Perhaps the best thing that can be said of the $1.1 trillion tax and spending plan passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama late last week was that it avoided a government shutdown and brought a measure of sanity and predictability to the federal budgetary process. The government is funded through the end of September of next year, and there's something to be said for that much certainty given recent history.
The rest of it was a bipartisan compromise and reflected the give and take that such an agreement implies. There are a lot of tax cuts (in the order of $700 billion), some good, some distinctly bad, and there are important initiatives funded including, close to home, a big boost for the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health. The legislation is also notable for what it doesn't do — it doesn't restrict federal funding to Planned Parenthood, halt Syrian immigration, hamstring the EPA, repeal Obamacare or contain many of the other damaging policy riders that extremists in Congress sought.
Most Americans likely took little notice of the measure — and given that it's 2,000 pages long, its safe to say its contents, released publicly less than one week ago, are fully understood by a modest number of folks both inside or outside the beltway. A New York Times account of how lobbyists asserted considerable late-hour influence to win tax breaks for the hotel, restaurant and gambling industries as well as big Wall Street investors is sadly less than shocking. And you didn't hear much bragging out of Congress over the weekend either, which is usually a sign of a genuine bipartisan compromise (or at least a strong desire to leave town for the holiday break).
But there was one group that has mustered strong feelings about the omnibus measure — Republican conservatives who are particularly incensed that House Speaker Paul Ryan was willing to go along with the deal. More than one right-wing media outlet has termed his actions a "betrayal," which, not coincidentally, is exactly the word used to describe the spending bill by tea partiers Sens. Ted Cruz and Jeff Sessions, who seldom view bipartisan compromise through any different prism.
Granted, genuine fiscal conservatives should be unhappy. There's nothing in the legislation that is going to reduce the deficit and, in fact, it's going to have exactly the opposite effect, particularly because of the special-interest tax cuts. But much of the ire isn't on the deficit-expanding tax cuts, it's directed at the hot-button social issues like refugee policy and especially Speaker Ryan's failure to go to the mat — meaning, presumably, he didn't force Washington into that red-alert, game of chicken, no-holds-barred hostage-taking showdown that the right-wing expects to accomplish who knows what.
Predictably, this has already spurred a movement to remove Mr. Ryan from his post. Whether it will take hold or not, it's far too early to tell. But the ferocity of the response and the willingness of tea party factions to turn so quickly on Mr. Ryan underscores how ungovernable and fractious the GOP has become with or without Donald Trump as the frontrunner in the presidential primary race. Surely, there are many in the party who see the long game Mr. Ryan does — that his budgetary goals (and presumably those of his fellow conservatives) are more likely achieved with a Republican president, something a government shutdown makes less likely.
Of course, it might also suggest complacency among Democrats and progressives. That Congress has approved U.S. oil exports through the budget deal is something that should have caused alarm bells on that side of the aisle. While unlikely to have a big immediate impact, the lifting of the four-decade-long ban is eventually going to increase domestic oil production and worldwide consumption, a setback for efforts to curb climate change. Such a decision is momentous enough to merit its own debate, not be buried in an omnibus bill. There are many other such questionable provisions, from restrictions on the Internal Revenue Service and Securities and Exchange Commission to cybersecurity language that gives government greater access to consumer data.
This stealthy way of legislating has become something of a trend, and it is surely not the way the federal government is supposed to work — but you won't hear much public outrage about that either. Perhaps Americans just don't have the attention span to dive into matters this complex, only for the angriest among us to muster knee-jerk outrage to hot-button issues like Syrian immigration when social media calls on us to do so.