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Budget: The big meh

Thursday night and Friday morning produced a lot of drama in Congress. There was a brief government shutdown, a one-senator filibuster, intra-party squabbling by Democrats and Republicans alike and, in the wee hours, a budget agreement that raises federal spending by hundreds of billions of dollars and seemingly takes Washington out of its pattern of lurching from one spending or debt ceilings crisis to another — at least until September of next year.

President Donald Trump, of course, signed the bill as quickly as possible and instantly celebrated the opportunity to spend more on the military. “We love and need our Military and gave them everything — and more,” the president tweeted. They sure did: At the very least, particularly when combined with how Republicans rammed through Congress a $1.5 trillion tax cut that primarily benefits the affluent, it shows that Mr. Trump and his party are not at all serious about the controlling the deficit, especially not this year.

Oh, the GOP deficit hawks had their moments to complain, most particularly Sen. Rand Paul who held up the victory parade long after the necessary votes were lined up and ready to go. But where were they when their party was handing out tax cuts like beads at Mardi Gras? They were tossing the trinkets off the carnival float left and right, that’s where. Lesson? Deficits are bad under Democrats, but when Republicans have control of the White House and both halls of Congress? Laissez les bon temps rouler, mes amis.

Still, to get the measure through the House required help from Democrats who had previously threatened a government shutdown if Congress failed to do something about the “Dreamers,” the immigrants brought to this country as children who had been protected under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals order. Getting billions in domestic spending was too good an offer for 73 House Democrats to pass up, which more than offset the 67 Republicans who couldn’t bring themselves to support their leadership. It was the right call — holding the budget hostage for a DACA substitute was never an appropriate course of action Friday or before — but it demonstrated that Democrats have something of a split in their ranks as well.

But here’s the real problem with the budget agreement. It’s taking the country down a path that is not sustainable. Make no mistake, we support many of the programs that stand to benefit from the added spending like Medicare, community health centers and the Children’s Health Insurance Program or CHIP. But increasing deficit spending at this point in time — when the economy is already nearing full employment, consumer confidence is high and interest rates are expected to rise — is terrifically bad timing. It’s likely one reason why the stock market has gotten so volatile in recent days with two 1,000-point drops in the Dow. Unlike the 2009 legislation that was designed to prevent a second Great Depression, Republicans have essentially produced a stimulus when one wasn’t needed, and investors are scared that interest rates are about to shut down the party.

What is actually necessary, and has been for years, is a plan that both reins in spending and raises taxes where appropriate to eventually put the federal government on a path that isn’t ruinous. That was the notion advanced by President Barack Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (also known as Simpson-Bowles after its chairs, former Sen. Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles). It was also at the heart of the semi-foolish budget sequestration measure of 2011 that attempted to reduce spending but whose limits on defense spending are essentially overridden by this latest budget agreement.

Some people will notice the hypocrisy, of course, but others will see this as a welcome sign that the parties aren’t captives to their respective extremes. That’s interesting, but it’s still not any great example of leadership on the budget. Oh, and there’s still the matter of the Dreamers who deserve to get their path to citizenship without ending family unification opportunities for everyone else.

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