Baseball fans were on the edge of their seats last week hoping for news that their favorite teams would come out of Major League Baseball’s winter meetings in Orlando, Fla., as winners. As the meetings ended, sportswriters began analyzing the deals made and noting as they do every year that the best deals are those that help both sides, where a team with more starting pitchers than it really needs, for example, trades one for a power hitter to a team with great hitting and no pitching.
Most trades don’t turn out that way. The future performance of the players is hard to predict, and sometimes, one side gets the better of the other. Meanwhile, fans watch, second-guess, curse and hope for the best.
The budget deal engineered by Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Paul Ryan that passed the House last week could have been cut in Orlando. Political analysts and junkies, like their baseball counterparts, are trying to figure out who really won and if the future promised by the deal makers will actually come to pass.
It appears that when it reaches the Senate floor this week, virtually every Democrat will vote for it, along with enough Republicans to guarantee passage. The Democrats think they did better than the Republicans because they’ll get to spend more money next year and at least have partially broken the budget caps and sequestration that have brought a modicum of discipline to congressional profligacy over the past few years.
No one is particularly happy, but both parties want to get the budget fight behind them, head home for Christmas, and brag to disgruntled voters that Congress is not quite as dysfunctional as popularly believed. Though welcomed by insiders who applaud compromise for its own sake, this deal isn’t going to help them make that case.
It doesn’t really address the short- or long-term fiscal crisis facing the country. The dollars involved amount to very, very little, given the size of the deficit, the burgeoning debt and our bleak fiscal future. If this is what those representing us call progress, we are in real trouble.
Republicans claim with some merit that the deal sets a precedent in that it represents the first time the parties have agreed to offset spending increases with entitlement cuts or adjustments. That is, conceptually at least, a good thing or will prove to be if Congress doesn’t start fiddling with the adjustments before or shortly after they take effect. Suggesting that outyear performance will hold up, however, is a little like betting that a starting pitcher’s arm will be as good next year as it was last season. Time will tell.
Remember, the two parties agreed in 2011 on budget caps that voters were told would save money over the next decade. That deal was made less than three years ago, and this one breaks those caps, rendering those promises and projections meaningless. If those caps — written into law — can be so cavalierly jettisoned, it is hard to take these new promises of future savings from the same folks seriously.
While it is true that no bipartisan agreement in a government as deeply divided as ours could accomplish much, conservatives in and out of Congress hoped for more. The problem is that at the end of the day, while standing on the sidelines denouncing the combined failure of both parties to deal with out-of-control spending may make one feel good, it doesn’t accomplish much. The simple, undeniable fact is that the only way to get what conservatives really want is to field a stronger team by changing the makeup of Congress. In any legislature, votes translate directly into power, and he who lacks a majority lacks that power.
The Democrats believe they got the best of the deal and are ready this week to force the porridge that Mr. Ryan and Mrs. Murray concocted down the throats of Republican senators, whether they like it or not. Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, says he doesn’t support the deal, but doesn’t seem inclined to risk the sort of confrontation with the other body and the White House that could easily lead to another government shutdown.
There’s a reason for that. The one thing Republicans really get out of this deal is the chance to survive the current session of Congress without giving up too much while keeping public attention focused as it is now on President Obama and his problems. A government shutdown or budget crisis would change the subject. This deal was designed not to solve substantive problems, but to keep the wind at the back of a GOP that needs desperately to pick up a few new players and field a stronger team after the 2014 elections.
Only time will tell if that was enough, but that’s why the Senate will go along with the deal. Conservatives don’t like it for good reason: They have been hoping for more from their team this year, but more than a few conservative Republican senators will swallow hard and even vote against it while secretly hoping it will pass because they, like some of the teams in Orlando, are rebuilding and praying that after next November’s elections they will be able to say with more hope than Brooklyn Dodger fans of old, “Wait’ll next year.”
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.