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Budget agreement: A small victory

Does the two-year budget accord represent a return of sanity to Congress? Probably not.

Averting a self-inflicted wound is hardly an achievement for the ages, so if and when the two-year budget agreement negotiated by the White House and congressional leaders is approved by the House and Senate, the only hurrah should be from Rep. Paul Ryan, who is expected to be elected House speaker this week. Outgoing House Speaker John A. Boehner has cleared the decks of two big obstacles in Mr. Ryan's path — the possibility of a credit default and a potential failure to fund government, either of which might have been economic and political disasters.

Much has been made of the far-right's opposition to the bipartisan deal because the agreement would not only raise the debt ceiling through March of 2017 but would also provide $80 billion more for defense and domestic spending above the scheduled sequesters. Democrats shouldn't be all that excited about the deal either as it still means significant reductions to Social Security Disability Insurance and likely other safety net programs. That the measure would ease a scheduled Medicare Part B premium increase is only a modest victory for seniors.

But you probably won't hear nearly the grousing from the Democrats compared to what the Freedom Caucus will continue to spout because while the agreement may represent no more than a patch to sustain the federal government, it's a better-than-expected patch. Two years without the worry of a government shutdown is a significant improvement over the crisis-of-the-month governance Congress has offered in recent years. After Mr. Ryan, the next cheer could reasonably come from the Republicans running for president who won't have to explain how their party was willing to preside over economic collapse just to score political points with tea party factions back home.

The agreement also represents that rare act of bipartisan behavior in which neither side gets what it wants and both give ground — many of the GOP opposed cuts to the Pentagon while their Democratic counterparts didn't want to see huge reductions in domestic spending. That's how the legislative process is supposed to work. Mr. Boehner may be demonized by much of his party, but it's hard to believe even many of his most conservative members aren't secretly pleased that their suicide march has been put on a two-year hiatus. And all those complaints that the negotiations were done in secret? Please. In dysfunctional Washington, the last thing the two sides needed was for more lines to be drawn in the sand — which is exactly what would have happened as details leaked out.

Meanwhile, it appears rational behavior may be contagious. In another surprising action, the House on Monday took steps to revive the Export-Import Bank, circumventing Republican leadership by means of the rarely-used discharge petition to get a bill extending the bank's charter on the floor. The Ex-Im is essential for promoting foreign trade and U.S. job creation, and given the strength of the discharge vote, its reauthorization, at least through 2019, seems likely. Now, if only a congressional embrace of common sense could include other pending measures of similar importance like extending the deadline for railroads to comply with federal safety mandates or authorizing a six-year transportation spending plan. Failure to act on either could be disastrous for the nation's transportation systems and ultimately, for the economy.

Two more points. First, don't let anyone say that by extending the debt ceiling, Congress will be spending more money. That's not true. This is money that was already spent; raising the debt level merely allows the federal government to pay the bills for spending Congress already approved. And second, the tax-filing fees that are raised in the budget agreement don't represent any significant tax increase, let alone the comprehensive tax reform that is long overdue. The wealthiest Americans aren't paying their fair share, and as even Donald Trump has observed, the discount tax rates provided to hedge fund managers (through the carried interest loophole) can't be sustained.

In an ideal world, Congress would be achieving something more profound than merely avoiding the self-destructive and irrational behavior of not funding government or paying its bills. But surely by now, voters aren't expecting much out of the 114th. By that measure, what Mr. Boehner, in particular, will have achieved is noteworthy. Perhaps legislative leaders should resign more often, as it clearly frees them from trying to reconcile the irreconcilable and pander to extremist elements who are so indifferent to the common good.

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