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The Budget Deal's Crass and Craven Politics

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Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The big political news of the day is that Republican Representative Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray have hammered out a new budget deal. Mostly, this news focuses on the details of the agreement, or the sheer jaw-dropping astonishment that a deal was reached before the next artificial deadline was hit. This last bit is actually laughable and not a little pathetic when you consider how low the bar now is for Congress meeting the responsibilities outlined in their job descriptions. But even that is not the most cynical (or, if you're in a more forgiving mood, "most crassly political") aspect of the deal, which news reports are mostly missing today, because, to me, the most appropriate headline from the new budget deal should really be: "Democrats And Republicans Agree To Remove Budget Negotiations From 2014 Campaign, Out Of Fear."

So far, as I said, this is getting short shrift by the press. Partisan squabbling over the details of the deal are visible on both sides of the aisle, and partisan squabbling is the catnip which makes the 24-hour news cycle go around (not to mix metaphors or anything). Democrats are incensed because the deal has a merry holiday gift for 1.3 million: the end of their unemployment benefits. "Ho, ho, ho -- you're screwed!" in other words. They are mounting a rear-guard action in an effort to push a benefit extension through before the end of the year, but it is doubtful whether this will be successful.

The tea partiers, of course, are downright enraged. They're always enraged, it seems. Well, it is what they do best, so I guess it was to be expected. They're angry with the establishment Republicans for not staging "Shutdown II -- This Time It's Personal!" or something. It's hard to tell, at times, just what all the tea party free-floating anger is about. But the main point is that on both the left and the right sides of the aisle, there are people who are not happy at all with the deal just announced. This will play itself out in the next week or two, so we'll have plenty of time to focus on it all as it happens.

All the praise showered upon the deal by the inside-the-Beltway chattering classes (or "to be showered in the upcoming week," I suppose) is just downright risible. In the first place, this isn't really "a budget"; it's a budget "framework." Congress hasn't collectively passed a real budget since 2009, in actuality. So, right there, this isn't all that notable. In the second place, by any normal schedule of operations, this deal is woefully tardy and should have been struck long ago -- say, last summer. Or, by any rational measure, it should at least have been in place before the first of October (the start of the federal fiscal year). Instead, the tea partiers demanded not just "no compromise!" but in fact "no negotiations!" meaning Congress wasted most of this year doing absolutely nothing rather than the conference committee negotiations which just happened -- which easily could have happened (and should have happened) many months ago. So it's no great feat that they hammered out a budget deal before their new artificially set deadline. Of course, meeting this self-imposed calendar date is news in and of itself, because of the whole tea party "let's just shut it down again" crusade, but when you step back and look at the larger picture, it is small potatoes indeed. "Look! We did our jobs! Only six or seven months late this time! Somebody pat us on the back, now, please?" is the best way to sum up the situation, in fact. As I said, downright laughable. No wonder Congress' job approval rating with the public is stuck in the single digits.

But all of these are distractions from an important story that is getting lost in the fray (so far). While the news stories all focus on this aspect of the deal or that (or just go for the throat of intraparty feuding on both sides), what is mentioned way, way down the page (as a minor aside) is that the deal just struck would prevent squabbling over the budget framework through 2015. At first glance, this doesn't seem that important a detail. "Interesting," you might think. "They went with a two-year budget for once." But why, exactly, would they do so? Why would both parties agree upon kicking the can not just a few months down the road but two years down the road? Indeed, why would they actually downplay this part of the deal?

Enter the crassness of American politics. Or rank cynicism, if you prefer. Or even naked cowardice. Because if you consider for just a short moment what the calendar would look like if they hadn't done this, what emerges is a deep-seated fear from both political parties about the actual popularity of their partisan stances on the federal budget. Congresscritters of both parties are afraid, to be blunt, that the public doesn't agree with them, their tactics, their priorities, or their budgeting skills.

Think about it: if the budget deal just announced were a normal "let's get through the end of the fiscal year" agreement, when would it end? The last day of September 2014. What happens one month (plus the "first Tuesday" thing) from then? The midterm election of 2014, when the voters go to the polls to shake up Congress. Since it's an "off year," this means that only the most committed voters from both sides of the spectrum can be expected to turn out. This is what should really be enraging the tea party, in fact: they are going to be denied a big budget fight right at the end of the campaign season next year.

Again, on first glance, this would seem to be (as Martha Stewart might say) a good thing. After all, do we really need the high-stakes drama of a possible government shutdown one month before the voters are expected to make a choice? A two-year deal will avoid this, for better or worse. But this is just too cynical and facile for me, personally. I'm more of the mind that there is in fact no better time to have a big budget argument than right before these folks ask to be retained in their jobs for a minimum of another two years. Crafting a federal budget is one of the most important things Congress is supposed to do, after all, for all that taxpayer cash we pay them every year. We, their employers, should get to see how they perform in this most basic of their duties, right before we give them their "performance evaluation" (so to speak) at the ballot box.

At its heart, this situation is no more than a by-blow of the current civil war happening between the tea partiers and the establishment Republicans. To put it another way, it's pretty easy to see who benefits most from avoiding a pre-election budget showdown. The establishment Republicans -- otherwise known as the "sane(r) wing of the party" -- recoil in horror from the prospect of fighting another "shut the gummint down!" battle with their more radical party members next October. They do not want this squabble on full display mere weeks before an election takes place, to put it mildly. These are Republicans who actually read real polling data instead of relying on fantasy and moonbeams for their political news. They saw the damage Republicans took with the public two months ago -- damage that would have been a lot worse if the Obamacare website had performed adequately in October instead of providing a gigantic distraction in the news. They, quite logically, do not want to see the Republican Party experience this kind of damage right before next year's midterm. You can't actually blame them for denying the tea partiers this fight by coming up with a two-year plan. It makes all kinds of sense for them to do so, in fact.

It's harder to see what Democrats get out of postponing budget brinksmanship until deep into 2015. A full-on budget fracas between the tea partiers and everyone else would seem to be a helpful thing for Democrats right before the midterms. One can only assume that Democrats are just as timid as the establishment Republicans about fighting for their own budget priorities right before the country votes. This is called "not having the courage of your convictions," at least on some level. This is even odder when you consider that Democrats seem to be teeing up a campaign centered on a big fight over income inequality and raising the minimum wage for 2014. It's a little mystifying that they wouldn't want to talk about the budget right before the election if it's the central plank in their campaign platform. Doing so would have focused attention on the parts of the federal budget which affect such things, which would seem to play into their hands, politically. But they've just bargained this possibility away.

Again, the kindest word for such actions for both establishment Republicans and Democrats is "timidity." But there is a very real reason that budget battles are never fully won and happen (to some degree of intensity) every single year in Congress: the two parties have vastly different ideas as to what the priorities should be for the money that Uncle Sam spends. This is, in fact, one of the defining differences between the parties. So why not have such a debate right before a national election? Shouldn't the voters be presented with both sides in order to make an informed choice?

Instead, what we get is "we're not going to fight about it next October." For better or for worse, getting through election season is more important. If that isn't the crassest of politics, then I don't know what is. The only reason that this aspect of the deal was agreed to -- by both sides, mind you -- is nothing short of shaking-in-their-boots fear of losing their jobs. Democrats and Republicans alike showed their craven nature by cutting a deal to avoid the subject of the budget until the end of 2015 so that they can have an easier (perceived) path to re-election. To me, that is the story the news should now be telling.

 

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