THE BIPARTISAN budget deal achieves some important objectives. First and foremost, the bill prevents a breach of the federal debt ceiling on Nov. 3, eliminating the threat of a default until March 2017. This should boost business confidence and, possibly, job-creating investment. Second, it takes the federal government out of the budgetary straitjacket known as sequestration for the next two years, enabling Congress and the president to spend according to actual priorities instead of blunt across-the-board limitations. There will be more for research and law enforcement; the military can improve readiness at a time of complex threats in Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Last, but not least, the deal is a small victory for governability, showing that Republicans and Democrats, both houses of Congress and the executive branch can still work together, if only because they have run out of alternatives.
Alas, it still takes a drop, or two, of fiscal irresponsibility to lubricate such a compromise. The budget deal is not truly “paid for” with offsetting spending cuts or revenue increases. It authorizes $80 billion in sequester relief (additional spending above the previously legislated caps) during the next two years, evenly divided between defense and non-defense accounts. In addition, there will be $32 billion in new war-related overseas spending, split between the Pentagon and the State Department, which is deemed “emergency” funding not subject to pay-as-you-go rules. To offset this $112 billion in spending, the bill identifies only $75.7 billion in revenue or budget cuts, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
While the vast majority of the new spending takes place this year and next, most of the savings kick in later — assuming lobbyists don’t undo them in the interim. There are gimmicks and one-shot deals: $5 billion in sales of strategic petroleum; a $2.2 billion raid on accumulated fines and forfeited civil assets at the Justice Department; $5 billion in higher revenue conjured by “smoothing” the reported liabilities of government-insured private pensions.
To be sure, within the bill’s “pay-fors” are modest but real reforms of mandatory spending programs, the most significant of which would be a $3 billion cut to egregious crop insurance subsidies over the next decade. In addition, the bill would tighten procedures for Social Security Disability Insurance, saving about $4 billion over 10 years, while allowing the program to experiment with incentives to get recipients back to work. The bill would also do away with disparities in Medicare reimbursements for doctors depending on whether they work out of hospitals or off-site.
From these incremental entitlement reforms, to increased spending for domestic programs and defense boosts, the bill has a little something for GOP budget and defense hawks and for Democratic advocates of active government. It is lamentable that the two parties see these priorities in partisan terms, but given that they do, this difference-splitting legislation may represent the best achievable outcome. Think of it as a truce, one that enables the parties to campaign in 2016 unburdened by fear of a shutdown or fiscal catastrophe — and then to look for a more comprehensive and durable fix under a new president in 2017.