HAVING SPENT an entire year posturing on the budget, Congress will go home not having done anything but pass the ordinary appropriations bills. The lack of accomplishment is both the good news and the bad. Neither Congress nor the president mounted serious efforts to solve the long-term fiscal problems the country faces -- how to pay for Social Security and Medicare when the baby boomers retire, rationalize the defense budget, etc. That's the bad news. The competition instead was to see which party could express the most concern with the least political risk -- call for solutions without even hinting at the tax increases and/or program cuts that solutions eventually will require.
But if the two sides failed to make the long-term prospect better, they also failed to make it worse. The president rightly vetoed the showy tax cut the Republicans passed in August. Then came talk from the White House as well as Congress of a deal; he would give them part of the tax cut in return for the prescription drug benefit he proposed to add to Medicare. The deal would have been financed out of a projected surplus in other than Social Security funds that is mainly an accounting illusion. They would once again have paid for a signing ceremony with nonexistent funds.
It didn't happen, proof that stalemate can be the economy's friend. By default, whatever surplus develops will be used instead to pay down debt. That's the best use, if not for all of it, surely for most. It will make it easier for the government to borrow again when the boomers retire, reduce what the government has to spend on interest, now an eighth of the budget, and add to national savings, thereby stimulating economic growth. That's pretty good for autopilot.
The appropriations process has itself been more routine than the surrounding rhetoric might suggest. The Republicans have made extraordinary use of gimmicks to make the spending total look less than it is. At the same time, both parties have tried in order to seem supportive of defense, education, etc., to make the totals for certain purposes seem larger than they are. In fact, there aren't that many deviations from the prior year; there rarely are. There were only a couple of major budget breakouts. Both parties voted early in the year in the name of readiness for a military pension increase that will eventually cost billions a year and pinch the rest of the defense budget, most likely without improving the military's ability to retain skilled personnel. Both also supported billions in "emergency" farm aid, ostensibly for this year only. A threat to exempt aviation spending from the budget rules was temporarily averted.
Outside the budget, the record is even more barren. No autopilot operates there. The Republican leadership has deflected campaign finance reform and legislation to impose due process on managed care. With help from Democrats, it has buried gun control as well. This is a Congress in which neither party has the votes to impose its will. They mainly pretend to legislate while blocking each other's agendas and awaiting the next election. The national debt and the public's regard for the political process decline together.