A Budget Deal and a Disaster

Republicans lose a major political leverage point.

If the budget battle in Congress is truly about reducing America’s massive public debt, then last week’s compromise deal between Republicans and Democrats was undoubtedly a failure.

Clearly, $38 billion in budget cuts over the next six months isn’t going to make much of a dent in a national debt that now exceeds $14 trillion. Many conservative politicians and organizations expressed their displeasure with a bill that they felt didn’t go nearly far enough.

"In the seven days preceding last night's deal, our nation's debt increased by $54.1 billion. And now our 'leaders' are touting as 'historic' the $38.5 billion in spending cuts for the rest of fiscal year 2011," Tea Party Patriots co-founder Mark Meckler said in a written statement. "Leadership requires bold, visionary action in times of crisis. Are we getting bold, visionary leadership in Washington, D.C.? We think the numbers speak for themselves."

“We have been asked to settle for $39 billion in cuts, even as we continue to fund Planned Parenthood and the implementation of Obamacare,"  Representative Michele Bachmann, R-Minnesota, said.

It’s hard to argue with Meckler, Bachmann or anyone else who observed that the spending cuts agreed upon last week are virtually meaningless in any practical sense. The Tea Party and other conservative groups wanted to see at least $61 billion in cuts before Republicans signed on to yet another stop-gap budget measure. They didn’t get it. Instead, they got a little over half of what they wanted as part of an agreement to push back the threat of a partial government shutdown as Republicans and Democrats continue to try to hammer out a long-term deal. The new deadline is Thursday and representatives of both parties expressed optimism that they will reach a compromise before then.

Republicans were clearly reluctant to allow a government shutdown to happen, as much as that kind of hard-line tactic would have endeared them to their hard-right supporters. The political calculus suggested that the price of annoying a good deal of the middle by shutting down sectors of the government would exceed the good will to be gained on the right. So the threat of a shutdown was out there, but only as a cudgel to force Democrats into some kind of a compromise. And yet, the GOP went “all-in” as far as budget sanity was concerned, sending a clear message to Congress: get this deal done or face the consequences.

The existence of a comprehensive budget-cutting compromise is important, but the conservative push for budget sanity matters as well. It’s somewhat unrealistic to suppose that the Democrat-controlled Senate or President Obama will ever sign on to the kind of deep, meaningful spending cuts that are necessary if America is to remain an economic powerhouse. That will only happen if the GOP takes control of the Senate and White House in 2012, or manages to create a veto-proof majority in the Senate and House if Obama is re-elected. Thus, everything leading up to that election is politics, not change you can believe in.

But in the meantime, with the budget showdown being mostly a prelude to the reconciliation of the deficit crisis, Republicans have forfeited a vitally important leverage point by accepting last week's budget deal. It is a conveniently overlooked reality that the chief federal financial burdens are Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Without tackling these equally ponderous 800-pound gorillas in the room, genuine fiscal and deficit reform is impossible.

But to stanch these programs, Republicans will have to face the full weight of the ruthless Democratic machine, which will take an enormous amount of staying power to withstand. In accepting a budget compromise with Democrats in lieu of a government shutdown -- showing that the Republican Party is not willing to undertake drastic measures -- Republicans have displayed the fullest extent of their resolve too soon. Democrats would be safe to assume that Republicans do not have the will to pursue anything approaching the ambitious Ryan Roadmap, with its incisive cuts to entitlements, and that another "compromise" is in the cards when it comes time to handle the deficit.

The same could be said for matters beyond the deficit and the budget. Clearly, the GOP has not been able to derail major points of Obama’s leftist agenda. While some parts of Obamacare will be defunded, the majority of the initiative will continue on. The EPA will not be blocked from regulating carbon. The NLRB will not be required to end secret ballots in union contests.  Medicaid block grants will continue to be turned over to the states. Welfare spending will not be cut nor work requirements imposed. The right clearly wanted all of that to happen as soon as possible, but the left obstinately stood in their way.

What’s next? The president says he’ll unveil a plan that will cut spending using “a scalpel, not a machete.” Republicans have promised to leverage a coming vote on raising the debt ceiling to force Democrats into accepting more cuts. Among the measures that the GOP is putting on the table are new, deeper spending cuts, a statutory cap on spending, a constitutional amendment calling for a balanced budget and a new system where budgets are drafted for two years at a time, instead of one. Winning on those issues is the ultimate end-game for conservatives. While it’s clear that conservative have managed to wrestle the nature of policy debate over to their side in 2012, it’s far from certain how the average voter will respond on Election Day. Much is at stake, but only a small fraction of the electorate recognizes that troublesome fact.