Sixteen days after parts of the federal government were shut down because House Republicans refused to approve a spending plan unless it defunded or delayed health care reform and after coming close to causing a breach of the federal debt limit that would cause a catastrophic default, Congress and the President have enacted legislation to address both problems — for a while.
The deal does not change health care reform in any significant way and provides appropriations to keep the federal government running through January 15. It also suspends the debt ceiling until February 7, likely giving the Treasury until sometime in March before it requires another change in the debt ceiling.
As we have already explained, President Obama and Congressional Democrats had already more or less accepted the level of spending demanded by Republicans (a level of spending that assumed sequestration or other cuts equally large would stay in place) at the beginning of the debate over the continuing resolution (CR) that Congress needed to enact to keep the government running. But House Republicans demanded eliminating or delaying the health care reform law — even though it is funded entirely separately from the programs covered by the CR.
Of course, this all could happen again. The government could partially shut down again on January 15 if spending legislation is not enacted, and the U.S. could default on its debt in March if legislation is not enacted to raise the debt ceiling. Hopefully, Congressional Republicans will accept President Obama’s stance that the debt ceiling is simply not something that should be negotiated at all because a debt default would be so calamitous for the U.S. and the world economy. But there will still be plenty to argue about when Congress turns to the spending legislation needed to avoid another shutdown.
Budget Conference Panel Should Raise Taxes or Go Home
The deal that Congress and the President just enacted sets up a process for Congress to work out its differences and avoid another shutdown, at least in theory. The deal calls for the House and Senate to form a conference committee to work out the differences between the fiscal year 2014 budget resolutions approved in the spring by each chamber, and to report an agreement by December 13.
But the most likely scenario is that the committee will come to no agreement at all by December 13, and Congress eventually will enact another continuing resolution that keeps federal spending at the current harmfully anemic level.
Unlike the President’s debt commission in 2010 (the “Simpson-Bowles commission”) and the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction in 2011 (the “Super Committee”), this panel is the normal conference committee that traditionally works out differences between House-passed and Senate-passed bills.
But it’s very unlikely that the committee can come to any such agreement. The Senate budget resolution is relatively moderate, but the House budget resolution is so ideological that it makes compromise seem impossible.
The House budget resolution, nicknamed the “Ryan Plan” after House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, calls for overhauling the tax code without raising any new revenue and calls for huge program cuts to balance the budget. The Senate budget resolution, crafted by Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray, would raise $975 billion over a decade, bringing revenue to an extra 0.7 percent of the economy, and also calls for $975 billion in spending cuts.
We have pointed out before that the level of tax revenue projected to be collected under current law (which has recently been adjusted downward from 19.1 to 18.5 percent of the economy) would not have covered federal spending in any but a handful of the past thirty years. It is also wildly unrealistic to assume, as the Ryan plan does, that the deficit can be eliminated without raising revenue from this level.
This is why the spending cuts included in the Ryan plan are so draconian that they involve eliminating health insurance for millions of Americans and making massive cuts to safety net programs for poor and working families.
A CTJ report explains that the few details that the Ryan plan does set out for tax reform could not possibly be enacted without giving millionaires an average tax cut of at least $200,000, while requiring people at lower income levels to make up the difference.
The two resolutions also take different approaches to the deficit. The Senate resolution reduces it but does not eliminate it entirely, which is appropriate given that the projected short-term deficit has dropped sharply. Paul Ryan’s schizophrenic view that deficits are a huge problem but revenue increases cannot be used to address them is reflected in the House resolution’s reliance on enormous, harmful cuts in entitlements and safety net programs to balance the budget.
In theory, Murray and Ryan, who will co-chair the new budget conference committee, could come up with a compromise that does some good, like ending the damage done by sequestration. But any “deal” or “compromise” that fails to raise tax revenue from wealthy individuals and corporations should be rejected.