The first reviews are in on the budget deal agreed to by Republican House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan and Democratic Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray, and people on both the left and the right have found plenty not to like about it. This is no grand bargain or long-term settlement of the great divide over how to achieve fiscal sanity. It neither reins in spending nor does it provide for what Ryan has always said was most needed for the government to get its fiscal house in order: fundamental entitlement reform. That’s more than enough reason for many conservatives and Tea Partiers to reject it out of hand as an inadequate compromise that merely keeps feeding the government leviathan that they rightly believe needs to be cut back rather than maintained.
But, if, like the those on the left who will vote against it because it makes some cuts and doesn’t give them their wish list items like an expansion of unemployment benefits, conservatives manage to torpedo Ryan’s efforts, they will be making a huge mistake. After a three-year standoff between the parties on the budget, it was time for a truce. The modest deal restores certainty to the economy and eliminates some of the most painful sequester cuts, including those involving defense. Though it falls far short of anything that might be called reform, it does establish a principle that is necessary to it: any discretionary spending increases are offset by mandatory spending cuts. That is a step toward fiscal sanity that should be taken.
Those on the right who are dismayed about the abandonment of the sequester have a point. Only by insisting on mandatory and draconian across-the-board cuts have Republicans been able to make any kind of an impact on the fiscal debate. But as useful as the sequester has been, it is too imprecise an instrument to become a permanent part of the process. As our Max Boot has repeatedly pointed out, the cuts that have been imposed on defense are damaging national security and must, sooner or later, be eliminated.
Many on the right are also denouncing Ryan’s deal not just because it doesn’t give them what they want on taxes and spending but because they don’t see the need to compromise at this moment. They see President Obama’s poll numbers falling and think the time is right to push hard again for the kind of reform that is needed, not an agreement that merely kicks the can down the road. But this is the same kind of faulty thinking from groups like Heritage Action and Freedom Works that led conservatives to shut down the government as part of a vain effort to defund ObamaCare. Apparently they’ve learned nothing from that debacle.
This is exactly the wrong time for the GOP to go back to a scenario where they can be depicted as impeding efforts to keep the government working. Doing so would distract the country from the ongoing worries about the devastating impact of ObamaCare on individuals and the economy.
Tactics aside, the deal is necessary because it reflects the reality of divided government that both President Obama and the Tea Party have been butting heads over ever since the 2010 midterms. Under the current circumstances there is simply no way for either the Republicans in charge of the House of Representatives or the Democrats running the White House and the Senate to get their way. The accord reached between Ryan and Murray is simply an acknowledgement of this fact and an effort to keep the nation on an even keel until we can have another election to try and resolve this mess next November.
Avoiding compromise and setting off another cataclysmic fight over the budget or the debt ceiling (the latter is not part of this deal, leaving both parties free to set off another confrontation sometime in 2014 if they wish) satisfies the conservative impulse to draw a line in the sand over an ever-expanding government. But, as Ryan has said, Congress must deal with the world as it is rather than merely operate on the basis of how they’d like it to be. The only hope of getting closer to real entitlement reform is for the GOP to win the 2014 midterms. Some on the right are still laboring under the delusion that staging another shutdown or threatening a default is the right way to make their case to the country. But only someone utterly insensitive to the mood of the country would think that is either good politics or good public policy. If they go back to those tactics, Republicans will be forfeiting any chance of winning back the Senate in the coming year.
There’s little doubt that Republicans worried about primary challenges from the right or thinking about running for president in 2016 will be inclined to eschew any such compromise. But passing this budget will give their party a shot at winning in the midterms and take the wind out of the Democratic effort to paint them as irresponsible. Compromise is often the coward’s way out and leads to more trouble. But in this case, it is simply good sense. Though the cuts it imposes are no more than a rounding error, Republicans will do well to take what they can rather than to seek the impossible and thus render more progress less likely.
A truce is something you embrace when it will enable you to go back into the fray better prepared to prevail. Ryan is smart enough to know this, even if some of his colleagues don’t. It’s time for the GOP to keep its powder dry and come back to the table when they’ve got the votes and the seats to pass the kind of reform budget that Ryan and the rest of his party would prefer.