Heavy Lifting Ahead

Published Dec 13, 2013.

There is plenty to dislike in Congress’ latest budget deal, starting with the fact the pact doesn’t own up to the nation’s long-term fiscal problems. But the compromise worked out between Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and GOP Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin was better than doing nothing about the budget before lawmakers adjourned for the year.

Democrats and Republicans alike could have kept yammering for their preferred solutions. But that would have gotten us nowhere. What counts is that the two sides of a divided government ironed out some kind of budget plan. Far better that approach than moving from budget crisis to budget crisis.

The agreement that Murray and Ryan crafted will do several things.

• It will eliminate $63 billion of the sequestration cuts that came about after Congress previously couldn’t pass a budget deal. Washington leaders had agreed back in 2011 that the automatic spending reductions, including in defense, would take effect if a better, longer-term compromise was not worked out.

That agreement never arrived, so the scalpel came down indiscriminately across many parts of the government. Cutting without priorities is never smart, but it was the only remaining option.

This new arrangement will reverse some of the damage. Importantly, the reversals will be spread evenly across defense and nondefense spending.

• At the same time, Congress agreed to offset that $63 billion with $85 billion of other spending cuts and hikes in various user fees. They will take effect over the next decade.

• Also, legislators agreed to place new limits on discretionary spending. That is the part of the budget that includes spending for areas like the federal courts, law enforcement and the national parks. These new caps could help control some spending.

This patch is not perfect. But failing to pass even a limited budget agreement could have rattled markets. What’s more, it could have signaled the world that the U.S. political dysfunction is indeed great.

Now Congress and the White House must get working on the drivers of our debt. Guaranteed spending programs like Social Security and Medicare are the reason Americans still must worry about the nation’s economic future. Here’s one fact that should get our attention: Since 2010, Social Security has been paying out more in benefits than it has generated in revenues.

Everyone who follows Washington’s budget debate knows these realities, including legislators and the president. But getting them to do something about them has been elusive. Now that some of the short-term problems have been addressed, Congress should dig deep and get onto the real budget issues.