April 21, 2018
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Congress might have a budget deal — why that’s impressive and utterly disappointing


We suppose it’s encouraging — maybe even impressive — that Congress could reach a budget deal that prevents a government shutdown next month.

But since it’s impressive that the leaders of a bipartisan, bicameral, 29-member budget conference committee have even assembled a proposal that has a legitimate shot of attracting sufficient support from both sides of the aisle, it almost goes without saying that the evolving budget deal is thoroughly unimpressive.

It doesn’t end the sequester that has forced damaging cuts to programs like Head Start and funds for scientific research. It doesn’t take on any important policy priorities. It does virtually nothing to address the nation’s growing, $17.2 trillion debt or annual deficits. It doesn’t raise taxes.

In fact, the deal does pretty much nothing — and that’s by design.

The package put together by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairs of their chambers’ respective budget committees, is a deal put together for the sake of having a deal. We suppose that’s better than another stalemate that shuts down the government. Still, it’s disappointing to think the only somewhat responsible, budget-related legislation Congress can potentially pass is so uninspiring.

A budget document isn’t simply a spending document with a bunch of numbers. It’s also a document that articulates policy priorities. Judging by this policy document, we can’t expect Congress to take on any of the critical issues facing our nation.

The budget deal proposes little action on the nation’s $17.2 trillion debt, meaning the U.S. faces the prospect that future interest payments will crowd out other important budget priorities. The deal doesn’t prioritize addressing the nation’s dire infrastructural needs. There’s no critical investment in this deal in President Barack Obama’s proposal for universal prekindergarten, paid for through an increased cigarette tax, much less other critical investments in early childhood.

In terms of priorities, the priority for this budget deal is to avoid making hard choices that paralyze Congress. But this document illustrates the fact that Congress is paralyzed.

To be sure, the budget deal would have some positive effect. It wouldn’t entirely reverse the sequester that indiscriminately reduces federal agency budgets, but it would ease some of the pressure. However, easing of the sequester pressure, it appears, won’t be done in a strategic fashion that emphasizes hitting some areas less hard than others or not at all.

The deal would raise the funds necessary not by raising taxes, closing tax loopholes or doing anything that might be remotely characterized as a tax increase. Instead, it appears Ryan and Murray will try to book revenue from optimistic expectations from a coming auction of the nation’s wireless spectrum, increased security fees for air travelers, asking federal employees to chip in more toward their pensions and selling off government assets.

While Congress might have a do-nothing deal in the works that could pass, Congress might still disappoint. Republicans could decide they’re resistant to undoing any part of the sequester. Democrats might hold out for an extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed.

Whatever the outcome, this episode in budget negotiations will be characterized by a lack of ambition and missed opportunities. One missed opportunity was the chance to start down the road of reform that simplifies the federal tax code. In exchange for eliminating some corporate tax loopholes, Maine Sen. Angus King proposed reducing the nation’s 35 percent corporate tax rate for all corporate taxpayers. But even that sensible move was, apparently, too politically volatile.

This budget deal comes as the nation’s expectations for Congress’ abilities to confront major challenges are dismally low. So even if Congress surpasses those expectations and passes a do-nothing deal that at least prevents a shutdown, constituents need to keep reminding their elected representatives that they deserve better in the form of a Congress that actually does the work it was sent to Washington to do.

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