The dumbest debate ever

By Jeanne Sahadi, senior writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The fiscal year is nearly half over, but lawmakers are still shooting spitballs across the aisle over a very small part of the budget instead of doing what they should have done six months ago -- fund the government for the rest of the year.

The grudge match over what to cut is "dysfunctional," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a deficit watchdog group. "[The 2011 fight] has become a major distraction. They have much more important things to do."

His advice? "Pick a number and get it over with."

Oh, but Republicans and Democrats aren't anywhere close to tying a bow on 2011 just yet. Instead, they'll pass a three-week stopgap measure by Friday -- their sixth since last October.

And that means three more weeks of partisan hissy fits over spending conducted in the name of fiscal responsibility and concern for the economy. (National debt: Where the Tea Party goes wrong)

By continuing to drag out a debate that should have been wrapped up last September, Congress is blowing through what little time it has to deal with much more critical matters -- matters that will have a much bigger impact on the economy and the country's debt.

What Congress should be tackling

The debt ceiling: The Treasury estimates the country's accrued debt could hit the $14.294 trillion legal debt ceiling as soon as April 15. That's a little over a month from now -- and just a week after the next expected stopgap measure expires.

And it looks like Congress will play chicken on the issue up to the deadline.

Not raising the ceiling when the debt hits the limit would prohibit the Treasury from borrowing the money it needs to pay the country's bills in full. The consequences of not raising it for a sustained period would be harsh and long-lasting.

A recent report from the Congressional Research Service noted that if lawmakers don't raise the ceiling, they would need to cut spending or raise taxes by $738 billion just to meet the country's bills over the next six months. And if they don't raise it by 2012? They'd need to come up with even more.

If they don't do that, the United States could end up defaulting on its debt -- which is an unthinkable option. (Have burning questions about the debt ceiling? Here are some answers.)

The fiscal year 2012 budget: In theory, the House and Senate are supposed to come to agreement on a budget resolution for 2012 in April.

It's an important document: It would lay out the spending and revenue levels for next year and offer guidance to lawmakers who would then spend months figuring out how to fund government programs and agencies.

In reality, the House and Senate are nowhere close to doing any of that. So don't faint when they get to Oct. 1 with no budget in hand and start passing short-term funding bills.

A comprehensive plan to reduce the debt: By focusing so myopically on 2011 spending, lawmakers are "chasing ants and ignoring elephants," said David Cote, the CEO of Honeywell International (HON, Fortune 500) at a meeting last week.

Cote sat on President Obama's bipartisan debt commission, which proposed ways to reduce deficits by $4 trillion over 10 years, overhaul the tax code by eliminating most tax breaks and reducing rates, set spending and revenue caps and balance the budget by 2035.

All parts of the federal budget would be affected by the commission's plan -- including defense and spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, which are the primary drivers of the country's long-term debt problem.

A half dozen senators -- known as the bipartisan Gang of Six -- have taken the proposal seriously and are working to incorporate it into legislation. Whether they succeed and how well their proposal would be received by the House and Senate is anyone's guess.

The clock will keep ticking regardless. A lot of deficit hawks now think if lawmakers don't get a handle on the long-term debt situation, the country risks sparking a fiscal crisis within five years.

Maybe lawmakers will use their time better after they finally put an end to their 2011 funding fight.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget put it this way: "Decisions our leaders make now will help determine whether we look back upon this time as 'the age of foolishness' or 'the age of wisdom.' "

So far, foolishness is winning. To top of page

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