November 22, 2014

The Budget Deal: A Beginning or the End?

President Obama hailed the two-year budget deal reached by House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.) as a “good first step.”

If he meant a good first step toward broader reforms needed to put the nation’s finances on sounder footing for the long-term, let’s hope he is right.

It is not clear, however, that Capitol Hill leaders, or the President for that matter, have any plans to follow up this very modest achievement with anything more.

Under the terms of the agreement, spending caps for appropriations would be adjusted upward for 2014 and 2015, resulting in an outlay increase of $62 billion over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO)

That increase, however, is calculated from the “sequestration” level that neither party ever intended to go into effect. The new caps would still be lower than the original caps put in place by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and lower than the levels under the Simpson-Bowles plan or the original Ryan budget.

The spending increase would be more than offset by an array of future cuts in mandatory (non-appropriations) spending and higher user fees together totaling $78 billion along with new revenue of $7 billion. The CBO thus estimates that the net effect of the agreement would be to reduce the deficit by $23 billion from 2014 through 2023.

Measured against the current CBO baseline, which projects a total deficit of $6.3 trillion through 2023, the agreement is best viewed as a way to rearrange some of the near-term sequestration cuts rather than as a way to change the overall fiscal trajectory.  

Ryan and Murray never pretended that they would reach for more. It was their belief that if they swung for the fence, they would strike out. So they settled for a bunt. And to support the economic recovery, it does make sense to shift some of the deficit reduction into the future.

The question is whether this the beginning of a new phase of bipartisan cooperation on deficit reduction or the end of any efforts to reach a grand bargain.

At this point, it is impossible to say.

One thing is certain, however. The budget deal does not relieve the worsening fiscal strains caused by an aging population, rising health care costs and an inefficient tax code. Fiscal policy was on an unsustainable path before the deal and it will remain so after the deal. 

That said, it would be better for Congress to accept the Ryan-Murray budget than to reject it.

For one thing, this would establish that compromise is still possible in today’s highly partisan environment and that “regular order,” even with a few bumps, can work. While this is a rock-bottom standard of success, it is nevertheless more than lawmakers have been able to accomplish in recent years.

Moreover, agreement on overall appropriations levels for 2014 and 2015 would provide the framework appropriators have lacked to negotiate their spending bills and reduce the constant threat of a government shutdown.

Yet lawmakers have left in place the potential for another debt limit crisis next year.

The statutory debt limit ($17 trillion) is currently suspended through Feb. 7. Nothing in the new agreement changes that. When Feb. 7 comes around, the Treasury Department will again have to resort to “extraordinary measures” to meet its obligations. These measures will run out sometime between March and June.

Absent a new debt limit deal, which is nowhere in sight, we may be right back in crisis mode within a few months. It is thus premature to declare that the Ryan-Murray budget has established a two-year respite from fiscal showdowns.

Neither can we ignore some other hurdles ignored in this deal, such as extension of emergency unemployment compensation, extension of the farm bill, pending cuts for Medicare physician reimbursements (the “doc fix”) and the desire to extend several expiring tax breaks (“extenders”).

And when members of Congress do get around to these and the larger fiscal issues, some offsets that could have been used will be impossible to tap again. For example, singling out federal workers with the modest reforms proposed in the new deal will make it harder to enact any further reforms in this area as part of a broader agreement.

So let’s be thankful that this time the process has produced a bipartisan result. It’s a welcome change. But let’s not lose sight of all the work that remains to be done.

The Ryan-Murray budget must indeed be a good first step and not the end of the journey.