10/07/2013 04:07 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

US Faces Hangover From Short Term Highs

GSPM Professor Lara Brown co-authored this piece

Why has the government shut down and why is there uncertainty over the fate of the debt ceiling later this month? Facing a difficult path ahead, some politicians on both sides of the aisle continue to choose short-term highs (base building and political posturing) rather than keeping their nose to the grindstone on the drudgery of the day: funding the government's operation in a timely manner while reducing the deficit and debt.

President Obama created the Simpson-Bowles Commission, but then backed away from its debt-reduction plans. Since his reelection, he seems to have decided that winning justified his non-action on the issue.

Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, seeks to portray his myriad forms of obstruction as fiscally responsible. Yet diverting the focus away from broad based long-term entitlement reform to a myopic focus on only Obamacare has proven an ineffective distraction. Obamacare is what is known as "mandatory spending." The continuing resolution or CR deals only with "discretionary spending." Neither defunding it in a CR nor shutting down government stops Obamacare. The only way to repeal Obamacare is either inch-by-inch replacement or a new president committed to the task.

When these politicians and their parties return to the real challenges that await, they will find only a wasted opportunity and their fiscal goals harder to achieve.

The grindstone that Washington must face for the next several decades is chipping away at our massive fiscal imbalances. Though sequestration has cut discretionary spending from the budget, the largest drivers of the nation's debt and deficit are mandatory spending entitlement programs: Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. Any substantive reform plan must address these three items. Tax reform must be considered as well. Courage, not chasing illusory distractions, is required for this national conversation.

Yet all we've seen to date are show horses not work horses.

Obama slipped out the back door of his own commission. His new "red line" refusal to negotiate with House Republicans on the terms of a debt ceiling increase is an absurd position in a government that requires both chambers of Congress and the president to sign off on the same piece of legislation.

Democrats could have included one of the small steps towards entitlement reform that Obama proposed in his budget as a fiscal bargaining chip, but instead insisted on maintaining the status quo.

Cruz, finding one entitlement, Obamacare, that was not yet popular, commenced an all-out crowd-pleasing assault to repeal it, yet offered little to replace it.

Recognizing that Obama's veto pen prevents a repeal of Obamacare for now, Republicans could have sought to put affordable into the Affordable Care Act by reforming its delivery mechanisms to make them unlikely to replace privately provided care, be more consumer driven, and increase the plan's likelihood of constraining costs. This path towards achieving the aim of trimming deficits would be a more achievable path to deficit reduction.

While today's bombastic diatribe dictates headlines, and may play well in the 2016 Iowa straw poll, the government shutdown it precipitated diminishes all incumbents' chances in 2014.

What is needed now is more finesse, less fire. Let us only hope that on the morning after these politicians' short-term highs, they can return to the challenging, yet essential task for which they were first elected: governing.

Mark Kennedy leads George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and served three terms in the House of Representatives from 2001 to 2007.

Lara Brown serves as the Political Management Program Director at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and is a former Clinton administration official.