The federal budget agreement hammered out earlier this month is hopeful for a number of reasons. Locally and nationally, it solves some of the problems caused by sequestration, that foolish onslaught of automatic budget cuts. More hopefully – especially for Republicans with dreams of recapturing the White House – it appears to signal an end to the tea party’s destructive influence on the party, the Congress and the country.
The vote on the budget was 64-36 in the Democratic-controlled Senate and 332-94 in the Republican House. Freed, at least temporarily, from tea party kookery, a solid majority of Republicans joined in supporting the compromise bill.
Around Western New York, that offers reason to cheer.
For one thing, lines at the Peace Bridge are likely to shorten. The budget increases funding for Customs and Border Protection by $220 million through the rest of the fiscal year, which ends on Sept. 30. More than half that money will go toward hiring and training 2,000 new border agents.
That will be a relief for anyone crossing into the United States at the Peace Bridge, which has been woefully understaffed, causing sometimes severe backups for commercial traffic, Canadians coming to Buffalo to shop or attend events, and Western New Yorkers returning home. Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, put his finger on the problem: sequestration. “How can it not be that?” he asked. “We’re seeing backups and empty booths.”
The funding will also boost a pilot project to preclear U.S.-bound cargo on the Canadian side of the Peace Bridge, while also prohibiting a proposed economic disaster: a border-crossing fee.
Also of benefit to Western New York is the budget’s increased funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. That will rise to $300 million, from $284 million under sequestration, helping, among other things, to remove toxic sediments from the Buffalo River.
The Department of the Interior will get $3.5 million to fund its efforts to combat the Asian carp, an invasive species upsetting the ecology of the Great Lakes, while the Army Corps of Engineers will get authorization to take emergency measures to stop the fish from entering the lakes ecosystem.
This is what Congress should have been looking to do all along, instead of relying on the needlessly painful and undirected across-the-board sequestration. It couldn’t do that when Republicans in the Senate were willing to filibuster every issue that came before the chamber while, in the House, Republican leaders quaked at the amplified squeak of the tea party.
This was a start, but more needs to be done. Foremost is the need to restore jobless benefits to the long-term unemployed. Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, thinks those people have had enough time to get a job, but it’s a position that ignores the fundamental fact that this was the worst economic collapse in 80 years.
That its impact wasn’t worse was due, in part, to unemployment insurance. The economy is getting better, finally, but it’s too soon to pull the rug out from under those who were battered by this recession.
Congress and the White House also still need to come to grips with the cost of entitlements, especially Medicare but also Social Security. Those programs, as currently configured, will crack under the accumulating weight of retiring baby boomers. That, too will require both sides to give up something.
Still, this budget deal is a hopeful sign. It could even be considered a turning point if this wasn’t just a one-off event, and both Republicans and Democrats will commit to compromise, as the Founding Fathers anticipated.