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Column: A Necessary, But Not a Good, Budget Deal

It’s a sign of how far to the right House Republicans have dragged governance in our country that the very conservative budget deal reached by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., will need many liberal and Democratic votes to pass.

The agreement leaves the jobless out in the cold, because it doesn’t extend unemployment benefits, and provides little room for new initiatives to combat rising inequality and declining upward mobility — the very problems that President Obama and most Democrats believe are the most important facing the country.

Yet this parsimonious spending plan is being subjected to such vitriolic attacks from the right wing that you’d imagine Ryan, a one-time hero to the slash-taxes crowd, had converted from Republicanism to socialism. Heritage Action, whose job is to denounce any concession to moderation at any time, called the agreement “a gimmicky, spend-now-cut-later deal.” Erick Erickson of RedState accused Ryan of “outright capitulation” to the forces of big-government darkness.

To say this is a very conservative outcome is not to knock Murray or her negotiating approach. Democrats had two major goals going into the talks, and she made progress on both of them. As a general matter, Murray’s side wanted to lighten the burden on the recovery from the automatic budget cuts known as the “sequester.” And it sought to protect Head Start and other education programs, scientific and medical research, and some infrastructure spending.

Thus her victories: the $1.012 trillion for discretionary spending is about halfway between the House and Senate numbers. Imagine, politicians who actually split differences, which used to be the rule of compromise. It allows an additional $45 billion in spending for this year and $19 billion for the next fiscal year. And Murray won agreement for a more-or-less 50-50 split between restoring military spending, Ryan’s priority, and restoring spending on domestic programs, her priority.

The bad news is not only that the proposal unconscionably lets unemployment insurance lapse for millions, which will cost the economy some 300,000 jobs next year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. It also comes very close to enforcing a spending freeze after this year.

What this suggests is that by enshrining the sequester into law, the 2011 Budget Control Act — enacted under the threat of default — was a miscalculation, perhaps even a colossal one, by the Obama administration.

The White House figured that conservatives would never buy into the sequester’s deep defense cuts and that saner budgeting would eventually prevail. The latest pact is, at best, a very modest step toward sanity, which is why many Democrats will have no choice but to vote for it. But it does not come close to creating the sort of budget Congress would pass if it were serious about investing in our future and lifting up Americans being left behind.

In the short run, advocates of the jobless should fight to attach at least a three-month extension of unemployment benefits to a three-month restoration of Medicare payment rates to physicians that will be enacted alongside the budget deal. If Congress can take care of doctors, shouldn’t it take care of those looking for work?

But in the longer run, this interlude of fiscal peace (no small achievement, given years of bizarre dysfunction) must be used to rebalance our political discussion. If an incessant focus on deficits continues to dominate the debate, we will not take on what ought to be government’s central objectives now: how to move the country toward broadly shared economic growth and how to create opportunity for those lagging in the new economy.

The right wing knows what it is doing. By screaming and yelling, it will paint what is, in fact, a fiscally cautious budget accord as a big spending monstrosity. The conservative ultras will thus push the public conversation (and the media coverage) almost entirely toward calls for more spending cuts and away from the question of what kind of economy and society our public policy shortfalls are promoting.

Those who care about inequality need to be just as vociferous in saying that the real problem is what Murray herself has, in the past, called the “equally significant deficits in education, worker skills, infrastructure and innovation.” By her own standards, this is not a good deal. It is, at best, a necessary deal, given the alternatives available in a political system whose priorities have been twisted away from the needs of the struggling majority. It’s this majority that has to make the noise.