Congress passes budget deal, but cuts will sting for some

Compromise may portend thawed relations for lawmakers, but military retirees, long-term unemployed left in the cold

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan discussing their bipartisan budget deal on Dec. 10.
T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — A two-year spending bill passed the Senate by a bipartisan 64 to 36 vote on Wednesday and will be sent to the president’s desk shortly, ensuring at least a temporary reprieve from the recurring budget crises that have consumed Washington for the last three years.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairs of the Senate and House budget committees respectively, brokered the deal, which rolls back about $65 billion of the cuts imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011 — known as the sequester — in 2014 and 2015. The compromise also includes $23 billion in additional deficit reduction over the next 10 years.

The bill passed the House last week by a wide bipartisan margin, 332–94.

The savings don’t come for free: They are achieved by provisions such as requiring new federal workers to pay more into their pensions, cutting benefits for military retirees under the age of 62 through an altered cost-of-living calculation, higher security fees for travelers to help defray the costs of the Transportation Security Administration and reduced government spending for oil and gas development research.

The expiration of emergency unemployment benefits goes unaddressed by the deal, which means 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans will lose benefits effective Dec. 28 and have to wait until Congress takes up the matter when it reconvenes in January.

And lest anyone think the bill is a cure-all for Congress’ chronic brinksmanship, lawmakers will once again have to take up the matter of the debt ceiling in the spring, when the government’s borrowing authority reaches its limit again. The GOP is already motioning that it will want concessions from Democrats and President Barack Obama for its cooperation.

On the other hand, part of the Pentagon’s budget will be restored as part of the compromise, as will cuts to domestic discretionary programs, although the details have yet to be worked out in the appropriations process. In all, spending will be about $45 billion higher in 2014 than it would have been had the new budget not passed.

Crawl before you can walk

The final passage of the bill, with nary a tantrum in sight, was hailed as an accomplishment for a body that is unaccustomed to meeting even the barest of expectations. It seemed that it might be signaling a thaw in the icy relations between congressional Democrats and Republicans. The 113th Congress did, after all, shut down the government for 16 days and almost caused a catastrophic breach of the debt ceiling the last time it had to come to an agreement on funding the government.

Although the legislation itself is relatively modest and neither party gets anything significant on its wish list, the hope is that the deal will clear the way for more substantial bipartisan victories.

“It's a step forward that shows that there can be other breakthroughs and compromise if you take the time to know somebody, know what their passions are, and know how you can work together,” Murray said Sunday on NBC’s "Meet the Press." “Either one of us could have taken out and blown up and killed the other person politically. We agreed from the start we wouldn't do that. Very important to where we are today.”

Also encouraging to some observers was the willingness of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to buck the conservative flank of his party this time around, and to openly criticize tea-party aligned conservative groups for panning the deal, saying, “They’ve lost all credibility.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called a vote for the resolution “a vote against extremism.”  

“You’ve got to, you know, crawl before you can walk, before you can run,” Ryan said on “Meet the Press.”

'Cleared a low bar'

Still, the deal only undoes the damage from earlier legislation and caps off the most unproductive session of Congress since World War II, undermining even the record for inactivity set by the previous Congress.

Former lawmakers and observers came away from the session unimpressed.

“They’ve undone a bit of the damage done by the sequester — they haven’t repealed it yet — but what is disappointing is that the bar they have cleared is a very low bar,” said Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana who served in the House for 35 years and is currently the executive director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. “They have done nothing about the fundamental fiscal challenge this country faces — the huge gap between spending and taxes. There’s no solution to the debt ceiling problem, unemployment benefits are unresolved, immigration reform is unresolved, tax reform is unresolved.”

The 113th Congress has managed to send a total of 57 bills to the president’s desk, according to historical statistics compiled by govtrack.us. The 112th Congress, by comparison, passed 81 bills by the time it adjourned for the holidays in 2011. The 80th Congress, which was convened from 1947 to 1948 and which President Harry Truman famously lambasted as “do-nothing,” passed a total of 906 bills.

Of course, the number of bills passed is an imperfect metric for judging the success of a particular session. No legislation is better than a badly designed law, and one major legislative accomplishment is better than pushing through a half-dozen small-bore bills, said Tom Davis, formerly a moderate Republican congressman from Virginia. Still, Davis too admitted that this Congress has struggled mightily to perform even the most basic functions of governance, from making appropriations to passing a Farm Bill to authorizing defense spending.

“There’s no ideal — that’s the whole point of this business,” he said. “Nothing you do is going to be pretty, which is why nothing ever gets done. What we saw a couple of months ago is that doing nothing is worse than doing something.”

From a certain perspective, voters are getting what they asked for when they ushered in divided government in 2010 and 2012, Davis said, and must accept the periodic irritations, like government shutdowns. That’s better, he said, than getting something akin to the Affordable Care Act, which Davis considers a disaster and was possible only when Democrats controlled both chambers and the presidency.

Do-nothing Congresses ahead

In 2014, an election year, Obama and Democrats are expected to forward initiatives that address economic inequality, such as a federal minimum wage hike. Ryan also noted that the House would start looking again at tax reform, a longtime goal for the GOP. Immigration reform, the biggest priority in 2013 for Democrats and some Republicans, appears to be irreversibly stalled in the House.

Most analysts aren’t holding their breath, however, for big things in 2014. In a midterm election year, lawmakers may be prompted to show their constituents that they’ve accomplished something — but more often than not, they are afraid to take any controversial votes for fear of having it used against them. Congress will be in session for fewer days in the new year as well, as lawmakers go back home to campaign and fundraise.

“We’re in for a little bit longer of a whole lot of do-nothing Congress,” said Chuck Cushman, a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Government Affairs Institute. “Not enough will have changed for some dramatic explosion of legislative success to occur. It’s not impossible, but I’d be very surprised.”

Connie Morella, formerly a Republican congresswoman from Maryland, said the culture of dealmaking in Congress has been destroyed as legislators spend less time getting to know each other and learning where they can come together.

“It’s a very minor step ahead, but it’s in the right direction,” she said of the deal. “You used to be very proud of bipartisan legislation that you helped introduce. Now it’s very rare.”

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