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budget mess

Is There Going to Be a Government Shutdown?

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 01: Former Sen. Alan Simpson, (R-WY) (R), and Erskine Bowles, co-chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, participate in a Joint Deficit Reduction Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, on November 1, 2011 in Washington, DC. The special Joint Committee is tasked with finding $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction by Thanksgiving. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) So college.

In 2011, Congress has often functioned like an underachieving college student. They can't get any work done until the very last minute, and only then under threat of punitive action, like missing their vacation. Sometimes, even then, they blow those deadlines or they ask for an extension. That's what brings the government back to the brink of a shutdown, if congress can't agree on a budget bill. Again.

In two days,  temporary funding authorization runs out, and the departments of defense, education, health, and labor won't be able to keep running their services, which would leave a whole lot of Americans in a very bad spot. But the spending bill that congress needs to pass has become a political football: Both parties want to get their way on another budget issue — extending a payroll tax — and so they're both trying to use the spending bill to fight that battle by proxy. They'd sort of reached an agreement on Monday, but the White House asked Senate Democrats not to agree to a bill until Republicans promised to stay in town until New Year's to hammer out the payroll tax deal. This morning, Republicans introduced a $915 billion version of the bill they hope they can force Democrats into passing, with the deadline looming so closely. Semester's almost over, after all.

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Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images