The cynical response is to exclaim with surprise, "Hey, Congress agreed on something!" Yes, congressional leaders have managed to reach a budget compromise that apparently will allow the government to avoid another partial shutdown in January. And the fact that this comes a few days before a self-imposed deadline and a month before the media's inevitable doomsday scenarios is a rather surprising turn of events.
The thought that compromise comes as such a surprise might be a sad commentary on the state of affairs in Washington, D.C. Yet, an agreement has been reached — pending approval from the full Senate and the full House of Representatives — and for now we shall laud the fact that Congress actually can be functional on occasion.
"We have broken through the partisanship and the gridlock," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who led negotiations for the Senate side. Or, as Ezra Klein reported in The Washington Post: "The deal denies both Republicans and Democrats what they want most. Republicans didn't get any changes to Medicare and Social Security — much less any structural ones. Democrats didn't get any new taxes."
In total, the deal involves about $85 billion. Roughly $45 billion of that replaces planned sequestration cuts for 2014, and about $20 billion replaces planned sequestration cuts for 2015. Using a scalpel to perform budget cuts, rather than the meat cleaver approach of across-the-board sequestration, is sensible — although the sequester has served a valuable purpose in reducing federal spending. The additional $20 billion would go toward deficit reduction in 2014.
In addition, the proposal rolls back sequestration cuts to education, medical research, infrastructure investments, and defense jobs for the next two years, and the discretionary spending budget for fiscal 2014 would climb to $1.012 trillion. The drawback as far as some Republicans see it: Spending is still excessive. The drawback in the minds of some Democrats: The deal doesn't include any extension of long-term unemployment insurance. There's something for everybody to dislike.
"This agreement makes sure that we don't have a government shutdown scenario in January," said Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who led negotiations for the House. "It makes sure we don't have another government shutdown scenario in October. It makes sure that we don't lurch from crisis to crisis."
Lurching, at times, seems to be what Washington, D.C., does most proficiently. The process of governing by crisis — of reactive management rather than proactive management — has grown tiresome for the public. The budget agreement that ended October's partial government shutdown expires in January, and the recent history of Congress suggested that another shutdown was forthcoming — until it wasn't.
President Obama said: "This agreement doesn't include everything I'd like — and I know many Republicans feel the same way. That's the nature of compromise. But it's a good sign that Democrats and Republicans in Congress were able to come together and break the cycle of short-sighted, crisis-driven decision-making to get this done."
Well, all of that is assuming that the agreement receives approval from the legislative chambers. But, for now, Murray and Ryan deserve some credit for rekindling the notion of compromise in Congress. Each side gave a little and took a little, and that just might signal a new way of doing business in Washington, D.C. — until the next crisis.