- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2018

Few things produce bipartisanship more than spending other people’s money.

This week’s deal to add $320 billion to the deficit over the next 20 months and set the stage for $1.8 trillion more in deficits over the next decade has won strong reviews from those who want to see Democrats and Republicans get along better.

But those who keep their eye on the bottom line say good feelings among senators is bad news for taxpayers, who will be footing the bill for decades.

“Some may consider this new bipartisan spending deal to be a breakthrough, but it is a breakthrough only in the sense that it breaks through any semblance of fiscal responsibility,” said Robert Bixby, head of the Concord Coalition.

The heart of the deal is a bargain: Republicans get a massive boost in defense spending, while Democrats got a big hike in domestic spending. Add in some 50 additional tax breaks, another extension of the popular Children’s Health Insurance Program and up to $90 billion in emergency disaster relief spending, and leaders hoped to entice enough lawmakers with enough goodies.

“The budget deal doesn’t have everything Democrats want, it doesn’t have everything the Republicans want, but it has a great deal of what the American people want,” said Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “This budget deal is a genuine breakthrough. After months of fiscal brinkmanship, this budget deal is the first real sprout of bipartisanship.”

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, was similarly effusive: “I hope we can build on this bipartisan momentum and make 2018 a year of significant achievements for Congress, for our constituents and for the country we love.”

Bipartisanship has always been a rare event on Capitol Hill, but things got particularly raw after Republicans took control of the House in 2011 and forced a serious conversation on spending limits. With the government no longer playing with Monopoly money, every debt limit increase and spending bill became a shutdown showdown.

That ignited years of lowest-common-denominator bipartisanship, when lawmakers passed the bare minimum of where they could find agreement.

This deal, however, marks a return to older days of bipartisanship, when each side claimed big wins while accepting the other side’s big wins. That type of bipartisanship is a lot easier when the deficit isn’t a worry.

“It’s bipartisan,” said Steve Bell, senior adviser at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “It shows you that if you’re willing to spend enough money on enough people for enough of their causes, that you can actually get a bill passed.”

Both Democrats and Republicans acknowledged the addiction to spending, with varying degrees of shame.

“Yeah, that’s one thing we can agree on — common ground: spending more money,” said Rep. John A. Yarmuth, Kentucky Democrat, acknowledging that it was “not particularly promising.”

He said that hadn’t been the case in recent years. Under President Obama, Republicans pushed for strict spending caps that left agencies complaining of poverty, though it kept the deficit in check.

Mr. Yarmuth said the latest bill was a course correction, and he was supporting it.

“I’m not happy about $80 billion for defense, particularly when they’re just doing an audit that shows they can’t find billions, but certainly on a lot of the other issues they have actually met everything we wanted,” he said. “That deal accommodates everything we’ve been trying to do, so to me it’s an 80 percent of the loaf deal.”

President Trump, who during the campaign regularly complained about the spending and debt accumulated in past administrations, is not happy about some aspects of the deal, said Marc Short, the White House’s liaison to Congress. But the president wants more money for the military and an end to stopgap spending bills.

“Big bills are about compromises,” Mr. Short said.

Congressional leaders built bipartisan support by loading up the bill with pet projects.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said he was voting for the deal after he won special incentives and protections for dairy farmers, an important constituency in his home state.

Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, said he secured language that will allow houses of worship caught in the path of natural disasters to claim federal disaster assistance, tearing down a policy that made them ineligible for fear of crossing a church-state divide.

Sen. Todd Young, Indiana Republican, said he was supporting the bill in part because it pushed states to speed up interstate foster care placements.

Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, said he shelved his usual worries about deficits because the money that commits to combating the opioid epidemic was too important for his state.

“I’m very much concerned with [debt], but I’ve got a war on prescription drug abuse in my state and I’m fighting that war right now,” he said. “I’ve got to have the money it takes to help my state, and it is just awful what is going on. I’m going to support it because of that.”

He added: “So you’re caught between a rock and a hard place, and I’m going to vote to support my people and help my people in West Virginia.”

Budget analysts despaired.

“We all know this is bad, but honestly, I don’t know what the real solution is here. The substantial majority in Congress just wants to spend a lot of money,” said Chris Edwards, editor of DownsizingGovernment.org at the Cato Institute. “The American people are not voting enough actual fiscal conservatives into Congress.”

The two-year deal also means Republicans can ignore the budget Mr. Trump will send them next week and don’t need to bother writing a budget themselves on Capitol Hill, since the most important function — setting 2019 spending levels — is already taken care of.

Without a budget, though, Republicans will forgo the chance to reform entitlements.

House Budget Committee Chairman Steve Womack, Arkansas Republican, insisted he would try to write a budget anyway, and the White House said Mr. Trump’s blueprint, coming Monday, will cut “trillions of dollars” out of the projected deficit.

Spokesman Raj Shah didn’t promise it would balance but said it will “outline the path toward fiscal responsibility.”

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