Instead of a Grand Bargain, Let's Have a Little Bargain

As part of the agreement to reopen the government, a House/Senate conference committee was formed to negotiate a new budget. The last time we tried this, with the "Supercommittee," the two sides couldn't agree, and that failure triggered sequestration, which was supposed to be so terrible for both sides (defense cuts that Republicans don't like, domestic spending cuts Democrats don't like) that it would force them to do anything to avoid it. But it now seems that Republicans don't have too much of a problem with sequestration. They're moving toward the position that undoing sequestration isn't something everyone agrees should happen, but instead is a concession Republicans would be making to Democrats, for which they'd have to be repaid with something they want, like cuts to Social Security and Medicare.* Sound familiar? It's not that different from when they said they didn't want the government to shut down, but not shutting the government down was a concession for which they'd need something in return.

While anything could happen, it seems that the odds are stacked against the conference committee being able to come to an agreement. Republicans want not only to cut social insurance, but also to slash all kinds of domestic spending. Democrats don't want that. Democrats would like to see more tax revenue. Republicans don't want that. Finding agreement is going to be hard.

But there is a way out. What if everybody put aside their demands, just for a year? What if they passed a budget that didn't do anything big at all, but just funded the government at about the level it's at now? No sweeping changes to the tax code, no draconian cuts, just an ordinary old budget where we tweak some things here and there. Would that be so bad?

This doesn't have to be The Budget To End All Budgets. Republicans surely have a political interest in not going through another crisis that does yet more damage to their public image. Democrats just want to stop these absurd games. So why can't we do it?

Of course, the deficit scolds who brought us the austerity policies that have done so much damage to the economy in recent years will cry that we can't "kick the can down the road." But actually, we can. Or more properly, we aren't. The budget deficit has already been cut in half from its 2009 height. The driver of long-term deficits is America's absurd healthcare costs, and not long ago we passed the most significant legislation seeking to contain them in pretty much ever. You may have heard of it—it's called the Affordable Care Act, and among other things it found hundreds of billions of dollars in savings in Medicare and began the process of changing incentives within the system to move away from rewarding providers for performing lots of procedures. How much of an impact it will have over the long term is uncertain, but the health spending curve is already bending.

So there has already been huge progress on the things the deficit scolds claim they care about, and they can't plausibly argue that a year without further austerity is going to significantly change the long-term picture. Of course, the Tea Partiers in the House who brought us the shutdown will scream and cry that we aren't killing government fast enough. But you know what? They're going to say that no matter what. If they want to express their outrage and vote against the budget, they should feel free.

Passing an ordinary budget wouldn't be pleasing to the faux deficit hawks like Paul Ryan either, who hype fear about the long-term budget picture to push for policy changes they want regardless of the balance sheet, like privatizing Medicare. But right now they're not in much of a position to demand that they get all the policy changes they want. If they take control of both houses of Congress and the White House by 2016, then they can argue that they've got a mandate to shred the safety net. But in 2013? No.

So let's take the easy way out. Sometimes, it's the best thing to do.


*A note: everyone uses the phrase "entitlement cuts," which sounds a lot better than "cuts to Social Security and Medicare," because nobody thinks they benefit from "entitlements" but people on Social Security and Medicare know they're getting them. I'd bet if you asked a random sample of Americans what "entitlements" are, most would have no idea, and a healthy chunk of the rest would say "welfare," which has shrunk to a tiny program that almost no one benefits from. So every time someone says "entitlements" they're serving the purposes of those who would like to cut the two entitlements that matter the most in terms of the budget.

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