The Real Value of the Budget Deal

It’s a small step, but the agreement starts to restore compromise to the governing process.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., left, and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., announce a tentative agreement between Republican and Democratic negotiators on a government spending plan, at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013. Negotiators reached the modest budget agreement to restore about $65 billion in automatic spending cuts from programs ranging from parks to the Pentagon, with votes expected in both houses by week's end.
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After over four years of failing to achieve a conference agreement on a federal budget blueprint, the chairs of the House and Senate Budget Committee achieved what many thought impossible only a few weeks ago. They found common ground among very diverse and politically opposite versions of budgets that each had passed earlier this year in their respective chambers.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, a conservative Republican and his Senate counterpart, Patty Murray of Washington, a liberal Democrat, should be praised for breaking an impasse that has stymied the most basic function of a government over the last many years – adopting a budget. Even if the agreement falls short of addressing the fundamental federal budgetary challenges that confront the country’s future, and it does, it nonetheless demonstrates that two very different political philosophies can still find common cause in a polarized country and a divided Congress.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

How remarkable is this achievement? Understand that not since 1986 has a divided Congress – then a Senate controlled by Republicans and a House run by Democrats – reached a budget conference agreement under the orderly procedures of the Budget Act. But even more astonishing is the simple fact that in the nearly 40 year history of the Budget Act there has never been a conference agreement on a budget outline when the House was controlled by Republicans and the Senate controlled by Democrats. We have had budget agreements over the years but primarily when one party controlled both chambers or, as has been the case for the last four years, no agreement with divided chambers, and ad-hoc procedures held together with little structure. Ryan and Murray have clearly shown that even with a conservative House and a left of center Senate, the federal government can still do its job of budgeting.

Whether this agreement was the result of political expediency to bolster Congress’s low poll ratings with the public or out of sheer exhaustion of trying to manage a $3.6 trillion budget from crisis to crisis, what matters most at this time in the country’s history is that compromise and statesmanship still exists in the bowels of Congress.

There is no way that a bipartisan agreement in a divided Congress will please everyone. Ryan, Murray and the congressional leaders understand this. Those of us who desired a grand bargain – including the president, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson and independent organizations including my own Bipartisan Policy Center – will be disappointed that fundamental changes to our tax code and entitlement programs were not addressed in this minimal agreement.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

And while the policies and the numbers of the Ryan-Murray agreement will be arrayed and flayed by those on the polar opposites of the right and left, such critiques will miss the real value of their accomplishment. It is a step, yes a baby step, in restoring some order and structure to our fiscal decision making process. After the recent government shutdown, the mindless sequester, threats of default to our national debt and a federal government stumbling from one crisis to another managing its operations, it breathes life back into a system that has always operated best with compromise and bipartisanship.

Can a democracy survive without compromise? The answer from the last few difficult years of failed budget negotiations, is probably yes, but at what cost? The biggest cost has been not to the federal accounting sheet, but the trust and support of the American public for our institutions of governance. The Founding Fathers of our democratic system, who themselves possessed strongly held and often opposing positions on the respective roles of the federal government, a federal executive and the states in managing the affairs of a young and expanding country, found the need to compromise and move forward. Indeed the Great Compromise of 1778 – the Constitution – was and is the touchstone upon which our democratic system has survived (and thrived) over 220 years.