The American people have spoken: they are tired of the partisan gridlock and brinkmanship in Washington, D.C., that has served only as a persistent drag our still-fragile economy. Could it be that Congress is finally listening?
In a rare display of compromise that has eluded Congress over the last few years, both the House and Senate passed a two-year budget agreement that not only eliminates the near-term threat of another government shutdown, but also restores some of the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration. That's quite an achievement for a divided Congress that has failed to agree on a budget since 2009.
The president's signature was assured on the measure, which averts $63 million in across-the-board cuts that were themselves the result of an earlier inability of lawmakers and the White House to agree on a sweeping deficit reduction plan. The sequestration resulted in numerous furloughs, harming military readiness, and also cut funding for local school districts, health researchers and Head Start preschool programs.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle praised some aspects of the budget deal. Democrats are happy about restoring money for Head Start and education, and lawmakers in both parties and the White House cheered the cancellation of future cuts at the Pentagon. Plus, Congress (especially Republicans) can avoid another hit in the polls like when the government shut down for 16 days in October.
Of course, not everything is peaches and cream with this budget. One of the ways in which this legislation offsets the added spending is a provision to curtail annual cost of living increases in benefits that go to military veterans under age 62, saving the government $6.3 billion over a decade.
Naturally that has veterans groups and their allies in Congress objecting vehemently to what they said was a singling out of former members of the military. That reaction is understandable given how much this particular group has already sacrificed for our country. However, the harsh reality is that if the bill did not pass, the Pentagon would have taken another $20 billion hit from sequestration cuts early next year, with some personnel furloughed as a result.
Still, leaders from both parties have promised to take another look at that provision before it takes effect in 2015.
Not surprisingly, Tea Party organizations lined up to oppose the legislation, arguing that it would raise spending. That's a legitimate concern because deficits are projected to rise slightly for the next three years with this bill, and let's face it the government can't keep spending with wanton abandon. But deficit reduction efforts should be done through careful consideration of the benefits and drawbacks of such cuts, and not while in crisis mode under the threat of more gridlock, a default on our current debt obligations or another government shutdown.
What is surprising about this budget agreement is that of the 48 representatives identifying themselves as members of the Tea Party, only 23 kept in line with that caucus to vote against the deal. That's a significant shift for a group that marches in formation, notes Christian Science Monitor.
Perhaps the Tea Party members in the House who voted for the budget bill finally realized that for government to work each side must be willing to put partisanship aside, even if it means you don't get everything exactly as you want it. Sometimes the long-term stability of our economy and our government are more important.
As U.S. Jon Tester, D-Mont., told CNN: "We need to get some certainty, and that's what this does. Nothing's going to be perfect in this world. It's called compromise."
Well now, that's a refreshing attitude coming out of Washington. But will it last?
Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University, cautions that Congress may have passed a bipartisan budget deal, but it comes after a "huge train wreck." That context is important to remember, he told Christian Science Monitor. Congress isn't trying to solve big issues like entitlement reform. It is simply avoiding another train wreck. "The question is, can Congress make deals without crises like this."
We'll find out as appropriation committees in the House and Senate work in the coming weeks to assemble a massive bill that implements the deal and carves up the funding pies among thousands of government programs. Is this really a new era of bipartisanship and compromise in Washington, or is it just a passing fad? We're truly hoping for the former.