The two year-budget deal adopted by the House of Representatives last week by an overwhelming vote of 332 to 94 indicates that at least some Republicans in Congress learned a lesson from the disastrous 16-day government shutdown in October.
"The budget agreement is a small but potentially significant step in the direction of Congress doing its job by addressing the challenges facing our country," said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., who voted for it. "And it represents a belated recognition on the part of Republican leaders that shutting down the government and holding hostage the full faith and credit of the United States is not the path to progress for their party or our country."
The budget deal -- worked out by Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington with Republican Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin -- cancels some of the worst effects of the "sequester." This term refers to the severe and automatic across-the-board budget cuts mandated by the 2011 Budget Control Act, an extremely unwise piece of legislation.
The agreement, if adopted by the Senate and signed by President Obama, will fund the government through Sept. 30, 2015. It would eliminate about $63 billion in automatic, across-the-board domestic and military cuts. According to The New York Times, the deal will make up for 61 percent of sequester cuts in non-defense discretionary domestic programs for this fiscal year, "adding back $31.5 billion over the next two years to be divided among departments like transportation, education, and health and human services."
Ryan reportedly took new taxes off the table from the very beginning. The cuts or fees used instead include reduction in cost of living increases in the pensions of retired veterans under 62, increases in how much new federal workers have to pay for their pensions, and new fees of up to $5 per airline ticket. So the cost falls on veterans, new federal workers and airline passengers rather than the wealthy.
This bill also leaves much undone. For instance, this agreement does not include the Farm Bill, which includes food stamp benefits for the needy and crop subsidies for farmers. The House did include a simple one-month extension of the current law. The bill also does not provde for an extension of unemployment benefits that expire at the end of this month for 1.3 million Americans out of work for six months or more. And another deadline for extending the federal debt ceiling is coming in March.
Remarkably, however, the bill shows Rep. Ryan, the GOP vice presidential nominee in the last presidential election, actually living up to his reputation as "a thinking man's conservative." But by doing the right thing in his role as chairman of the House Budget Committee, he has incurred the wrath of much of the tea party that once idolized him.
This week, the Senate is expected to take up the budget. Ironically, while the Senate has been the less crazed of the two houses of Congress since 2010, there is some evidence that it may be becoming more radicalized. For one thing, several incumbent GOP senators will or may face primary challenges from tea party candidates from the far right. Such have already indicated their opposition to this deal, as have 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls and senators Maro Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Though the House bill is the type of reasonable compromise the country needs to see a full economic recovery -- and to move forward on other things as well -- it does show that an overwrought fixation on spending cuts and deficits remains the default position in Washington.
This is unfortunate because what the long-term unemployed and our decaying infrastructure need is an increase in government spending, spending to put people to work, rebuild rotting bridges, fix inadequate roads, and pump money into the economy to get things really humming again. The deficit is shrinking and is not the greatest danger this country faces -- massive, long-term unemployment and underemployment is. What we really need is a large jobs bill.
Here we will let Rep. Welch have the last word: "The budget should have included job creating investments in infrastructure and continued assistance for Americans still seeking work in a slow economic recovery. But while it falls short of what is needed, it does make important headway in rolling back sequester cuts that never should have been enacted in the first place. In the world of this Congress, that's ‘progress.'"
~ Mark E. Rondeau