To Americans accustomed to stumbles and stalls by congressional stewards of the federal budget, this week’s emergence of a bipartisan two-year budget agreement qualifies as surprisingly adroit movement in the right direction. It’s no great policy achievement. Its omissions are numerous and, in one case, glaring. But its virtues are sufficient to root for enactment before Congress recesses for the year.
Among those virtues is the fact that it exists at all. Bipartisanship has been in such scarce supply during the Obama years that many observers expected another round of brinkmanship at year’s end, and perhaps another government shutdown, before a budget for the fiscal year that commenced on Oct. 1 would be set.
Instead, negotiations headed by GOP Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, their chambers’ respective budget committee chairs, produced a split-the-difference outcome that won 332-94 approval Thursday evening in the GOP-controlled House. That vote did credit both to Ryan, his party’s 2012 vice presidential candidate, and Speaker John Boehner, who did well to publicly chide the plan’s conservative critics for resisting compromise out of self-interest.
Next up at this writing is a vote in the Democratic Senate, where President Obama is asking his fellow partisans to back the deal. On Tuesday, he called the compromise “a good first step” toward smarter budgeting.
The deal may be a “mouse” in a policy sense, as one commentator claimed. It does little to shrink the nation’s long-term debt or to build the long-term economy via stepped-up investment in education and infrastructure. But it’s a mouse mighty enough to keep the federal government operational for at least the next two years. In all likelihood, it takes both tax increases and draconian spending cuts off the national table during that time. That ought to diminish the uncertainty that’s been often cited by business advocates as a reason corporate profits have not translated into hiring and wage increases in the Great Recession’s wake.
The Ryan-Murray proposal would boost spending in the current federal fiscal year by $63 billion, thereby erasing about half of the ham-handed sequestration cuts that since March have been damaging federal activities ranging from Head Start and Meals on Wheels to the courts.
That’s bound to leave some worthy activities still short. But it proved to be an increase large enough to set conservatives howling in protest, so much so that Ryan’s 2016 presidential prospects are deemed by some to be diminished as a result. If that’s so, it’s an indictment of the GOP, which has allowed right-wing zealots too much sway in candidate selection.
The deal was faulted for pushing the impact of $85 billion in spending cuts well into the future, which looked to critics like more typical congressional can-kicking. But in the case of pension changes for federal workers and military personnel, it’s also prudent. A long phase-in spares current employees from disruptive changes in their retirement plans while asking larger contributions from younger employees to their own future benefits. It also slows inflationary increases for military pensioners between 40 and 62 — people very much of working age.
Democrats seized upon the deal’s one glaring omission. They wanted any budget accord to include an extension of unemployment benefits to some 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans. The GOP objected, evidently buying libertarian arguments that benefits that average $300 per week, and that require recipients to actively seek work, are a deterrent to work. No good evidence backs up that claim; an analysis earlier this year by the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco found that extending unemployment benefits has no effect on “job finding.”
The sad reality about the postrecession American economy is that it is creating too few jobs, and far too few living-wage jobs. The result is widening income inequality and the erosion of a fundamental premise of American life, the notion that anyone willing to work hard can get ahead. A functional federal government isn’t just one that can set a budget. It’s also one capable of responding to that changing economic reality. The nation needs creative policies that, as President Obama put it Tuesday, offer “a path into the middle class for every American willing to work for it.”
Tuesday’s deal does not do that. But by putting budget crises to rest for two years, it gives Congress a breather from brinkmanship and a chance to turn to the nation’s larger, longer-term needs. Democrats should keep pressing for extended unemployment benefits. But the Senate should send the budget deal to the president, and he should sign it into law.