Every once in a while, Hollywood delivers us a movie that is so bad — really, really, bad — that is passes into the realm of a good cult movie. I’ll admit that for me, that’s “Pootie Tang,” a film Roger Ebert called “disorganized, senseless and chaotic.” Yet, it’s passed into the realm of cult favorite, beloved by film fanatics and fans like me.
That’s the state of the current budget deal (H. J. Res. 59) negotiated by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, chair, House Budget Committee, and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, chair, Senate Budget Committee. It’s so bad that it’s good. It’s bad policy, but it’s good politics.
It’s bad policy, even if supporters claim that it will rein in federal spending. It does so by increasing spending over the next two years by $63 billion, about equally split between defense and other discretionary spending. Sure, after 10 years, absent any changes by future Congresses, the deal would save about $23 billion overall. Yet, as the National Taxpayers Union points out, the spending restrictions are so back loaded that even after eight years the deal increases the deficit by $26 billion.
However, does anyone expect Congress not to intervene? After all, the sequester cuts the deal reverses were the result of settled law from the Budget Control Act of 2011. It’s a lock that the spending restraints in the current deal will never see the light of day.
The current deal also extracts even more money from working families. The deal’s cheerleaders claim it doesn’t raise taxes, but while technically true does the name “fee” or “tax” make any real difference? Watch for the fees on your airline tickets to rise and, if you are a military retiree under 62, your pension cost of living increases will be reduced — even if you are a service-disabled veteran.
So much for President Lincoln’s exhortation for the country to “care for him who shall have borne the battle.” What’s shocking about the reduction in some military pensions is that the “savings” goes to bloated, barely working Pentagon weapons programs.
Rep. Ryan has said that funds from lifting Pentagon sequester spending restraints and reducing pensions “can go to anything” including troop readiness. But, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell let the cat out of the bag at an off the record fundraiser, reported by the Wall Street Journal. His message to the giant defense contractors attending was that they should support the budget deal to protect spending on giant weapons systems, not troop readiness as Ryan implied.
If Congress really wanted a robust yet effective defense budget, it wouldn’t start by cutting our warriors’ pensions. Instead, it would take a hard look at the barely flying F-35 ($4 billion a year), the troubled V-22 Osprey ($1.2 billion), or the listing Littoral Combat ships ($1.8 billion).
Despite the bad policy, in the House, the budget deal received an overwhelming vote of 332-94. How can such bad policy receive such political support in that factious body? It’s because Americans are clearly tired of a Congress that lurches from one manufactured crises to another, unable to govern in a coherent manner.
In fact, the crises have grown so numerous that it’s hard to keep track of them. “Fiscal cliff,” “taxmegeddon,” “Super Committee,” “sequester,” “Obamacare shutdown,” “debt limit,” the list goes on and on. The result is a Congress with dismally low approval ratings. According to Real Clear Politics, only 13 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing. Numbers like that concentrate the mind of even the most partisan of politicians.
For some, the concentration is even sharper. A Washington Post poll showed the 74 percent of Americans disapproved of the way Republicans handled the October government shutdown. Deserved or not, those are terrible numbers. Supporting the budget deal allows Republicans to get out from under a cloud. In addition, it shows that they can govern and work in a bipartisan manner.
Moreover, by passing a two-year budget, arguments over continuing resolutions and associated brinkmanship are off the table. Instead, Speaker Boehner and the House Republicans can focus on areas where they have a winning hand. Expect them to hammer at the disaster of Obamacare, the global failure of America’s foreign policy and the continued economic distress of millions of non-working Americans. For them, that’s good politics.
Some movies have sequels. Unfortunately, former bad movie and now cult favorite “Pootie Tang” never did. But in Washington, things never really end. There is always a sequel. Now that the bad policy but good politics budget deal is laid to rest, it’s time to look to the future. Get ready for “Debt Limit, Part II” coming this spring to a Congress near you.
John McDowell is a longtime county resident having first moved to San Carlos in 1963. In the intervening years, he has worked as a political volunteer and staff member in local, state and federal government, including time spent as a press secretary on Capitol Hill and in the second Bush administration.