John Boehner and congressional Republicans are to be congratulated for their performance in the recent budget negotiations, both for the modest victory they achieved and the potential defeat they escaped. In wringing another $38 billion in spending cuts out of Senate Democrats and the Obama administration, they have made another marginal gain in the struggle for the long-term solvency of the American government. In their willingness to take a half a loaf, they avoided a shutdown and the risk they would be blamed for it — a high-wire act for very low stakes.
It is easy to make too much of the new cuts. As budget hawks are eager to remind Republicans, those $38 billion in new cuts come in the context of a $1.6 trillion deficit in fiscal year 2011. These cuts are obviously not sufficient, and some of them probably aren’t particularly real (Democrats want cuts that don’t actually reduce the baseline of future budgets). They also don’t include Planned Parenthood, although it may take a Republican president to get that odious organization off the federal dime.
But it is also easy to make too little of the cuts. Republicans control only the House of Representatives, and the 2010 election has hardly sidelined the Democrat-controlled Senate or President Obama. It is remarkable the extent to which House Republicans — driven by the Tea Party — have been able to dictate Washington’s agenda. They have forced President Obama to accept cuts — and even to brag about them — while maintaining Republican momentum and energy for the more serious contest that awaits.
Two urgent fiscal matters remain before us. The first is the fight over raising the debt ceiling again. Republicans have made it clear that they expect significant progress on controlling spending as part of that deal, and the public’s distaste for raising the limit will give them real leverage. They must push for serious statutory restraints on spending, and for as much of the broad parameters of the Paul Ryan budget resolution as possibly can be exacted, in exchange for a vote on increasing the limit.
Ryan’s budget proposal has already forced President Obama to declare a mulligan on his own budget (which raised taxes, spending, and the deficit) and advance a new set of proposals, which he will outline in a speech slated for Wednesday. That will set the stage for an epic clash between Obama’s vision and that of the Republicans. In all likelihood it won’t be decided until the 2012 election, but the last week — when Republicans showed they can be both principled and shrewd — is encouraging. On to the main event.