It speaks volumes about the current state of Congress that a secret budget deal negotiated under bizarre circumstances has produced a positive result.
Freed of the need to please the intractable and unreasonable House Freedom Caucus. outgoing Speaker John Boehner negotiated in private with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the two Democratic leaders, Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Nancy Pelosi.
He conceded the process stunk, and normally we’d agree. Leaders of key committees were not consulted. But Congress jettisoned a thoughtful, deliberative process a few years back, and replaced it with crisis budgeting that continually brought government to the brink of default and shutdown. Programs in need of routine reauthorization, such as the highway trust fund, the Export-Import Bank, and the Land and Water Conservation Fund, are held hostage.
That’s because a small, but influential band of uncompromising conservatives want to torch government in the hopes that a much smaller version emerges from the ashes. They believe that paying the bills merely invites more spending. They’d never try that kind of budgeting at home, but they somehow believe it’s a good idea for the government.
The best part of this two-year budget deal isn’t the details. It’s that this frightening shutdown strategy is held at bay until 2017. The business community will appreciate this respite from uncertainty, as will the military and recipients of crucial government services, such as Medicare and Social Security disability.
Defense and entitlement reform, along with tax reform, represent the biggest challenges to reining in spending and balancing the budget. But a thoughtful approach hasn’t gained traction, and the meat-ax option would do more harm than good.
This budget deal is designed to replace the kind of spending cuts that weren’t supposed to occur. The 2013 “sequester” budget was the result of inaction that neither party thought possible. Congress has been trying to achieve smarter reductions ever since.
This deal heads off increases in Medicare Part B premiums and averts some defense cuts. It begins the process of reforming Social Security Disability Insurance, which was facing insolvency.
As with all compromises, both parties have plenty to dislike. But the alternative was worse.
So, yes, the process wasn’t ideal, and Boehner had to resign his leadership post to “clean the barn,” as he put it. By cutting the deal in secret, he gives his presumptive replacement, Rep. Paul Ryan, the distance he needs to gather enough votes to become speaker.
Ryan has already decried the deal. As a political reality, he must. But if he becomes the speaker, he’ll need to find a way to persuade his caucus that compromise is a necessary feature of governing. This deal would give him two years to succeed where the current Republican leadership has failed.
Congress could vote as soon as Wednesday. Hopefully, there is enough support, because the nation needs a break from manufactured crises.
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