John Boehner said last month that he wanted to “clean the barn” for his successor as Speaker of the House. But his eleventh-hour budget deal is a pigsty-worthy mess.
The speaker’s office is advertising the deal, struck Monday with Senate leaders and the White House, as a necessary debt-limit increase that will be offset by spending cuts and entitlement reforms. In reality, it is a “clean” debt-ceiling increase appended to a bill that effectively breaks the budget caps established by the Budget Control Act of 2011, the notorious “sequestration” that has proven about the only fiscal discipline of which Washington, D.C., is capable.
Under the deal, the federal borrowing limit — currently $18.1 trillion — is suspended through March 15, 2017. Meanwhile, the bill increases total spending by $80 billion over the next two years — $50 billion the first year, $30 billion the next, to be split equally between defense and non-defense discretionary spending. In the wake of the president’s veto of the National Defense Authorization Act and his proclamation that he will “not fix defense spending without fixing non-defense spending,” this arrangement will soothe Republican defense hawks, who claim (rightly) that the military is underfunded. But the federal government needs to put defense first, not use defense as an excuse for spending generally.
Moreover, how these spending increases are “fully offset,” as Boehner maintains, is far from clear. He is touting savings elsewhere in the budget — cuts in certain Medicare payments, cost-reducing reforms to Social Security Disability Insurance — along with the sale of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the return of sequestration several years from now. The Congressional Budget Office projects a net reduction in spending after ten years, but that assumes future Congresses will make good on this deal’s promises. Given that back-loaded spending cuts have a tendency to end up forgotten, the only thing that seems certain is that the federal government will increase spending dramatically over the next two years, with no guarantee that spending will be brought back down afterward.
#share#Boehner’s desire to keep incoming House speaker Paul Ryan and Republican presidential candidates from being embroiled in debt-ceiling or budget battles going into the campaign season is understandable. But this deal offers large, unnecessary concessions in exchange for minor gains: Requiring a medical review before awarding benefits under the Social Security Disability Insurance program is a desirable reform, but it is hardly the sort of thing that will change the trajectory of a failing entitlement program; after all, the deal reallocates $150 billion from the Social Security Trust Fund over the next three years simply to keep the Disability Insurance Trust Fund solvent.
This deal offers large, unnecessary concessions in exchange for minor gains.
That all of this took place in closed-door negotiations is not reassuring, nor is giving House members less than 48 hours to acquaint themselves with the 146-page bill. Paul Ryan has suggested that he will manage the House differently — “Under new management, we’re not going to do business like this,” he told CNN on Monday evening — and he should.
Boehner’s large, convoluted stopgap measure is almost certain to pass, with the help of House Democrats. And while Republicans may welcome escaping the prospect of more budget fights during this president’s last year, it gives the president billions of dollars to throw at his pet projects, and creates further precedent for Congress to renege on its spending commitments.
We have looked on John Boehner’s speakership more kindly than many other conservatives. This is a disappointing way for him to go out.