For all the talk about shaking up Washington, President Donald Trump and Congress have resolved the latest budget crisis by the most conventional and time-honored of ways: spreading money around until the requisite votes appear.
For all its flaws, the $400 billion budget deal passed in the dark of night was needed to prevent the turmoil and pain that accompany government shutdowns. And anytime Republicans and Democrats agree on anything these days, some measure of praise is in order. But, in the words of U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, “The problem is the only time we discover bipartisanship is when we spend more money.”
There are good elements in this deal: It protects funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program for a full decade, ending the cruel limbo parents and children in the program had lived with since Congress let funding lapse last fall. There also will be desperately needed disaster relief for beleaguered Puerto Rico and other hurricane-hit areas. The bill rains money on the military — $160 billion over two years — and sets aside billions for mental health and the opioid crisis, veterans and even child care. It cuts prescription drug costs for seniors and funds community health clinics for two years.
But it failed to address the plight of those in limbo under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Protection from deportation for those brought to this country as children without legal documents runs out March 5, and Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly has indicated his boss is unlikely to sign an extension, miffed that his pursuit of a larger immigration overhaul has been rejected. House and Senate leaders once again have pledged to seek a DACA fix, but concrete steps have yet to be taken.
In pursuit of votes, the budget bill extends some very specific tax breaks, even after the mammoth tax reform giveaway that just passed. It also does something to which this Editorial Board has long objected: It dramatically enlarges the deficit. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., made a last-minute stab at reminding his party that it used to care about the deficit. He came away with little to show for it save a brief, post-midnight shutdown of the federal government as it busted through another self-imposed deadline.
In a moment of candor unappreciated by his colleagues, Paul tartly noted, “The hypocrisy is astounding. Every one of these Republicans complained about President Obama’s deficits.”
But some principles do transcend politics, or should. The deficit under this bill is expected to top $1.5 trillion — up from about $430 billion just a couple of years ago. And the spending is not over. Next week the White House is expected to announce a $1.5 trillion infrastructure proposal that would require $200 billion in government funding — 10 times what was allotted in the just-passed spending bill.
It was not so long ago that Republicans were willing to shut down government, risk a first-ever default, push dramatic budget cuts and even back a constitutional amendment to balance the budget — all in the name of reducing the deficit and getting spending under control.
Does that mean House Speaker Paul Ryan has given up on deficit reduction? No, and average Americans should be on high alert for what comes next. Ryan has said he does not consider the tax bill or the new spending bill drivers of federal debt. Instead he zeros in on a favorite target: so-called entitlements. Those are the programs that working Americans pay taxes on in every paycheck: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
Reforms are needed in each of those programs, and some benefit reductions will be necessary, as this page has argued before. But by running up deficit totals, Congress is ensuring that if it ever gets around to responsible fiscal policy, changes in those programs designed to protect average Americans from the vicissitudes of chance and old age will be life-altering.