Setting aside the details for a moment, the process that led to a budget deal in Congress points out the dysfunction that is endemic in the nation’s Capitol.
Freed from the burden of trying to appease the unreasonable and intractable demands of his party’s far-right wing, outgoing Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, negotiated a deal in secret and then conceded that the process stunk. Typically, we would agree. But it is not entirely Boehner’s fault that Congress long ago embraced demagoguery at the expense of thoughtful, deliberate debate.
While a small but powerful faction of his party has ignored the basics of governance — tasks such as avoiding a government shutdown; raising the debt ceiling so the United States does not default on its obligations and damage its credit rating; and providing routine reauthorization for beneficial programs — Boehner was left to forge a deal with other congressional leaders and the White House on his own. The result was an imperfect — but perfectly acceptable — compromise. The two-year deal heads off sharp increases in Medicare premiums, averts some defense cuts, and closes a hole in the Social Security disability fund.
It also avoids an imminent government default and a government shutdown while increasing discretionary spending by $80 billion over the next two years. The increase was enough to lead a majority of Republicans in the House — including Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas — to vote against the agreement, which passed anyway.
Boehner’s final major action as Speaker of the House was a matter of political expediency. Among the benefits of a flawed process is that it allowed incoming speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to keep his hands clean while giving Ryan room to criticize the deal. Everybody wins — except for that faction in Congress that would prefer a scorched earth approach to budget writing.
Whether or not it was a coincidence, the deal and the change in leadership also seems to have relieved some of the gridlock in Congress. The House of Representatives voted 313-118 Tuesday to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, after its charter was allowed to lapse when conservatives refused to bring reauthorization up for a vote. A compromise with the Senate still must be found to revive the bank, but widespread support — including from all members of the Washington delegation — suggests that a solution should not be too problematic. Now House members should further demonstrate that they know how to govern by reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund and fixing the Highway Trust Fund. Having a new Speaker of the House did not magically make pressing issues disappear.
Ryan, who took over as speaker on Friday, has promised a new way of doing business in the House. With a divided Republican caucus giving him essentially three parties to oversee, that will be easier said than done, but we hope he succeeds. For too long, Congress has employed management by crisis, ignoring problems until they become too big to ignore. Tasks that should be simple — such as renewing the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which costs nothing for taxpayers — have fallen by the wayside, and the American people are worse off for it.
Perhaps, over time, Ryan can help smooth the process by which Congress performs the business of the people. For now, that process is broken, making Boehner’s budget deal the best that could be hoped for.