Just Because Congress Cut a Budget Deal Doesn't Mean It's a Good One

Undeserved applause for Ryan-Murray budget deal

As a novelist once put it, President Calvin Coolidge "aspired to become the least president the country had ever had; he attained his desire." Last week, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) managed to negotiate what may be considered "the least" budget the House has ever passed.

Yet ever since the deal was announced, Washington has been patting itself on the back for the deal, which -- at least temporarily -- halts a two-year war waged by GOP obstructionists that has paralyzed, and even shut down, the government. President Obama, even while acknowledging the deal's shortcomings, said that its mere existence was "a good sign that Democrats and Republicans in Congress were able to come together and break the cycle of shortsighted, crisis-driven decision making to get this done." The Economist put it more plainly: "What is in the deal . . . is perhaps less important than the fact that there is one."

Yet this excessive affection for dealmaking -- any deal at all -- obscures the truth: Simply doing something doesn't mean that you're doing the right thing.

Consider the salient details. The deal finances the government for the next two years and reduces the effects of sequestration, the across-the-board cuts Congress imposed on itself to force a budget deal (which, of course, it failed to reach).

In other words, we're supposed to congratulate Congress for reaching a bipartisan agreement that partially fixes something it broke.

In a joint appearance with Murray on Sunday's "Meet the Press", Ryan said "You gotta, you know, crawl before you can walk before you can run." Indeed.

There's something troubling, even farcical, about lawmakers applauding their own mediocrity, handing themselves medals of participation for showing up to work on time. These days, it may be noteworthy when elected officials engage in the most basic functions of government. But a smoothly operating Congress is not necessarily moral, humane or even economically smart.

In fact, while pundits debate whether Republicans or Democrats won the negotiations, the real losers are the American people, on whose backs the deal was brokered. Never mind that it makes none of the crucial investments in education, infrastructure and research that will secure our future. This budget is a lousy deal for the millions of Americans still out of work, for the 1 in 5 children growing up in poverty, for the countless families still struggling to make ends meet.

It cuts the pensions of federal workers and military retirees while keeping wide open egregious tax loopholes that benefit the wealthiest. It reduces domestic discretionary spending to Bush-era levels. It does absolutely nothing to create jobs at a time when unemployment remains our biggest economic problem.

Negotiators didn't even extend unemployment benefits -- set to expire three days after Christmas -- for 1.3 million long-term unemployed workers (and millions of their children), but they managed to boost Medicare fees for already wealthy doctors. Meanwhile, conservatives and progressives agree that letting unemployment benefits lapse would further imperil our fragile economic recovery. In addition to being needlessly cruel, this deal is just plain bad policy.

Advocates of compromise for compromise's sake argue that everybody sacrifices something in a tough negotiation. This is an easy mantra to toss around when you're talking about sacrificing political cover as opposed to, say, a roof over your head.

Compromise is being treated not as a means to a better end, but as an end in itself. Much of the national media feeds this narrative by churning out one process story after another, emphasizing bipartisanship above all else. "A compromise federal budget plan . . . represented rare convergence between the two parties," CNN reported. "The House ended 2013 on a rare bipartisan note by passing a budget deal supported by a nearly equal number of Republicans and Democrats," said Politico.

At the same time, there has been no shortage of breathless analysis about whether Democrats or Republicans "won" the negotiation, whether Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is breaking up with the extreme right wing of his party and how all of this will impact the 2014 midterm elections -- signs of the Beltway's unrelenting insularity.

Outside of Washington, local and regional media around the country are taking it upon themselves to cover what's most important -- the very real consequences of this deal for the lives of Americans. As Wisconsin papers such as the Reporter and the Daily Tribune reminded Ryan, there are 99,000 Wisconsinites who stand to lose their unemployment benefits.

This week, the Senate will take up the Ryan-Murray budget deal -- and though few GOP Senators will support the deal, it seems likely to pass. This "least" budget is literally the least they can do. And that's too bad, especially during the holiday season, because the people this budget hurts most are the least among us.

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