Washington lives down to expectations, expects vast praise


Parents of small children and owners of dogs know that if they set low expectations for their charges, they’ll end up with underachievers. American voters can see that phenomenon in action in the budget deal worked out by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

The deal is being praised as some kind of a breakthrough. This presents the question: Are they kidding?

The agreement, which still must be debated and passed by both houses of Congress, achieves almost nothing that government should do for its citizens, especially its weakest and most vulnerable citizens.


Ryan and Murray left in place the expiration of unemployment benefits set for Jan. 1, which will hit 1.3 million unemployed workers. As Matthew Yglesias observes, the cutoff will condemn the long-term unemployed to near permanent joblessness while removing the last vestiges of their safety net.

The increase in federal spending written into the deal -- about $45 billion in 2014 over the level mandated under the 2011 sequester -- would be evenly split between defense and non-defense spending. It wouldn’t reverse the $5-billion cut in food stamp benefits imposed Nov. 1, much less stave off further cuts being contemplated by well-fed lawmakers of the House and Senate. It wouldn’t reverse reductions in Head Start program funding that have cost 57,000 children an opportunity for early education. Nor will it do much to restore cuts in public housing or meals programs.

The negotiators are trolling for kudos for raising revenues without raising income taxes, a maneuver that leaves the tax burden on the wealthy at close to the lowest level in half a century. Instead, they’re claiming increased revenues from jacking up fees on air travel. They also expect praise -- or at least Murray, the Democrat, does -- for averting cuts to Social Security and Medicare, which would have been intolerable considering how little is done to exact any sacrifices at all from people at the upper end of the income scale.

Taken together, the deal perpetuates the austerity regime demanded by the GOP and agreed to by Democrats in 2011. It relieves some of the friction imposed on recovery by federal fiscal policy, but not much. In fact, as Yuval Levin of the conservative National Review observes, it sets discretionary spending below the level advocated by Ryan in his first proposed budget in 2011, which was viewed by Democrats as a horrific cut in federal outlays. (H/T: Kevin Drum.)

If this deal leads to a larger breakup of conservative economic obstructionism, one supposes it’s better than nothing. But that’s a big if. In the meantime, the debate about government responsibility in Washington has narrowed to the point where millions of Americans are cast out from under the umbrella. Let’s hope the lawmakers don’t break their arms patting themselves on the back for this “achievement.”