Usual suspects line up against a bipartisan agreement.
The bipartisan spending deal announced Tuesday night by Senate Budget Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., barely qualifies as a tweak.
It would not make meaningful progress on reducing projected deficits, cutting them by a paltry $23 billion (about 0.3%) over 10 years, largely through budgetary gimmicks. And it would not make any significant reductions in the major entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, the biggest drivers of long-term debt.
By any measure it is a small-bore deal, but it is at least something — a toehold that prevents a serious fall and might, optimistically, enable a climb to safety. In the short term, it would provide the basis for averting another painful and pointless government shutdown. It would also partially undo the inflexible across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.
OPPOSING VIEW: A step backward
Longer term, the accord could signal the beginning of a more constructive relationship in Congress. This is absolutely key in getting to the kind of budgetary "grand bargain" on taxes and spending that is critical if the United States is to avoid a debt crisis.
The particulars of Tuesday's accord are almost trivial. It would affect roughly $63 billion over the next two years, when the government is expected to spend nearly $8 trillion. Reversal of certain sequestration cuts would be paid for by changes in federal pensions and by new fees on such things as air travel. The deal would also extend a program of highly technical cuts to Medicare providers.
Under normal circumstances, this would hardly merit a mention outside the Beltway. Yet as small bore as it is, the usual suspects are already threatening to block its passage.
Some Democrats are complaining about the pension changes, which require higher contributions from federal employees. Republican purity enforcement groups, meanwhile, are urging members to vote no, arguing that the deal amounts to spending hikes with no real entitlement reform. In truth, there's a little of both but not much of either.
The deal is only a small down payment for what will be required from Congress in the coming months and years. Annual deficits are projected to drop to the $400 billion range in the next few years but then rise substantially as temporary gains resulting from sequestration and a recovering economy are overwhelmed by entitlement costs as Baby Boomers retire. Tougher cuts, higher revenue and more in the way of health care savings will be needed.
If members of Congress can't find a way to common ground on Tuesday's minimalist deal, which still needs to clear the House and Senate, they will send yet another signal of their inability to govern. That, in turn, will pose yet another threat to the economic recovery and give financial markets new reason for concern.
When it comes to legislative progress, small might not be beautiful. But sometimes it is much better than nothing at all.
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