Going Bananas

04/04/2011 05:37 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2011

It's spring and the sap is rising in Washington -- especially among the Tea Party. They seem determined to shut down the federal government, even if it means making the United States look like a plus-size banana republic.

House Speaker John Boehner has been trying to talk sense to his vast freshman class, but they are in no mood for compromise. Although Democrats have agreed to reduce current spending by $33 billion, the GOP's fiscal fundamentalists won't budge from the $61 billion in cuts they have already passed on a party-line vote.

Nor will they back off from a slew of nakedly partisan policy riders calculated to be radioactive to Democrats. These poison pill measures, for example, would cut funding for Planned Parenthood, bar the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon emissions, and block implementation of parts of President Obama's health care law.

The government will run out of money if no agreement is reached by midnight Friday. The prospect of government agencies shutting down and hundreds of thousands of federal workers being furloughed doesn't faze Tea Partiers. Having drunk deep of their own strange infusions, they apparently believe the public shares their contempt for the federal government. More experienced GOP hands know better.

"Let's all be honest, if you shut the government down, it'll end up costing more than you save because you interrupt contracts. There are a lot of problems with the idea of shutting the government. It is not the goal. The goal is to cut spending," Boehner warned at a news conference last week.

The economic costs of a shutdown, of course, aren't the real issue. Behind closed doors, Boehner no doubt is reminding his caucus of the fierce public backlash against Congressional Republicans who forced two shutdowns in the mid-1990s. These battles energized Democrats and set the stage for Bill Clinton's political resurgence and reelection in 1996.

All this is ancient history to Tea Partiers, who believe they won a public mandate in 2010 for a drastic and immediate fiscal retrenchment. But a more dispassionate reading of the midterm results suggests that the voters' foremost concern was the economy's poor performance. Yes, they also want to reduce federal deficits, but timing is crucial. With unemployment falling at last, GOP demands for austerity now are likely to strike many Americans as premature. Plus, what the public wants is for their elected leaders to pull together and tackle the nation's economic and fiscal problems, not bring government to a grinding halt.

What's more, House Republicans are fighting on the wrong battleground, haggling over discretionary spending programs that comprise only 13 percent of the federal budget. Slowing and eventually reversing today's rapid run-up of public debt will require a combination of tax reform and constraints on the automatic spending growth of "mandatory" programs, chiefly Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan will introduce tomorrow a comprehensive debt reduction package along these lines. The Ryan plan is really radical: it would voucherize Medicare and turn Medicaid into a block grant. But at least it will focus the House on the real drivers of our fiscal crisis and realistic fixes.

Meanwhile, over in the Senate, there's been a striking, bipartisan convergence around the idea that the comprehensive blueprint developed by the President's Fiscal Commission should be the starting point for fiscal reform. Remarkably, 64 Senators (half from each party) endorsed that approach, as has the bipartisan "Gang of Six" led by Senators Mark Warner and Saxby Chambliss.

This is the main arena for serious action to restore fiscal stability in Washington. The sooner we move beyond the distracting "squirmish' in the House, the better.

This item is cross-posted at Progressive Fix.