control the House but not the Senate, and who are being driven politically by militant anti-tax Tea Party campaigners in their ranks, have now taken the debt ceiling issue hostage in a bid to bring down Obama’s healthcare programme. And they have added to their non-negotiable wish-list tax measures, energy bills, regulatory proposals and spending cuts that Democrats have already refused to endorse. Those Republicans who hesitate to bring the whole house of cards down are vilified by party colleagues as traitors and threatened with deselection.

A Senate attempt to avert the immediate crisis with a six-week budget continuance measure appears also to have been stymied by Republican demands for further unrelated conditionality. Obama is refusing to accede to what he has called, with much justice, blackmail.

The crisis which threatens many thousands of jobs and is likely to prompt damaging doubts about the economic recovery also underlines dramatically how deeply dysfunctional US politics has become. And the deadlocked battle between Congress and president reflects one of the dangers of a system in which rival centres of power, each claiming democratic legitimacy, can hold each other in check – result , total inertia. Seanad campaigners please note.

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