The bipartisan budget deal the U.S. House could vote on as early as today is far from perfect. It doesn't solve long-term problems with more taxes and less spending, resolve the battle over across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, or address the crisis faced by more than 1 million Americans this holiday season who are days away from losing their jobless benefits. But the agreement is a reasonable compromise that buys two years, sets the stage for more negotiation and shaves off the worst of sequestration. It enables Congress to avoid another disastrous government shutdown, and it creates some space for making Washington function again.
Both liberals and conservatives groused about the terms Wednesday, but the agreement is probably the best possible compromise to come from this sharply divided Congress. Announced by the two lead negotiators, Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the deal sets 2014 spending at $1.012 trillion, the midpoint between what the opposing parties wanted, while largely holding the line for 2015.
The deal restores $63 billion in domestic spending by replacing some of the sequester cuts with new savings and fees that would be poured back into programs ranging from infrastructure to education to defense. That has to benefit MacDill Air Force Base. It provides the Pentagon and other agencies with billions in new spending, to be paid in part by higher fees on airline passengers and private sector pensions, and by cutting benefits to younger military retirees and new government employees. It also would trim the deficit by $22 billion over the next decade. However modest, these achievements move in the right direction.
The measure doesn't come close to a far-reaching deal on revenue and on structural changes to entitlements that are needed to bring America's fiscal house in order. But that wasn't going to happen now, anyway. This agreement at least gives the agencies some short-term financial certainty, prevents arbitrary spending cuts from derailing the economic recovery and creates bargaining space for Congress and the president to seize upon in the new year. The private sector might also loosen up on hiring and spending once some predictability is brought to the political process.
Congress still needs to extend benefits for workers unemployed longer than 26 weeks, which are set to expire Dec. 28, ceasing aid to 1.3 million immediately and throwing another 800,000 off the rolls in the coming months. That aid is essential for the long-term unemployed to claw their way back into the workforce. Ending the billions of dollars it churns through the economy could shave a quarter percentage point off the nation's economic output next year.
Tea party favorites such as Republican Sen. Marco Rubio oppose the agreement, but they offer nothing constructive in its place. This deal at least moves the ball and clears the way for Congress to address comprehensive fiscal reform and other vital, unattended business from immigration to farm policy. Pragmatic conservatives such as Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Lakeland, need to move this consensus approach; it's the only way to break through the budget impasse and begin the longer road to fiscal reform. Congress should approve this agreement as a reasonable step forward — and then revisit the extension of unemployment compensation to jobless workers hit hardest by the recession.