Washington Basks in Extremely Tiny Bipartisan Accomplishment

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Woooooo! Photo: T.J. Kirkpatrick/2013 Getty Images

Optimists are presenting the very small budget deal agreed to by both parties as a new day in Washington, a down payment that can clear the way for further dealing down the road. In truth, it’s the end of the road, a small salvage operation for a grand failure of governance and political strategy stretching over three years.

In 2011, House Republicans threatened to default on the national debt unless President Obama acceded to their fiscal demands, while Obama futilely attempted to divert their threats into a normal budget negotiation. As the deadline approached and the hopelessness of Obama’s strategy set in, the two sides escaped the crisis by setting up triggers. First, they established a bipartisan “super-committee” that would identify more than a trillion dollars of budget savings. Second, when that (inevitably) failed, it would trigger automatic budget cuts, or sequestration, intended to prod both parties into making a long-term budget deal.

That second trigger likewise failed. Sequestration imposes cuts of $960 billion over a decade. The budget deal between Paul Ryan and Patty Murray restores $63 billion of those cuts, or 6.6 percent of the total. The rest remains in place. Now, this way of measuring the deal may understate its palliative value. The cuts bite deepest in 2014 and 2015, so restoring those removes the sharpest edge of the sequestration knife. Still, the end result is that discretionary spending – that is, those parts of the budget not related to social security, Medicare or other income support – is slated to stay below the level proposed in Paul Ryan’s budget. [Update: Richard Kogan of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities informs me that this is not true -- the deal raises discretionary spending above Ryan levels. My mistake.]

The parties have reached a deal because the cuts to next year’s budget run so deep that Republicans themselves cannot tolerate them. The budget process in the House simply collapsed because even conservatives couldn’t implement the slated levels of spending. The impasse threatened to require more temporary votes to keep the government open, and possibly another shutdown, which is the GOP’s worst nightmare. And so Ryan and Murray scrounged together enough savings to offset the cost of a small two-year fix. But since the savings they agreed upon were, by definition, the most agreeable cuts, any future deals will become much harder. The low-hanging fruit is all gone.

So, for the most part, something White House aides hastily drew up in the summer of 2011 as a trigger has become, for the most part, settled policy. How did a result the administration would have dismissed as a worse-case scenario come to pass? The first reason is that the White House mistakenly took Republican denunciations of the long-term debt at face value. Since Republicans appeared desperate to cut retirement programs, Obama assumed they would trade some form of higher tax revenue to get it. But the GOP’s opposition to higher taxes in any form, even closing loopholes, has trumped its commitment to lower spending for more than three decades.

Second, the administration failed to grasp that, alongside their aversion to higher taxes, conservatives had turned against policy-making itself. This is a transformation I failed to notice as well when I assumed in 2011 that the parties would find a way to muddle through and avoid the pain. The 2011 debt-ceiling agreement rested on the premise that, if the default was budget cuts deliberately designed to make both parties unhappy, both parties would cut some kind of deal.

But the conservative movement opposes not just the substance of compromise but the process itself. They don’t recognize the limits of power. Rand Paul is echoing the position of right-wing purists at the Heritage Foundation, the Club for Growth, the Cato Institute, and elsewhere:

It is true that this deal, by itself, never balances the budget. But even if that’s your goal, why should that prevent you from supporting something? The normal standards of evaluating legislation – does this improve things relative to the status quo – have become completely alien on the right. Look at the way Barbara Mikulski, one of the most liberal senators, frames the deal: “I will have to take a $45 billion downgrade from the Senate number, but the House is coming up $45 billion, so I think that’s a rational compromise.”

Halfway between what one party wants and what the other party wants is her definition of a fair bargain. Now look at how conservatives frame the same thing. Here’s a Heritage Foundation op-ed:

Under the deal, discretionary spending would rise to $1.012 trillion in 2014 and $1.014 trillion in 2015, a $63 billion total increase (though it does little to provide a real and sustained fix for President Obama's mismanagement of defense). This is a significant achievement for the president, who believes that government spending is a panacea to America's economic woes.

There’s no sense whatsoever that the other party, which controls one chamber of Congress and the White House, ought to have any say at all. “My party should get everything” is the presumed starting and ending point.

This almost fanatical unwillingness to recognize the limits of power shaped the right’s view of the policy itself. Conservatives denounced sequestration in 2011 because sequestration was part of a bipartisan deal, but after sequestration became the alternative to a bipartisan deal, they slowly embraced it. Sequestration has become a cherished partisan trophy primarily because Obama hates it.

The Ryan-Murray deal will likely pass, despite opposition from the professional conservative movement, because it’s tiny enough to be uncontroversial while helping Republican leaders avert serious internal problems with the budget process. Ryan has given it his blessing, and as one Republican leadership aide puts it, “Paul Ryan is the Jesus of our conference."

Nobody fucks with the Jesus.

So the deal will probably pass. But conservative opposition signals that deal-making of any kind is painful enough that Republicans shouldn’t dare try it again. The Ryan-Murray deal is not is the beginning of anything. It’s the end.