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Five tough deadlines for decisions on spending, government debt

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Paul Sakuma/AP

(Read caption) FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt speaks in front of the under construction Oakland air traffic control tower near the Oakland Airport in Oakland, Calif., earlier this month. Congress avoided a partial shutdown of the FAA by approving a stopgap bill. But other hard deadlines loom for addressing federal spending and government debt.

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September brings the change of seasons. Football players return to the gridiron. New television programs replace summer reruns. In Washington, legislators gear up for another season of legislative brinkmanship.

What distinguishes such brinkmanship from ordinary legislating? Hard deadlines.

Such deadlines force Congress to address policy issues that might otherwise languish due to partisan differences or legislative inertia.

Last spring, for example, the repeated threat of a government shutdown forced Congress to decide how much to spend on government agencies in fiscal 2011. This summer, the debt limit forced Republicans and Democrats to reach a budget compromise before Aug. 3, the day we would have discovered what happens if America can't pay all its bills.

Hard deadlines thus can force Congress to address major issues. But they also invite that brinkmanship.

Like students who put off writing term papers until the night before they're due, legislators often drag out negotiations until the very end. As we saw with the debt-limit debate, the ensuing uncertainty – will the United States really default? – can damage consumer, business, and international confidence. Hard deadlines also give leverage to those legislators who are least concerned about going over the brink.

So get ready for the new season. The fall legislative season is full of deadlines that could invite such brinkmanship. Here are five.

The first up was the Federal Aviation Administration, whose short-term funding expired Sept. 16. Congress averted a partial shutdown by extending the agency's funding for four months, avoiding the thousands of furloughs and layoffs that occurred when FAA funding briefly ran out in July.


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