By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF/THE NEW YORK TIMES
It’s unclear where the adults are, but they don’t seem to be in Washington. Beyond the malice of the threat to shut down the federal government, averted only at the last minute on Friday night, it’s painful how vapid the discourse is and how incompetent and cowardly our leaders have proved to be. A quick guide:
• Democrats excoriated Republicans for threatening to shut down the government, but this mess is a consequence of the Democrats’ own failure to ensure a full year’s funding last year when they controlled both houses of Congress.
That’s when the budget should have been passed, before the fiscal year began on Oct. 1. But the Democrats were terror-stricken at the thought of approving spending bills that Republicans would criticize. So in gross dereliction of duty, the Democrats punted.
• Republicans say they’re trying to curb government spending and rescue the economy — but they threatened to shut down the government, even though that would have been both expensive and damaging to our economy.
The shutdowns in late 1995 and early 1996 cost the federal government more than $1.4 billion, the Office of Management and Budget reported at the time. Much of that sum was for salaries repaid afterward for work that employees never did because they were on furlough. There were also lost fees at national parks and museums: tigers must be fed at the zoo, even if nobody is paying to see them.
It’s particularly reckless and callous to threaten a shutdown when the economy is already anemic. Among the federal workers and contractors potentially losing paychecks, some would miss payments on their homes, their credit cards or their children’s college tuition.
• Republicans are posturing against abortion in a way that would increase the number of abortions.
Conservatives have sought to bar federal funds from going directly to Planned Parenthood and the United Nations Population Fund. The money would not go for abortions, for federal law already blocks that, and the Population Fund doesn’t provide abortions. What the money would pay for is family planning.
In the United States, publicly financed family planning prevented 1.94 million unwanted pregnancies in 2006, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which studies reproductive health. The result of those averted pregnancies was 810,000 fewer abortions, the institute said.
Publicly financed contraception pays for itself, by reducing money spent through Medicaid on childbirth and child care. Guttmacher found that every $1 invested in family planning saved taxpayers $3.74.
As for international family planning, the Guttmacher Institute calculates that a 15 percent decline in spending there would mean 1.9 million more unwanted pregnancies, 800,000 more abortions and 5,000 more maternal deaths.
So when some lawmakers preen their anti-abortion feathers but take steps that would result in more abortions and more women dying in childbirth, that’s not governance, that’s hypocrisy.
• The House Republican budget initiative, prepared by Representative Paul Ryan, would slash spending and end Medicare and Medicaid as we know them — and it justifies all this as essential to confront soaring levels of government debt. Mr. Ryan is courageous to tackle entitlements so boldly, and he has a point: we do have a serious long-term debt problem, and Democrats haven’t had the guts to deal with it seriously.
Unfortunately, the new Republican initiative would worsen government debt problems, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The C.B.O. (whose numbers Republicans regularly use to attack Democrats) estimates that with current trends, debt will reach 67 percent of gross domestic product in 2022. But it finds that under the Republican plan, because of increased tax cuts, debt would reach 70 percent of G.D.P.
In other words, the Republican position is that America faces such a desperate debt crisis that we must throw millions under the bus — yet the result is more debt than if we do nothing.
What does all this mean? That we’re governed by self-absorbed, reckless children. Further evidence comes from a new study showing that American senators devote 27 percent of their press releases to “partisan taunts” rather than substance. “Partisan taunting seems to play a central role in the behavior of many senators,” declared the study, by Justin Grimmer of Stanford and Gary King of Harvard.
A bewildered Chinese friend asked me how the world’s leading democracy could be so mismanaged that it could shut down. I couldn’t explain. This budget war reflects inanity, incompetence and cowardice that are sadly inexplicable.