Who Blinks First In The Budget Fiasco?
Who blinks first in the raging controversy over the 2016 budget ostensibly returned to the National Assembly last week by the presidency? That answer should become evident in the next few days as the nation crosses a very dangerous deadline with the prospect that we could experience a government shutdown for the first time in our history if both parties fail to reach an amicable agreement on their differences. Since Nigerians have never encountered such a scenario before, no one knows exactly how things will play out in the even that we do, indeed, experience a shutdown as a result of the crisis.
In the United States from where we lifted out presidential system of government, a shutdown is said to have occurred when Congress (the legislative arm) creates a funding gap by refusing to pass the budget submitted by the executive arm or when the president vetoes the amendments proposed by the former. In their refined system which inherently constricts excesses from both parties, a fiscal crisis, heralded by a government shutdown inevitably occurs in the interlude when the president is deprived of vital funds to run the affairs of state.
Depending on the length of the shutdown, and if interim or full year appropriations are not passed into law by Congress, the ‘Anti-deficiency Act’ requires the US government to commence a shutdown of all affected activities except the most crucial ones or those not affected by appropriation. Like in Nigeria, the most critical function of the legislative arm (Congress) is appropriation. It has the constitutional responsibility to pass spending bills that fund the government.
If fails to pass the Appropriation Bill, most functions of government - from funding agencies to paying out small business loans and the processing of passport requests grinds to a halt. But some services, like Social Security, air traffic control and active military pay, will continue to be funded along with Congress and the President whose 400 thousand dollars annual salary was equally not risked by the shutdown.
The most recent occurrence of a budget shutdown in the US occurred as recently as 2013 when the Republican-controlled House of Representative refused to pass the budget between the 1st and the 16th of October of the same year in the vain effort to derail President Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act, his pet project otherwise commonly known as Obamacare. Back then, Obama was able to surmount the obstacle due to a combination of factors.
In the first instance, he was helped by the fact that although the Republican controlled the House of Representatives, the Democrats were in the majority in the senate. They resisted all pressures from the House to expunge the offending sections of the Obamacare Bill successfully. Second, the position of the Republican Senator Ted Cruz (now one of the Republican presidential candidates) also crudely backfired.
Obamacare was, after all, not entirely dependent on government funding; but Cruz still believed the president's signature domestic policy achievement was so bad for the country that was worth disrupting government funding to undercut it. Public opinion did not support his view however. A CNN/ORC International Poll that coincided with the crisis found that 46% blamed congressional Republicans for the shutdown, 36% believed Obama was responsible with an insignificant 13% pointing their fingers in both directions. Obama won the Public relations war and with it, the passage of Obamacare. The government shutdown ended because, in the end, the cocky House Republicans recognized that in the end, the power of the people is the ultimate consideration in any genuine democracy along with the fact that they serve at the pleasure of their constituents.
Back home, in Nigeria, the defining lines are not so visible among the major protagonists in the budget impasse in the National Assembly. Whereas, in America, President Obama made an art out of navigating the bi-partisan divide in Congress to successfully execute most of his public policy objectives, I am convinced that even he (Obama) would struggle if he were to be enmeshed in the current crisis between our executive and legislative arms of government over the passage of the 2016 budget presently.
I am also certain that for all his training as a military officer, and subsequent experience fighting the Civil War, nothing would have remotely prepared president Buhari for the sort of naked manifestation of avarice, self-interest over the collective well-being of Nigerians, and the absolute paucity of ideological engagement and party solidarity of the type he is currently confronted with as he tries to resolve the budget crisis in the NASS.
Buhari is used to fighting conventional wars, but the sort of battle he is currently confronted with in the NASS is asymmetric. The battle fronts are blurred and not clearly defined. Unlike Obama, he cannot count on party solidarity for help. He cannot take the loyalty and trust of all the APC Representatives and Senators in the NASS for granted. Their interests are dissimilar from the President’s. Buhari stands on quicksand in a valley of sadistic saboteurs.
Ordinarily, like President Obama did, Buhari has the option of taking his case to the Public Court of public opinion, but then, the Nigerian equivalent is ravaged by hunger and abject poverty to such an extent that its vision is so impaired that they have become incapable of differentiating between their friends and their foes.
In a tragedy of monumental proportions, the Nigerian masses who are yet to embrace crime, now view their greatest oppressors as their benefactors and saviours. How? Well, one reason why the current budget crisis has been so protracted is because of the so-called constituency projects that were always included in our annual appropriations since the year 2000.
If the constituency funds had been so judiciously utilized over the years the rate of poverty in our rural areas would have been curtailed to a large extent. Today, it is obviously that the quality of constituency projects that have been successfully executed across the country is not commensurate the volume of appropriation of funding under the sub-head over the years.
Instead of quality projects to lift their constituents from the clutches of poverty our legislators have perfected a patron system that sadistically exploits the conditions of our rural dwellers. The same constituency funds are used to purchase tricycles for distribution to party thugs and enforcers in the name of grassroots politics.
The less fortunate ones are ambushed during the naming ceremonies of their children and other social occasions with cash gifts. On other occasions particularly in the run-up to elections they receive bags of rice and other edibles in a macabre ritual a sitting governor obscenely qualified as ‘stomach infrastructure.’
These, then, are only part of the reasons why in trying to resolve the issues with the NASS over the 2016 budget, the President has his work cut out for him. For Buhari to be in a position to deliver the change millions of Nigerians voted for, he must first upturn a practice that has already become a tradition in the NASS for all the wrong reasons.
He must extract a clean budget devoid of the dubious constituency projects from the greedy clutches of the NASS. They are hardly unlikely to give it up without a fight even if it may be against informed public opinion. As I write this, no fewer than two civil society groups have completed plans to occupy the NASS this week. The social media is also rife with calls for the scrapping of the Senate in particular.
So far, there is nothing in the lanky disposition of Buhari that suggests that he is prepared to yield any ground. With millions of Nigerians wobbling under the fuel crisis and poor power supply, a lot is riding on the swift passage of the budget even if it is for some form of psychological relief. This promises to be an intense battle and it will be interesting to see who blinks first in the end.