By DONNA BRAZILE
So Congress might pass a budget. Or it may not. Deja vu all over again, Chicken Little. The sky is falling — or it may not.
Congress did not pass a budget from April 29, 2009, through March 2013. Why? Because Republicans wanted more cuts (“more, more — I’m still not satisfied”) and Democrats wanted to close corporate loopholes and raise revenue. (Corporate taxes have fallen from one-third of federal revenue in the 1950s to about 9 percent.)
In 2011, when Congress was unable to forge a consensus on a budget, they passed a “sequester” bill. It provided for automated spending cuts — equal chunks hacked from domestic and defense spending, and a cap on total spending. It was meant to be a sort of “fiscal doomsday” mechanism that would be so bad that Congress would cooperate to end it. The problem is, many Republican members of Congress stopped worrying and learned to love sequester. Democrats continue to lament its disastrous effects.
The sequester was a draconian cut to safety-net programs in education, housing, food stamps, veterans benefits, etc., that have been on the Procrustean bed.
This week, though, a bipartisan conference committee — headed by Rep. Paul Ryan from the House and Sen. Patty Murray from the Senate — reached a deal. They effectively called a “cease-fire,” according to The Washington Post, and restored half the sequester spending cuts equally to domestic and defense programs. More than $20 billion was provided to trim the national debt and spending, a gift horse whose teeth we — apparently — shouldn’t examine.
No taxes were included because, for Republicans, it seems the phrase “provide for the general welfare” is jabberwocky. Taxes make them “mimsy” (apologies to Lewis Carroll). Instead, revenue to pay for restored cuts will be raised by an increase in “user fees” on airline fares, by reduced cost-of-living increases for veterans and by a hike in the percentage federal workers (hired after 2013) must pay into their pension funds.
This budget, which will last a “blissful” two years, has most often been described (generously, I think) as “modest.” It is also a modest miracle that any budget agreement made it out of committee.
For three years, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has gotten a lot of political mileage by manipulating the timing of expiring “continuing resolutions” (temporary, stopgap spending authorizations), so that we lurched from one false crisis to the next.
But the time for lurching may be over. The Washington Post quoted a Republican pollster, Glen Bolger, as wondering if Republicans intend to be “an unserious party” that unrealistically seeks to get “the whole ball of wax.” He added, “We have to stop being the dysfunctional equivalent of the Washington Redskins.” Ouch.
So this time, Congress has gone from Procrustean, one-size-fits-all cuts to a pseudo-Solomonic plan that has domestic and defense programs each receiving an equal reprieve, splitting the money almost down the middle. The cap on total spending has been raised from $967 billion to $1.01 trillion. All in all, about half of the automated sequester cuts have been restored, giving the Pentagon a big sigh of relief, and enabling children, such as those in Head Start, to also benefit from their parents’ taxes.
Is everyone happy? This is Washington. No, hardly anyone is satisfied with the plan, but many (hopefully, most) recognize it’s better to achieve some stability by agreeing to modest steps than to continue crisis brinksmanship, especially with a congressional election year upon us.
For members of Congress, the polls are their reality show. (I’m not sure if the polls are like “Survivor” or “American Idol,” but never mind.) President Obama’s approval is at about 42 percent, which is pretty low. Congress’ approval is at 10 percent, according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll, and 7 percent in a Guardian/YouGov poll.
Will the deal pass the House and Senate? Will the American people be given some political peace, budget stability and an example of cooperation they can show their children? It’s possible. I’m ever the optimist. If John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid have the will, this compromise will become law.
Folks, it’s not perfect. Too many innocent people will continue to suffer. Too many unemployed Americans will feel the pain during the holidays: 1.3 million Americans will lose unemployment insurance on Dec. 28, and more than 3 million will lose it in 2014 if Congress does nothing. I hope we can keep up the pressure.
I fight cynicism in this job, dear reader. But, I’ve got to say, “Fiscal Cliff” is not a re-run I want to watch this holiday season.
Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News, and a contributing columnist to Ms. Magazine and O, the Oprah Magazine.