Bipartisan Budget Deal: Higher Spending, No Shutdowns Through Midterms

Posted: Dec 11, 2013 10:26 AM

Overall, there isn't much for conservatives to celebrate in the two-year spending agreement forged by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA). Here are the basics: If passed, the budget would ease sequestration cuts by $63 billion through 2015, spending increases which would be offset by a combination of additional cuts and increased "fees" that add up to $85 billion. The deal therefore purports to reduce short-term deficits by $20 to $23 billion over that time span. Federal discretionary spending would increase from $967 billion in FY 2014 to just over $1 trillion, and slightly more in FY 2015. Here's the best case I can make for the deal:

(1) Procedurally, Republicans have rightly blasted Senate Democrats for years over their refusal to even introduce a spending blueprint for the federal government. Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer deliberately shirked this duty for political gain, content to blast away at Republicans' responsible efforts to curb out of control spending and save insolvency-bound safety net programs. This proposal marks the return of "regular order" -- which the GOP has been demanding. And within a divided government scenario, regular order requires compromise.

(2) Politically, if adopted, this deal would neutralize any chance for another government shutdown prior to the midterm elections. Some conservatives view these regular standoffs as important leverage points for Republicans, but this fall's impasse demonstrates why Democrats are often eager for government shutdowns to move forward. Namely, the public tends to blame on the GOP. Congressional Democrats, battered by Obamacare, would love another pre-election shutdown fight -- which the Ryan-Murray plan staves off. Republicans could focus entirely on Obamacare, then worry about better budgeting if and when they win next fall's midterms. In short, this is an imperfect insurance policy against unforced political errors and endless conservative budgetary infighting that would mostly benefit the other side.

(3) Policy-wise, it could be worse. (Inspiring, right?) Senate Democrats wanted significantly more spending --surprise! -- in addition to yet another extension of "emergency" long-term unemployment benefits. They got neither. Ryan and his fellow Republican negotiators also extracted some government pension cuts that liberals aren't happy about. National security hawks can also cheer the changes to draconian military cuts that were due next year. In 2011, Democrats crafted sequestration to be as painful as possible for the military as a means of ensuring that Republicans would be eager to re-negotiate and overhaul the arrangement. And now here we are. The new cuts and offsets are less arbitrary and stupid than the original sequester would have mandated.

The Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol calls Ryan/Murray "a good deal for conservatives and Republicans." In my opinion, his assessment significantly overstates the attractiveness of the proposal. In other recent battles, a certain faction of conservatives had unrealistic expectations for what Congressional Republicans could possibly achieve, in light of who currently controls the White House and Senate. The "plan" of forcing Harry Reid and Barack Obama to agree to conservative policy outcomes always relied on fantastical thinking. But in this case, current law -- ie, Congressional inaction -- would automatically result in lower levels of discretionary spending than what Paul Ryan just negotiated. In other words, the inertia was on Republicans' side here. Absent this deal, the US government would be on track to spend $967 billion on discretionary programs next year. Now, thanks to the wonders of bipartisan compromise, it will spend $1.012 trillion. The mandatory spending cuts achieved in this arrangement are microscopic; conservatives are right to question whether they merit whittling away the guaranteed sequester cuts as a trade-off. For many, that answer is "no."

Paul Ryan and company say their spending pact reduces the deficit without raising taxes. But it does hike a number of "fees," and fees are just another governmental method of separating citizens and businesses from their money. A tax by any other name, etc. Now, as a filthy Beltway establishment RINO, I'm a sharp critic of the Right's self-defeating impulse towards heretic purging. The last thing the Republican Party needs these days is fewer people in it. The Ryan-Murray compromise is unworthy of a full-fledged insurrection on the Right -- especially because the Left dearly hopes that conservatives will tear themselves apart over short-term budgetary disagreements, thus halting their ruthlessly effective unified focus on Obamacare. People from across the center-right spectrum can disagree on whether Paul Ryan struck an acceptable or a lousy deal. From where I sit, it looks pretty lousy on balance. Click through to listen to Mark Levin grill Ryan over the plan. The House Budget Committee Chairman is characteristically winsome, wonky and persuasive -- I felt less upset about the proposal after hearing the exchange -- but Levin is right to question down-the-road cuts. He's also right to regularly steer the discussion back to the point that in the face of a $90 trillion unfunded liability tsunami, $23 billion over ten years is "Mickey Mouse" stuff, which Ryan readily concedes.

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