Today’s Budget Agreement: Good Politics, Maybe, But Not Good Policy [Updated]

The current continuing resolution on federal spending expires in January, and Paul Ryan (on behalf of the Republican House) has been negotiating with Patty Murray (on behalf of the Democratic Senate) for an agreement to set spending levels for the remainder of FY 2014. It is not hard to understand the political considerations that drive House Republicans: the Democrats have been threatening to shut down the government again, as a means of diverting attention from the Obamacare fiasco. Republican understandably don’t want that to happen. But in policy terms, today’s agreement, while not terrible, represents a step backward.

Spending levels under current law were set by the Budget Control Act of 2011, which was the resolution of that year’s epic budget battle. Republicans agreed to increase the debt limit by $2.1 trillion, in exchange for which they supposedly got $2.1 trillion in spending cuts over the following ten years. Because the parties were unable to agree on a different set of cuts (i.e., slower increases), those specified in the sequester portion of the Act kicked in. The sequester had its faults, but it was the Republicans’ biggest domestic policy achievement of recent years. Unless I am mistaken, it represented the most significant restraint on federal spending of the post-World War II era. Under the sequester/BCA, discretionary spending for 2014 was set at $967 billion.

The Democrats hated the sequester, and have been trying to bust it ever since it went into effect. Today, they succeeded. The Ryan/Murray deal pegs FY 2014 spending at $1.012 trillion, which Ryan’s press release described as “about halfway between the Senate budget level of $1.058 trillion and the House budget level of $967 billion.” What Ryan didn’t say is that $967 billion isn’t just the House proposal, it is the discretionary spending limit under current law. The sequester is now out the window.

Republicans did get something in exchange for increasing spending: notably, federal employees will have to increase their pension contributions. But we can say goodbye to the $2.1 trillion in spending cuts that the GOP trumpeted following the 2011 Budget Control Act. That is the real moral of the story–long-term budget agreements are meaningless. Typically, minuscule spending cuts up front are augmented by major cuts in the out-years. But the reality is that the out-years never come. No Congress can bind a future Congress, and political will to reduce spending is always in short supply. Consequently, any spending deal is meaningless, except insofar as it applies to the current year or next year’s spending. Beyond that, all claims to have cut government spending are fatuous.

We will probably have more to say about today’s agreement–which, of course, needs to clear the House to become effective–as more details become available.

UPDATE: A number of observers are praising today’s deal as a “compromise.” Patty Murray set the tone: “‘Compromise has been a dirty word” in Washington, D.C., Murray complained in an evening news conference, but “we have broken through the partisanship and the gridlock.” But wait! The 2011 Budget Control Act was itself a compromise. The $967 billion discretionary spending limit was a compromise, just two years ago. So why should a higher spending number now be lauded as a “compromise”? How about if we reduce spending by another $50 billion, to $917 billion? That would be a compromise too, wouldn’t it? But somehow that isn’t the sort of compromise that is ever entertained in Washington.

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