To be charitable, let’s start with what’s good – genuinely good – about the otherwise reckless bipartisan budget deal announced Wednesday by Senate leaders.
First of all, it is bipartisan. These days, that’s an achievement worthy of fireworks. Rather than throwing metaphorical rocks at each other, Republicans and Democrats compromised and found a way to agree. That’s encouraging, after years of intrigue, gamesmanship increasingly bitter division.
To that extent, it marks a return to what the Founding Fathers envisioned when they created the national legislature. American government cannot function without compromise. It’s the lubricant that keeps the engine from seizing.
Secondly, it accomplishes some worthy goals, one of which is to reassert the Senate’s stature as half of a coequal branch of government. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ken., and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., negotiated the agreement without reference to the threats issued by President Trump. Indeed, the president played no role in the proceedings.
It also put an end to the mindless and dangerous sequester that imposed dangerous caps on even critical programs, including the military. It bolsters health care, benefits the environment, funds public works and more. It extends the debt limit for 13 months.
In all, the two-year deal amounts to $113 billion more than Trump’s budget proposal and provides an additional $165 billion for the Pentagon and $131 billion for domestic programs.
And that’s where it gets into trouble.
Americans have become accustomed to deficit spending, but this deal, combined with the similarly reckless tax cuts announced in late 2017, gushes with red ink. It is projected to deepen the deficit by at least $300 billion and that’s on top of the $1 trillion hole dug by tax cuts that weren’t paid for.
Government shutdowns are inappropriate responses to unwanted political outcomes, especially when they are brought on a single member of Congress. Even still, given the short duration of the early Friday shutdown, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ken., performed something of a service by highlighting the irresponsibility of this agreement.
There were alternatives. The military didn’t need so large an increase. Domestic programs could similarly have been scaled to something more reasonable. Surely some middle ground exists between refusing to compromise at all and aiming an economic cannon at future taxpayers. Yet that’s what Congress did. Its version of compromise was to give everybody everything.
It’s shocking in general and frankly head-spinning considering the complicity of Republicans. For decades, they have raged against budget deficits, even during the Obama years, when the Great Recession wiped out the finances of millions of people.
Large deficits were appropriate then. Americans were losing their jobs and their homes. Their ability to eat was put at risk. But today, with the economy booming, Washington should be focused on paying down those deficits, as matters both of economic responsibility and forethought.
Another slowdown is inevitable. By piling up the debt now, for no urgent reason, Congress had made it more difficult to safely cope when that day comes.
The roaring economy makes this a troublesome decision in another way. Responsible economists have warned about the potential consequences of stoking the economy when it’s already running high. Those risks include the kind of inflation the country hasn’t seen in decades.
Congress wasn’t interested in that. It wanted to spend money – gobs of it. It’s good and necessary that members are learning again to reach across the aisle. It would help if they could do that in a more responsible way.