Opinion

The Edgy Optimist

Why Washington’s growing irrelevance is good for the country

Zachary Karabell
Dec 13, 2013 19:52 UTC

After three years of sclerosis, Congress is poised to at last pass an actual budget. We’ve been so consumed with the dysfunction of the parties on Capitol Hill that this feat appears significant. In fact, it should be routine. Yet in the context of the past few years, it is anything but.

The budget that passed the House still must wend through the Senate, and it is not exactly a study in legislative daring. It is, however, an actual budget, passed with substantial support from both parties by a vote of 332 to 94 and negotiated by two leaders, one from each party and each chamber — Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) and Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington). The bill is the most modest endorsement of the current status quo, which stems from both the automatic and crude 2013 budget cuts known as the sequester, and from the chronic inability of either party to compromise over the past three years.

Even though the only real change over current spending is a modest $60 billion increase (meager in relation to the $15 trillion-plus U.S. economy), conservative groups still condemned it as too profligate and liberal groups assailed it as too draconian. Said Ted Cruz, who may be having mild limelight withdrawal, “The new budget deal moves in the wrong direction: it spends more, taxes more, and allows continued funding for Obamacare…I cannot support it.” Paul Krugman argued the contrary — that the bill is too meager, and does nothing to address the problem of structural, chronic unemployment. Writes Krugman: “if you look at what has happened since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 2010 — what you see is a triumph of anti-government ideology that has had enormously destructive effects on American workers.”

Partisanship aside, it’s tempting to look at the budget deal in one of two ways: our political system has fallen so low that just doing the minimum amount required to be a functional government is seen as a victory, or the fact that it took three years to pass a budget that essentially makes no changes is proof that the system is broken.

A third perspective is even closer to the mark — and cause for optimism. Namely, that both parties’ willingness to pass a budget that no one much likes is a sign that Washington neither can nor will torpedo the country. It is a sign as well that Washington neither can nor will save the country. That’s a far cry from an activist government doing good, or a small government doing much less. But it should come as a positive sign.

Budgeting for mistrust

Zachary Karabell
Mar 13, 2013 15:01 UTC

Paul Ryan unveiled the House Republican budget this week with an ominous yet familiar warning: “America’s national debt is over $16 trillion.” Having stated the problem, he then offered a solution, one which differed only marginally from what he’s offered the past two years. Namely: restrain government healthcare spending on Medicare and Medicaid, reform the individual tax code, close loopholes, lower corporate taxes, and promote natural gas and energy independence. The goal? A balanced budget by 2023 that will ensure “the well-being of all Americans…and reignite the American dream.”

The strongest part of Ryan’s unveiling is not the specifics, which may not be very strong at all, but the unimpeachable critique of the White House and congressional Democrats for not offering their own blueprint and budget for the future. Some of that is semantics; both the president and congressional Democrats have offered various rough outlines of their long-term budget, and now Senate Democrats offered their counterproposal. But until late they had operated more in the rough-and-tumble of dysfunctional Washington negotiations rather than with explicit, official and formal (and long) outlines of exactly what will be spent and how. Yes, each year the White House, through the Office of Management and Budget, does assess and express views about present spending. That is not the same as an explicit pathway for the future, which Ryan has indeed offered.

Such offerings are vital. You may, as I do, disagree with key elements of what Ryan and the Republicans are proposing. You may, as I do, object to the fixation on the size of the current debt without any consideration of why that debt was incurred and how much it currently costs to service it, given historically low interest rates. But Republicans are offering a set of answers, and Ryan for one is asking for those to be addressed so the process of debating and, yes, compromising can begin. No, the president is not required to offer a detailed budget; the power of the purse lies with Congress, not the White House. But a detailed vision, especially one that contrasts with the Republican one, would be welcome and productive.

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