What the emerging budget deal means (and doesn’t mean) for Congress

December 11, 2013

Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray. Will they share the bipartisan secret sauce? (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) struck a deal Tuesday night that (if adopted) enables Congress to avert a government shutdown next month and pares back a small portion of mandated cuts to discretionary spending (aka the sequester) over the next two years.  By all accounts, this is a small-bore deal that adds up to a “cease-fire in the budget wars,” raging in Washington — albeit a cease-fire that boosts federal spending for the next two fiscal year above what spending would have been with the full sequester in place.

Observers have touted the plan as returning “a degree of normalcy” to the budget process and “restoring confidence” in the parties’ ability to work together. Does the deal portend a return to “regular order,” if not a more productive Congress ahead?  I’m not so sure.

First, the accord signals only a sliver of budgetary normalcy.  The plan certainly takes a step in the direction of getting Congress back in the business of budgeting, as the deal was negotiated by the chairs of the congressional budget panels.  But Tuesday’s deal is a far cry from normal budgeting.  Ryan and Murphy are unlikely to put the deal to the conference committee, given how little time remains for Congress to act.  And Congress won’t adopt a broader budget blueprint to guide appropriators’ allocation decisions across the federal budget; instead, the deal will likely go straight to each chamber’s floor for up or down votes.

Second, the appropriations process remains badly fractured.  Appropriators this year will get a top-line spending total, but only a month to complete bicameral negotiations over the 12 unfinished spending bills for fiscal year 2014 that began back in October.  One test of progress towards normalcy will be if appropriators can craft 12 individual spending bills or whether partisan disagreements over agency budgets will keep some agencies funded through another CR to round out the fiscal year.  Either way, Congress will make its spending decisions through an omnibus bill that offers lawmakers a take-it-or-leave-it deal.  In theory, next year’s process should work more smoothly because appropriators already have their top-line targets for the fiscal year that starts in October 2014.  Of course, with a spending total in hand so early, pressure to write a broader budget might dissipate.

Third, the deal certainly moves lawmakers away from crisis-driven, 11th-hour dealmaking.  But will the bipartisan spirit that produced this deal portend additional bipartisan deals around the corner?  I’m doubtful.  Breaking the cycle of budgetary brinkmanship does not yet seem to have resolved bicameral differences elsewhere on the Hill.  Even a pared back defense bill (cobbled when GOP senators blocked progress on a broader annual bill) faces an uphill battle towards enactment.  More likely, the mini-deal is emblematic of legislative battles in polarized times: Parties come to the table only when the costs of blocking an agreement are too great to shoulder. And even then, parties will give up as little as necessary to avoid the sometimes painful consequences of stalemate.

Finally, will this partial effort to replace the sequester lead to even bigger agreements down the road?   The jury is definitely out on this one.  One downside to a minimalist package is that such agreements define down the aims of deal-making lawmakers in the future.  As James Q. Wilson once wrote in a different context, “minimal standards become maximum standards.”  So long as lawmakers prefer dividing the pie (splitting differences) to enlarging the pie (crafting “win-win” deals that capitalize on the parties’ divergent priorities), only small potatoes will roast.

Sarah Binder is a professor of political science at George Washington University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She has authored or co-authored four books on legislative politics, and she has a mild obsession with congressional rules, the history of Congress, and the Fed.
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