Everything Americans should know about what's wrong with Congress could be seen in a couple of hours Thursday. First, House Republicans rammed through a tea party budget for the future that slashes spending, repeals health care reform — and is dead on arrival in the Senate. Then a bipartisan House vote sent a stopgap spending bill to President Barack Obama to keep government running under arbitrary spending cuts few like but nobody will fix. Then Congress went home for a two-week break, and we apparently are supposed to celebrate that a potential government shutdown next week was averted.
Congress can't get the short-term vision right. With ineffective leadership from Obama, it can't get the long-term vision right. The longer conservative Republicans refuse to raise revenue and Democrats refuse to reform entitlements, the greater the risk to the economic recovery.
The temporary spending bill sanded off a few rough edges of sequestration, which was aimed at threatening arbitrary spending cuts so unpalatable that Congress would have to compromise. That strategy backfired, of course, and the automatic cuts took effect March 1. The bill sent to the president Thursday provides more flexibility to the Pentagon to cope with the spending cuts, saves tuition breaks for active military and protects meat inspections. But the across-the-board spending cuts still will spread plenty of pain, and keeping the government running on autopilot through September is hardly a proud achievement.
There is a reason Republican Gov. Rick Scott criticized sequestration and legislators are nervous about writing a state budget. Florida stands to lose tens of millions in federal dollars for education, children's programs, the National Guard and other programs. Military bases and defense contractors will be affected, and thousands of jobs are at stake just as the state's unemployment rate dips under the nation's for the first time in five years, to 7.8 percent. But Washington can only move from crisis to crisis.
Sequestration and the failure to agree on a broader deal to reduce the federal deficit — with a combination of targeted spending cuts, more revenue and entitlement reform — are a dangerous mix. The economic recovery has come this far in spite of Washington rather than with its help. The stock market has reached record highs. The number of people seeking unemployment over the past month fell to a five-year low Thursday. Mortgage rates remain near historic lows, and home sales in February were the highest in more than three years.
Yet all of that is at risk because of Washington's gridlock. Obama has been on a charm offensive with congressional Republicans, but the House responded with a sharp stick to the eye. The long-term Republican budget plan is uncompromising: deep spending cuts, a voucher system for future Medicare recipients, Medicaid block grants to the states and no new revenue. That is no olive branch.
Members of Congress have two weeks to spend at home listening to the voters. The message: Stop the partisan posturing, negotiate in good faith and get out of the way of the economic recovery.