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How did we get to the brink of shutdown?

By William Howell, Special to CNN
  • William Howell: Budget battle is partly a result of key players, 2012 politics
  • He says long-developing factors also helped set the stage for standoff
  • Parties have gotten more polarized, budget process is weighed down, he says
  • Howell: Health care, welfare reform were bundled into the budget process

Editor's note: William Howell is the Sydney Stein professor in American politics at the Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago. He is the co-author, most recently, of "While Dangers Gather: Congressional Checks on Presidential War Powers."

Chicago (CNN) -- Regardless of whether President Obama and the party leadership within Congress manage to hash out a last minute budget deal before Friday's deadline, and thereby avoid putting some 800,000 federal workers on furlough, it is worth reflecting on how we got to this moment of impasse.

Some of the answer, to be sure, concerns the primary players in today's politics. These politicians have plenty of reasons to battle it out. They genuinely disagree about the appropriate size and purposes of the federal government. They are jockeying for position in the 2012 presidential elections. And through it all, they are appealing to a divided public that is increasingly frustrated with rising deficit spending and persistent unemployment.

The back story of today's budget wars, however, goes deeper still. Lurking behind the parties and personalities who animate today's politics are a set of historical trends and structural forces that are not going away any time soon.

The first culprit is the rising polarization of the Democratic and Republican parties. Since the early 1970s, Democrats have become steadily more liberal, just as Republicans have become more conservative. Though political scientists disagree about the reasons why this is so, nearly everyone agrees that it is so.

Each political faction is convinced not merely that it is right, but that those who disagree with it are stupid, evil, or both.
--William Howell
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The polarization of the two major parties has consequences for a great deal more than just the contents of legislation. It fosters a broader political environment in which compromise invites ridicule, in which pragmatists are presumed to lack conviction, and in which each political faction is convinced not merely that it is right, but that those who disagree with it are stupid, evil or both.

A second, less appreciated factor is the increasing propensity of Congress to roll legislative proposals into the budgetary process. Particularly since the early 1980s, members of Congress have made quite a habit of bundling diverse policy initiatives into omnibus appropriations, and of relying on procedures meant for a limited range of spending issues to enact widespread policy initiatives.

The 1981 Omnibus Reconciliation Act ranks among the most important bills enacted by Congress during President Reagan's first term in office. President Clinton's welfare reforms were packaged in another budget reconciliation bill, as were most of President George W. Bush's tax cuts. Most recently, Obama relied upon a reconciliation (along with a batch of other parliamentary moves) to enact his sweeping 2009 health care reform.

The rationale for going this route is straightforward enough: Given the extraordinary difficulties of legislating one policy at a time, members of Congress see clear benefits in rolling individual bills into a single massive initiative that, unlike a law, is not subject to a Senate filibuster.

The practice, however, has introduced new hazards of its own. By raising the political stakes involved, budgetary politics begin to look more like legislative politics, political fights erupt over issues such as abortion and Planned Parenthood that only tangentially relate to funding, and members of both parties see the appropriations process as yet another forum in which to score political points.

And this brings us to the third reason why we have reached the current impasse. Though the budgetary process provides opportunities for amendments and horse trades, the final budget ultimately either passes or fails with a single vote. Members must decide whether to accept all of the provisions put before them or none at all. And should they select the latter option, policy reverts not to last year's budget, but to no budget at all.

Imagine, then, how contemporary politics might look if members of Congress could set aside those elements of the federal budget that enjoy nearly unanimous support and battle it out over the subset of controversial issues that remain. To be sure, without the cover provided by the budget process, some legislative initiatives would not be enacted into law. Their inclusion in appropriations, though, comes at a cost. For during a shutdown, politicians lay waste to all sorts of basic programs and services while engaging in a high-stakes game of chicken.

Eventually, one party or another will swerve, government operations will resume, and the chattering classes will launch a new round of debates about who was to blame. In these debates, which cannot be far off, we would do well to ask not only who was responsible for the showdown, but what. And there we will find a deeper set of political factors that predate the election of any of the protagonists in today's showdown.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William Howell.

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