There’s a lot not to like in the budget deal that Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., have struck on behalf of their respective parties and legislative houses. It does basically nothing to resolve the country’s long-term fiscal predicament. It does very little to correct the growing imbalance between discretionary spending and entitlements as a share of the federal budget. And even these modest policy achievements required the use of a budgetary gimmick or two.
Yet the deal has one overriding virtue: It exists. Republican and Democratic leaders have produced a bipartisan spending plan — and one that doesn’t increase the deficit through fiscal year 2015 at that. Now House and Senate appropriations committees can proceed to allocate funds within the overall caps set by the Murray-Ryan agreement: roughly $520 billion for defense and $490 billion for non-defense discretionary spending over the next two years. This eases the “sequester,” restores needed funds to defense and all but banishes the threat of a government shutdown like the GOP-engineered fiasco that so badly damaged this country’s reputation in October.
In short, the agreement’s importance is not fiscal but political: It amounts to a truce in the destructive budgetary wars that have plagued Washington since the advent of a Republican-majority House in 2011. During the interlude, U.S. businesses can invest in job-creating (and deficit-reducing) growth without worrying too much about disruptions from Washington. And lawmakers can address long-term questions such as tax and entitlement reform — assuming they want to.
They should. Yes, President Obama and Congress have already achieved some long-term fiscal adjustment, to the tune of $2.7 trillion over 10 years, according to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Yet deficits are hardly the stuff of “a stale debate from two years ago or three years ago,” as President Obama suggested in a speech last week. What little deficit reduction the Murray-Ryan agreement claims to produce comes from a classic budgetary “magic asterisk”: $28 billion in promised restraint in mandatory spending (mostly Medicare) in 2022 and 2023.