WASHINGTON — As the governor’s office and Republicans in the Legislature jockeyed unsuccessfully to resolve a budget battle before a government shutdown took effect last night, Minnesota’s Congressional delegation has had no choice but to watch helplessly.
Members of Congress have no influence in state budgetary negotiations, outside of voicing their support for one side or the other. That’s what Rep. Betty McCollum did last week when she included a note about the shutdown in an email newsletter to her constituents.
“I know that Governor Dayton has heard clearly from Minnesotans that a balanced mix of cuts and revenue increases is necessary to reach a budget solution,” she wrote. “Now it’s time for Republican leaders to join the Governor in the middle to reach a compromise for the good of all Minnesotans.”
A spokeswoman in McCollum’s office said the amount of constituent calls and letters on the shutdown issue has decreased since the message, though they have received messages of support for the governor’s agenda.
Rep. Chip Cravaack has held two town halls in his district this week (with a third tonight), but his office said he’s received few questions on the state budget. When the office does receive calls from constituents, staffers work to put them in touch with their state representatives, a spokesman said.
Keith Ellison’s office has received calls on everything from concerns over state health benefits to questions about what the Congressman can do to influence budget negotiations. The office expects those calls to change as the shutdown draws on, as individuals begin looking to access federal assistance in lieu of state programs.
Rep. Michele Bachmann’s office is directing constituents with federal problems or casework concerns to their district offices in Woodbury and Waite Park. But beyond that, there isn’t much else she, or anyone else in Congress, can do to help fix the state’s budget problems.
Battles brewing nationally
The tenor between local and national politicians on their respective budgetary battles are strikingly similar, and the entrenchment between Minnesota Republicans and Democrats could be an indication of what we’ll see for this month’s debt limit debate in Washington.
Congressional Republicans and the Obama administration have spent months negotiating a debt reduction package to go along with an increase in the country’s $14.3 trillion debt limit, with a deadline of Aug. 2. Republicans, like on the state level, have vowed not to raise taxes and are seeking cuts greater than the increase in the debt, which could top $2 trillion. Democrats have said such cuts are too dramatic and would damage important government services; many are seeking top-tier tax increases as part of a final debt increase deal.
Last week, the top Republican involved with negotiations, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, withdrew from talks with Vice President Joe Biden, saying they’d reached an impasse that could only be solved by President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner.
At a Wednesday press conference, Obama went on the offensive, saying the proposed Republican cuts would mean less money for medical research, food safety inspectors and the weather service and would force seniors to pay more for Medicare. He proposed raising taxes on “millionaires and billionaires; [and end] tax breaks for oil companies and hedge fund managers and corporate jet owners.”
“I think it would be hard for the Republicans to stand there and say that the tax break for corporate jets is sufficiently important that we’re not willing to come to the table and get a deal done,” he said. “My expectation is that they’ll do the responsible thing.”
Boehner responded with a statement similar to that coming from Minnesota Republicans: there are not enough votes in the legislative branch to pass tax increases.
“A debt limit increase can only pass the House if it includes spending cuts larger than the debt limit increase; includes reforms to hold down spending in the future; and is free from tax hikes,” he said. “If the president embraces a measure that meets these tests, he has my word that the House will act on it. Anything less cannot pass the House.”
Congress has never failed to pass such a debt limit increase on time. Credit agencies have said a failure to do so will hurt the country’s credit rating, and everyone from the Federal Reserve to the Chamber of Commerce have warned of the ill effects it would have on the U.S. economy.
Besides just the debt limit, Congress and the president need to agree on a budget for the 2012 fiscal year before October or they risk a federal government shutdown. Budget plans proposed by Obama and Congressional Republicans are dramatically different, and if the debate over the 2011 budget is any indication, finding a compromise will be a long, difficult process.
The federal government came precariously close to shutting down in April before a last minute deal between Obama and Boehner that cut $78.5 billion in spending during the 2011 budget year. Congress approved the agreement, but only after more than six months of stopgap spending provisions that funded the country during the budget debate.
While the final agreement eventually passed, it did so despite bipartisan opposition. More than 100 Democrats voted against it, along with 59 Republicans, some saying the budget didn’t cut deeply enough, including Bachmann and Cravaack.
So the partisan trench is deep in Minnesota — and it could be deeper still in Washington.
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.