At first glance, the budget agreement between Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), their chambers’ respective budget chairs, recalls Samuel Johnson’s quip about a dog walking on its hind legs: “It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Having passed the House of Representatives by an astounding margin (332-94), the measure now goes to the Senate.
Indeed, the plan not only does little to hack at the nation’s momentous debt burden, it barely loosens a splinter: just $23 billion in savings against a $17-trillion obligation. The pact actually adds back to spending in the next two years and doesn’t address at all the real sources of America’s clear and present fiscal danger: the exploding cost of entitlements, and outdated and inefficient tax policies.
But the mere sight of Ryan and Murray – the author of the ideologically ambitious Roadmap to America’s Future (actually, more like a stairway to conservative heaven) and one of the upper chamber’s most reliable liberals – coming before the press to announce any budget deal at all was remarkable under the circumstances.
The pronouncement, after all, came less than two months after the 16-day government shutdown that stirred up near-record levels of partisan rancor. And mere weeks after Senate Democrats unilaterally abandoned the longstanding rule governing the rights of the minority party.
But it’s more than the mere handshake that creates cause for optimism: The agreement reveals some faint silver linings amid the dark clouds of debt still hanging over America.
First, the Ryan-Murray compact softens the ugly, blunt-axe approach of the sequester. It reverses some of the most harmful impacts on our defense capabilities, creates critical flexibility on domestic spending, and in the process will save hundreds of thousands of jobs.
Second, the arrangement restores order for the next two years to the budget and appropriations processes. Unless debt-ceiling foolishness raises its ugly head again, America should be blessedly free of serial shutdown threats and manufactured crises, battles that go beyond mere annoyance to crowd out any possibility of meaningful action.
Third, the accord does provide a smidgen of legislative test marketing on entitlement reform and revenues. For the left, adjustments to federal employee pension programs points toward the inevitability of much harder discussions on Social Security and Medicare. On the right, the acceptance of even little “fees” on airline tickets, speaks to the reality that future bipartisan agreements will also require some combination of cuts and new revenue.
But finally and most important, this compromise demonstrates that bipartisan government can and does still work in America. Through small steps toward their respective goals, Murray and Ryan showed that Congress is still capable of making real choices; of sacrificing egos and individual agendas while standing up to special interests to serve the common good; and of wresting control from extremist fringes in favor of the center.
Moreover, the process worked because leaders were allowed to lead. Locked into a room and free of the need to preen for the cameras or their caucuses, two legislators who had earned the confidence of their colleagues carried the ball and got it done. In the end, the backbenches moaned – but won’t block the way. That’s the way Congress is supposed to work.
And in retrospect, any deal that accomplishes all that – even if it only address 0.36 percent of our 2014 budget – can indeed be said to have been done well.