Did Democrats Get Hosed on the Budget Bill?

Once again, Democrats had to step in and save John Boehner from a humiliating defeat that would lead to a government shutdown (67 Republicans voted against the bill; the 57 Democrats who voted in favor pushed it past a majority). There were complicated coalitions facing off; on one side you had Boehner and the White House trying to pass it, while on the other you had liberal Democrats joining with conservative Republicans in opposition. The general conclusion in the press is well summed up by articles like this one, noting that while the liberals failed to stop the bill, this is nonetheless a potentially seminal moment, because they went against the White House, and vocally so. The question is whether this signals an important rift that will have real practical consequences in the next two years and beyond.

That is important, but before we get there, there's a substantive matter we need to take note of. This budget bill was cobbled together in haste, but there was time to throw in some goodies that Republicans wanted. You've probably heard about the provision literally written by Wall Street lobbyists that will give them taxpayer backing for certain risky derivatives trades (what could possibly go wrong?). Granted, some Democrats were happy to go along with that, but it wasn't like it was a top Democratic priority. But since Democratic votes were needed to pass the budget, there must have been some goodies tossed in there for the liberals, too. Right?

Actually, not really.

But before we get to that, here's a list of some things in the bill that will warm conservative hearts (you can read about more here):

  • Wall Street's derivatives trading provision
  • A rule allowing donors to give ten times as much to political parties
  • A block on DC's marijuana legalization
  • A loosening of nutrition requirements for school lunches (take that, Michelle Obama!)
  • A series of anti-environmental riders, including barring funds to help developing countries cut carbon emissions
  • A large cut to the EPA budget; staffing at the agency will be reduced to its lowest level since 1989
  • A provision blocking the EPA from applying the Clean Water Act to certain kinds of farms
  • A large cut to the IRS budget
  • A cut to the Affordable Care Act's Independent Payment Advisory Board
  • A cut to the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC), and a requirement that the program's nutrition vouchers can be used to buy potatoes (inserted at the behest of the potato lobby)
  • An elimination of funding for Obama's Race to the Top education initiative

That's a lot that conservatives can be happy about. So what about liberals? In the press briefing White House spokesperson Josh Earnest held yesterday, he tried to explain what the White House was getting out of the deal. He noted that they got the funding to combat Ebola that they wanted, which is good, but it isn't exactly an item off the liberal wish list. He mentioned money to fight ISIL—again, something the White House wants, but not a treat for the left. Then pretty much everything else he cited was the absence of cuts to important programs, or cuts that weren't as large as they might have been.

In other words, the Republicans got a bunch of things they wanted, while Democrats avoided getting too much taken away from them. It's as though two kids showed up at your door on Halloween, and you dropped a handful of Twix bars into Superman's bag, but told Princess Elsa, "Your treat is that I'm not going to reach into your bag and take those KitKats."

It's possible that there are giveaways to liberals buried so deep in the bill's pages that no one has noticed them yet. And I guess you could argue that just keeping the government running is a victory for the party of government. But it sure looks like in a situation where Democrats had plenty of leverage to kill the bill if they wanted, enough of them joined in to pass it, but didn't get much in return, while Republicans got a whole bunch of favors.