August 1, 2011; Source: The Onion | If you’ve watched the debt ceiling negotiations it is hard to come away from the spectacle without a strong sense of governmental dysfunction. The Onion pithily nailed it: “Following Sunday’s pathetic excuse for an agreement on raising the government’s borrowing limit, Democrats and Republicans took time to celebrate the meager, ineffective deal, calling it ‘a testament to the not-so-great things that can happen in Washington when both parties barely come together and agree to not really accomplish anything.'” It added an imaginary quote from House Speaker John Boehner: “Once again, Democrats and Republicans have demonstrated why our mangled, fractured, barely functioning democracy is the greatest in the world.”

So, what does the Onion say about the specific spending cuts in what it has Boehner describing as “a pretty sad version of a framework that, we’re happy to say, none of us is really proud of, and that doesn’t really do much to solve our country’s fiscal problems at all?” Don’t even ask about revenues, because the Democrats agreed to a bill that has no revenue increases—they were off the table (and out of Senator Harry Reid’s Senate proposal) before the president’s speech last week, and he knew it. 

Speaker Boehner’s powerpoint presentation to his House Republican colleagues makes clear what nonprofits around the nation should all know:  there is nothing clear about this deal at all on the spending side.  There are immediate cuts—but outlined in broad brush, not specified by agency and program—to be followed by even larger, unspecified cuts. The bulk of the cuts, to be spread over ten years, are back-ended, so, as the Washington Post‘s Eugene Robinson says, “the deal is structured so the slicing and dicing does not really begin until the 2013 fiscal year,” to our reading, hitting more heavily actually in 2014. 

In other words, nonprofits really won’t even know what’s really being cut for some time to come. So what really happens now is good old-time politics. The fight will be which programs get caught in the initial $900 billion (only a tiny portion to come in FY 2012), which programs get snatched in the $1.5 trillion in subsequent cuts to be recommended by a bipartisan commission. Imagine what the Onion will be able to write as it watches Congress and the White House sidestep specifics on budget cuts as long as possible. The fun might have started on Tuesday, after the scheduled Senate vote, except for one thing: the House of Representatives immediately decamped after its Monday vote for a five-week vacation.—Rick Cohen