The good news regarding last week’s budget deal is that Congress didn’t wait until the last minute to work in a somewhat bipartisan fashion to avoid a fiscal crisis, and the results were not terrible.
You know there’s a “bad news” element to this, right?
Here’s what happened. The federal government was about to reach the debt ceiling, which is the statutory limit for how big the national debt is allowed to become. Congress reaches the ceiling every year or two, often squabbles about it, and then raises it. Outgoing Speaker John Boehner was determined to “clean out the barn” before new Speaker Paul Ryan took his place. So Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, a two-year budget deal that took the debt ceiling off the table until March 2017 – after the elections are over and everyone has been sworn into their new terms.
The act provides $80 billion in sequester relief over two years – meaning it increased spending. The sequester was a creation of the Budget Control Act of 2011, back when the government was adding $1 trillion in debt every year. (This year, thanks in large part to a better economy, it will be about half that.) Basically, if Congress didn’t come up with a plan to reduce those deficits on its own, spending automatically would be cut for the military and for domestic programs by $1.2 trillion over 10 years. The idea was to make the provision unpleasant enough that Congress would do its job and create a better process. It didn’t.
The sequester has been the law of the land ever since. On the plus side, it has been the most effective method Congress has created to reduce spending in a long time. On the negative side, it’s not enough. The national debt has ballooned past $18 trillion, about $57,000 for every American. It 1980, it was $1 trillion. Also, the cuts do not represent a thoughtful, careful approach to deficit reduction. It’s kind of a hacksaw when what’s needed is a scalpel, though a big one. A lot of elected officials don’t like it because they want more spending for domestic programs, the military, or both.
So negotiators came up with that $80 billion while claiming that the extra spending was offset in other parts of the budget. According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, that’s only partly correct. Meanwhile, Congress added another $31 billion in spending to the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations war-fighting account, which is exempt from the sequester.
Using a war-fighting account as a slush fund to get around the sequester and increase government spending – that’s bad policy on a lot of levels.
Five of the six members of Arkansas’ congressional delegation – Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton, and Reps. Rick Crawford, French Hill and Bruce Westerman – voted against the deal. Rep. Steve Womack in Northwest Arkansas’ 3rd District voted for it, saying the deal is imperfect but the debt ceiling must be raised, that the act would increase military spending, and that it would allow members of congressional Appropriations Committees to do their work in more regular order.
There are arguments to be made against having a debt ceiling, which periodically creates an avoidable crisis that brings the United States government to the brink of default and makes the markets and the rest of the world wonder when this country will ever get its act together.
On the other hand, for all its flaws, it forces elected officials to confront the national debt on a regular basis. Now Congress and President Obama have made it a little easier to avoid that awkward discussion – sort of like a family that’s going broke that always finds excuses to avoid the real issues because the time never seems to be right. And this happened during an election season, which is precisely when the time should be right.
That conversation will be difficult, if it ever occurs. It’s going to involve asking tough questions about Medicare, Social Security, the military, and other popular government programs that most Americans want more of, and taxes, which most Americans want less of. Like anything on a budget that’s not balanced, the solution will involve some combination of having less of what we like and more of what we don’t.
For now, that conversation will be limited to the campaign trail – not a place where elected officials like talking about tough choices in detail, but it will have to do.