BY THE dismally low standards with which we are asked to judge Congress these days, the spending and tax break deal that lawmakers reached late Tuesday night is supposed to be impressive. It avoids a year-end government shutdown. Lawmakers put off many controversial, ideologically charged “riders,” such as defunding Planned Parenthood and gutting the Environmental Protection Agency. Most government operations will have enough money to go on as before or will be a little better funded, and some crucial anti-poverty tax credits will continue.
Aside from avoiding a government crisis, though, the best that can be said about the package is that it mixes a few genuine policy achievements with some astonishing — if bipartisan — legislative irresponsibility. And even getting to that point required former House speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to resign.
The achievements include a deal to lift the 40-year-old ban on U.S. crude oil exports. Saying this policy is antiquated gives it too much credit, and experts conclude that the impact on gasoline prices will be minimal. The implications are bigger for U.S. drillers, who will get more for their crude oil, and U.S. refiners, who will lose their exclusive access to a glut of domestic crude. To allay Democrats’ environmental concerns, meanwhile, the package contains extensions of subsidies for wind and solar power projects, which will act as bridge policies until the EPA’s emissions-cutting Clean Power Plan kicks in a few years down the road.
Congress, however, could not resist doing some real harm, postponing the Affordable Care Act’s little-loved but extremely important “Cadillac tax” for two years. The government subsidizes employee-sponsored health-care plans through the tax code; the “Cadillac tax” on high-cost employer plans represents the principle that the government will not fully subsidize relatively expensive policies — the ones that tend to encourage overspending on health care. It is perhaps the most significant cost-containment mechanism in Obamacare, a law that the president promised would help get costs into line. It is also very unpopular in Congress. Democrats dislike it because their union allies worry it will eat into benefits packages they have negotiated. Republicans dislike it because it is part of Obamacare. Neither is a good reason to repeal or delay the policy.
The big danger is that Congress will continually delay phasing in the Cadillac tax now that the precedent has been established. This is a betrayal of what the Democrats promised to deliver on health care — a plan that increased access but also made a serious down payment on cost control — and exposes Republicans supposedly concerned about government waste and budget-busting health costs as hypocrites.
Continuing the irresponsibility, Congress’s compromise budget package also postpones Obamacare’s medical device tax. The policy itself is not as important as the Cadillac tax. But it is a significant funding mechanism for the law’s health-care coverage expansion — one that just happens to rankle Republicans and Democrats from states with medical device manufacturers, who launched an expensive lobbying effort to get the tax rolled back. Special interests win; the deficit widens.
When Americans demand bipartisanship, this is not what they should have in mind.