At first glance, it would be tempting to condemn the bipartisan budget agreement announced late Tuesday by Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, if only because it asks further sacrifice of the unemployed and of federal workers. Those are hardly the two groups on whose backs the rollback of certain untenable sequestration cuts should be made.
Extending unemployment benefits at a time of high unemployment used to be a given in this country no matter one's political leanings. But now it appears that there's no touching the hearts of Congressional Scrooges this year. Federal workers, on the other hand, are simply too easy a target (members of Congress hardly ever get kicked out of office for going hard on government employees).
Neither decision passes the fairness test, not when the federal deficit is driven far more by the broad growth of entitlement and defense spending and not when corporate welfare and outrageous tax loopholes are left untouched. Even the agreement's chief accomplishment — a two-year end to the partisan paralysis that caused the government shutdown and has so hampered the nation's economic recovery — seems a bit modest. The price of restoring sensible behavior should not be such a great burden on so few.
But as distasteful as those elements of the deal may be, the plan has its merits beyond the mere guarantee that there won't be another government shutdown from now until October of 2015. One of those, despite contrary claims by the House Budget Committee's chairman, is that the deal includes a tax increase.
That's right. The leader of the Republican Party's deficit-reduction team and a darling of the tea party wing has signed off on 10 years of tax increases — or as Mr. Ryan would prefer to call them, fee increases. They include $12.6 billion in higher ticket costs for airline passengers, $8 billion in fees for private pensions and $6 billion lifted from the pockets of student-loan debt collectors. One might even see the money taken from federal workers as a tax since it will be taken out of their paychecks in the same manner — about $12 billion over the same decade.
Such a concession gives rise to the hope that Republicans can continue to support tax increases to trim the deficit by calling them "fees" or employing some other legerdemain. This may finally be the end to the Grover Norquist no-tax pledge that has so hamstrung the GOP and prevented a more common sense approach to government taxation and spending.
To put it simply, the federal government is going to have to spend less and tax more if the U.S. is to reduce its debt burden. That's been the only real solution to the problem from the beginning, as much as some would like to pretend that welfare cheats and lazy government employees are solely responsible for the federal debt. What's really required, as President Barack Obama likes to say, is shared sacrifice.
Admittedly, the Ryan-Murray deal doesn't take us very far down that road. It restores $63 billion in sequester cuts, chiefly to the benefit of the U.S. Department of Defense, without raising overall discretionary spending by shifting cuts to domestic programs like Medicare. Ultimately, it results in $23 billion more in deficit reduction.
That's a modest achievement at best. That's why the real potential accomplishment to brag about is the proverbial laying down of arms by budget negotiators. It demonstrates that Republicans and Democrats can find some common ground in budget negotiations — or at least avoid their more self-destructive impulses.
That doesn't exactly make them Nelson Mandela but it does bring a temporary end to the insanity of costly government shutdowns. That's assuming that Mr. Ryan can sell the plan to members of the tea party caucus, who are already getting lobbied against it by conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity and Heritage Action.
Sparing the military from cuts Pentagon leaders say would greatly damage U.S. security used to be a no-brainer for Republicans. Now, they are the uncertain selling point upon which Mr. Ryan must win approval for his "fees." Democrats won't be all that happy either, of course, but liberals have their hands too full these days defending Obamacare to put up a fight that isn't likely to result in help for the unemployed anyway.
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