Congress has surprised everyone by doing what a few months ago seemed impossible. That is, crafting a two-year budget deal acceptable to Democrats and Republicans while rolling back the mindless cuts known as the sequestration.
The deal is rather narrowly drawn, and does little to settle long-term tax and spending issues. The headline isn’t in the details of the agreement, but the fact that negotiators managed to work together to head off another crippling government shutdown.
Conservatives aren’t happy. Liberals aren’t happy. That probably means the deal, announced by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., is a good compromise.
Ryan said, “This bill reduces the deficit by $23 billion and it does not raise taxes and it cuts spending in a smarter way.” Moreover, as Murray added, they have broken through the partisanship and gridlock and reached a bipartisan deal that will prevent a government shutdown in January.
The deal rolls back sequestration’s harmful cuts to education, medical research, infrastructure investments and defense jobs for the next two years.
Conservative groups are pressuring Republicans to oppose the deal or face election consequences. But most voters should be happy enough about avoiding another shutdown to accept the deal as good for the nation.
The agreement calls for military and domestic spending under the discretion of Congress to rise to just above $1 trillion for the current fiscal year, from the $967 billion level it would hit if the additional sequestration cuts had been imposed next month. Spending would be capped at $1 trillion in the 2015 fiscal year.
Easing sequestration will free up $65 billion over the next couple of years to be spread evenly between military and domestic spending. That will nearly erase the effect of sequestration on the military. And domestic programs would be well off since the 2 percent cut to Medicare health providers would remain untouched, thus providing money to alleviate cuts to programs such as health research, education and Head Start.
The increased spending will be offset in part with higher airline fees that pay for airport security; that could add $5 to the cost of a round-trip plane ticket. The deal would also raise the pension contributions from federal workers hired after Jan. 1. Although that has not gone over well with federal workers, it could have worked out worse for them. New workers would pay an additional 1.3 percent of salary toward retirement; Ryan wanted 5.5 percent more and President Obama proposed 1.2 percent more for all federal employees.
This deal is far from perfect. Democrats abandoned their demand that it extend emergency unemployment benefits that expire at the end of the month. They hope to get an extension in a separate measure, which may work out better as a standalone item, but it’s risky.
Overall, this is a good deal. For once Congress members decided not to use Americans as pawns in their own partisan games.