SENATE LEADERS on Wednesday struck a far-reaching, two-year budget deal that would dispense with a bundle of issues that have bedeviled Washington for years, and they immediately took a victory lap. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called it “a significant bipartisan step forward,” and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) hailed it as “very good for the American people.”
The deal would, indeed, do some good. And Senate leaders deserve credit for talking to one another and dealing in good faith, a model the House and the White House have resisted. Too bad it all had to come at the cost of more debt, confirming yet again that the only time Washington’s leaders appear able to shake hands on big deals is when both sides agree to run up the national tab.
The agreement would, first and foremost, prevent another government shutdown and end the cycle of short-term funding crises that lawmakers have been inflicting on government agencies. Spending caps that have threatened military preparedness and domestic programs would be lifted. The debt ceiling would also be suspended, heading off another episode in which the faith and credit of the United States would be taken hostage for political ends.
Military spending would see a big boost, as lawmakers finally respond to warnings from defense officials that funding uncertainty harms readiness. The Children’s Health Insurance Program, which until the most recent stopgap budget deal was starved for funding, would get another four years of cash, bringing its total extension to a full 10 years. Another $90 billion would be pumped into disaster relief. The Senate plan would also devote $6 billion to the opioid crisis and $20 billion to infrastructure.
All of these things are good. Congress should have agreed on them months ago. But they are what used to be considered the easy part. Instead of raising revenue or reforming big entitlement programs — or, ideally, both — to pay fully for government operations, senators would add billions more to the debt. Though they would offset some of the proposal’s cost, they would not come close to covering all of it. While they would reap some savings from Medicare, a major cost driver, they would at the same time abolish the Independent Payment Advisory Board, one of the few potential checks on rising health-care spending that Congress has instituted in the past decade.
The deal reconfirms that there is a lot of agreement about what the government should be doing and, therefore, roughly how large it will remain. Lawmakers differ only in their degrees of denial about how much it costs to provide the services Americans expect. One month, Republicans pass a massive tax cut that will add more than $1 trillion to the debt; next, Democrats join them on a budget plan that hikes spending. The result is a big, unsustainable gap between revenue and outlays — just as the nation should be husbanding its resources for the next economic crisis and preparing to pay for the baby boomers’ retirement.
The reality denial is particularly pervasive among Republicans, who forfeited any moral authority they claimed on debt when they rammed through that huge tax bill. Their arguments that tax cuts will pay for themselves and that lawmakers should simply fill any gap with deep spending cuts are about equally preposterous. Now in near-total control of Washington, they are proving once again that they care about the debt only when it is a good campaign issue.
Is it too much to ask that Congress provide a reasonable level of government service, without near-constant drama, and pay for it? Apparently so.
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