The latest budget battle in Washington has Democrats and Republicans once again at loggerheads. Democrats think Republicans should get nothing in return for another debt ceiling increase. Republicans think they should get less than nothing.
The House GOP leadership has longed to stop the gory budget showdowns of the past few years. That means giving up on further cuts and passing a clean debt ceiling increase; a cringeworthy proposal, but one that should have attained enough Democrat and establishment Republican support to pass the House. Instead, the GOP found a creative way to make it worse. Republicans attached a provision to the debt ceiling increase that would cancel $6 billion worth of savings from military pension reforms in the Ryan-Murray budget. This would be offset by an extension of sequestration on Medicare spending 10 years from now.
Senate Democrats initially balked, and introduced another bill that would have stricken the pension reforms without any offsets whatsoever. But as another snowstorm bore down on Washington, the Senate caved yesterday and approved the original House legislation.
Politics watchers cheered. “This is how Washington works,” wrote Molly Ball at the Atlantic. Washington working apparently means Democrats refusing to compromise, Republicans compromising and throwing in additional needless concessions, Democrats demanding further concessions on the needless concessions, and Democrats finally agreeing to the first round of concessions so they can leave the office before Washington gets hit by the sort of snowstorm that makes New Englanders briefly contemplate switching to four-wheel drive. This must be what centrists mean when they talk about “making tough decisions for our children.”
A clean debt ceiling bill, nasty shot of lemon juice though it is, has arguments in its favor: the discussion should focus on Obamacare; there’s an election around the corner; the infighting has damaged the Republican brand politically; very few actual spending cuts have been extracted. But for the GOP to propose surrendering one of the few trophies it won in the Ryan-Murray deal—pension reform—seems indicative of masochistic insanity. You could call Republicans the Denver Broncos of politics, if during the fourth quarter Peyton Manning had magnanimously handed Richard Sherman the ball for a free go.
As paltry as the sequester was, it was still real deficit reduction and a victory for the GOP. But then Republicans passed the Ryan-Murray budget, which nullified the sequester’s deepest and most immediate cuts, in exchange for ending long-term jobless benefits and reforming pensions starting at the end of 2015. Now Republicans are canceling pension reform in exchange for Medicare cuts in the somewhat more distant year of 2024. And with progressives throwing a four-alarm temper tantrum every time someone utters the word “entitlements,” does anybody honestly think that the Medicare cuts won’t get canceled too? Congress has a decade to take another kick at the can.
Of course, in another decade, entitlements are projected to consume the federal budget, which means borrowing and spending will explode anyways. Yesterday, CBO chief Doug Elmendorf told Congress that our bulging national debt could slow economic growth and ultimately cause a fiscal crisis. If the debt ceiling bill is any indication, his words, as usual, fell on deaf ears.
Of the scant spending cuts Republicans have won, none have been ideal. The military has born too much of the brunt. But reflect for a second on the concerns of Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said of the present debt ceiling bill: “I shouldn’t have to pick between doing justice to the military retirees and doing justice for future generations—that’s a false choice.” The problem is, for Congress, everything is a false choice. Reform Medicare? That’s cutting the deficit at the expense of our seniors. Curb agriculture spending? That’s balancing the budget on the backs of farmers. It’s that old political science problem: NIMBY, Not in My Backyard—cut the other guy’s spending, not mine. And with every line item in the budget zealously watched by a lobbyist or activist, the other guy is always another guy.
We’re witnessing, in action, Ronald Reagan’s old remark that the nearest thing to eternal life is a government agency. Democrats have always stood for waste, pork, fraud, and the invulnerability of federal spending. That Republicans are accepting those things is much more alarming—though perhaps not a surprise.