Are you ready for some budget battling? Perhaps the Obama administration is:
With the era of falling budget deficits coming to an end, President Obama and Congress are hurtling toward a clash over spending as the White House and Democrats press for an easing of fiscal austerity just as Republicans redouble efforts to balance the budget.
While both sides say they are trying to help the squeezed middle class, the divide between the two parties on actual fiscal policy may be as stark as at any time since Bill Clinton’s first term and the government shutdowns of 1995 and 1996. Since then, Washington policy makers have been focused on issues like national defense, financial crises and recession, or at least on professing a common goal of balanced budgets and fiscal rectitude.
But solid economic numbers and new leadership on key congressional committees have driven the parties apart. As one senior Democratic budget aide said, “We’re on different planets.”
On Monday, Mr. Obama’s budget for the fiscal year that begins in October will propose blowing through statutory spending caps for defense and domestic programs, kicking off a debate that must somehow navigate a series of deadlines this year, any of which could lead to significant economic disruptions.
The language here is a little overwrought (“hurtling toward a clash…blowing through statutory spending caps”), and it comes from a common journalistic impulse to treat every policy disagreement like it’s the Thrilla in Manila. So let’s all take a breath. Of course Republicans weren’t going to like whatever budget President Obama proposed. The opposition party always objects to the president’s budget.
But I’m ready to make a prediction: they’re going to work all this out and come to an agreement. Nobody will be completely happy with it, and as usual the tea partiers will call it a betrayal, but even in this age of bitter partisanship, the Republican Congress and the Democratic president will find their way to a budget deal. Here’s why:
Nobody likes sequestration. The original idea behind the sequester was that it was such an undesirable prospect that in order to avoid it, the “super-committee” created in 2011 would agree on a budget-cutting plan that would be passed by Congress and signed by the president. That didn’t happen, so the sequester’s indiscriminate cuts took effect. Both sides want to get rid of it — Republicans don’t like the defense cuts, and Democrats don’t like the domestic cuts. That desire isn’t enough in and of itself to force an agreement, but it offers a strong incentive, especially when combined with other factors.
The spending increase Obama is seeking is very small. While we don’t yet have details on the president’s proposal, early reports are that he’ll be asking for $70 billion in spending over the caps in the 2011 budget deal. In the scope of a budget that will be approaching $4 trillion, that’s nothing. Yes, the fact that Obama is proposing any increase in government spending will be decried by Republicans, but here’s the reality: in a country that’s always growing, in a world that gets more complicated, government spending goes up. That’s just what it does.
Because of that 2011 agreement, we spent less in 2012 than we had in 2011, and less in 2013 than we did in 2012. That was unprecedented — only once since 1948 did the government spend less than it had the year before (in 1965, and only by a hair). If we’re talking about an increase over the 2014 budget of just a bit, it’s not only a return to normal (admittedly, a normal conservatives don’t like), but it’s small enough that it won’t require enormous concessions to work out a compromise.
Another government shutdown fight is the last thing Republicans want. The single most important priority for congressional Republicans right now is to get a Republican president elected in 2016. If they can do that, it’ll be like walking into the public policy version of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, where rivers of delicious tax cuts flow and everlasting gobstoppers of environmental deregulation are waiting to be sucked on until everyone passes out on a cotton-candy bed of abortion restrictions. So they don’t want to do anything to screw that up, and a government shutdown fight late this year would demonstrate once again that Republicans can’t be trusted to govern.
That’s the most important reason why they’re going to work out a deal: because for Republicans, the alternative is to make it more likely that Hillary Clinton becomes president. There will most certainly be a lot of posturing and breast-beating along the way. But they’ll get it done.