The Bittersweet Triumph of the Budget Bill

Despite some misguided choices, it's good news that Congress was able to compromise. But don't expect the spending deal to end dysfunction in Washington.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

One of the greatest tragedies of the decline of Congress as a deliberative legislative body and an effective overseer of federal policy is the deterioration of the appropriations process.

For many years now, the appropriations committees, especially the House panel, have been symbols of dysfunction. They have struggled and failed to pass their individual appropriations bills—a dozen each year—through one or both houses, and into law, leaving the spending process to omnibus continuing resolutions, end-game negotiations, brinkmanship, and sometimes shutdowns. The spending bills have increasingly reflected the same partisan and ideological polarization that has come to dominate our politics.

On many occasions, bills have emerged from subcommittees after commendable bipartisan negotiations and agreement—but when they moved to the House floor, minority members who had been full participants in constructing and approving the bills voted against them. Last year, in a telling and depressing example, a bipartisan move to get a strong and constructive homeland-security appropriation fell apart on the House floor when Republican leaders allowed destructive and politically motivated amendments to blow apart the deal and the bill.

As for oversight, the function has been diluted and nearly erased; with ideological divisions as sharp as we have, systematic efforts to check whether government programs are working as they are supposed to would mean giving some patina of respectability to the programs, a no-no for the radical antigovernment caucus.

So the triumph of the omnibus spending bill that the House passed Wednesday and that will soon be voted on by the Senate is a big deal—it is the first time in a very long time that House and Senate appropriators, Democrats and Republicans, did things the way they should be done, going painstakingly through the myriad accounts and allocating scarce dollars to fit priorities, making dozens or hundreds of trade-offs to satisfy both parties and their caucuses without destroying key programs or damaging the possibility of a broad bipartisan coalition in support.

Looking at the package, one can see the delicate balances, and marvel at the ingenuity of Barbara Mikulski, Harold Rogers, and the other leaders and members of the two panels. Preserve the core funding for Obamacare—but cut $1.5 billion from the president's request, and cut just over a billion from the Prevention and Public Health Fund. Drop the crippling policy riders from implementation of the Dodd-Frank financial regulation regime, but cut funding well below the administration's request for both the Commodities Futures Trading Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Add money to combat forest fires in the West to mollify Republicans and add money to the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency to mollify Democrats. More money for Head Start—and more money for defense. And on and on.

The odds are that this huge package—more than 1,500 pages of legislative language and detail—will be passed by both houses and enacted into law. (One wonders how many members will "read the bill," and which members or outside groups will object strenuously to quick and expedited passage of a bill of so many hundreds of pages.) And the passage will be more than just an example of artful work in the legislative process, a true rarity these days. It eases us past the worst and most destructive results of the sequester, the horrible, mindless, across-the-board spending cuts that were designed explicitly not to occur. And it will take the pathologies that have afflicted the appropriations dynamic largely off the grid for almost two years, which is an achievement in and of itself.

So why am I less than thrilled? One reason is the bottom line. The numbers for discretionary spending, when considered in real terms, are 10 percent less than they were in the George W. Bush presidency. This number leaves many Republicans giddy, tangible evidence of their victories in restraining spending. But to me the issue is not simply spending. It is what we are spending tax dollars on, and where restraint is foolish and counterproductive. Funding for the National Institutes of Health is higher than it would have been under the sequester, but significantly lower than it was under Bush, and way lower than it should be if we want to spare the society the immense costs and pain that come from debilitating diseases, and if we want to preserve our superb scientific infrastructure and brainpower. This one is a simple, compelling cost-benefit analysis: Most basic medical research is solely or largely funded by government, and it saves lives and reduces long-term medical costs, while the return on investment is high. And the deeper, damaging sequester cuts are set to resume in two years.

The deal thus reflects a myopia across way too many lawmakers, a failure to see where federal spending brings big benefits to economic growth and society's future. That is true of infrastructure, which continues to get shortchanged despite huge needs and its clear boost to the economy. And the fact that the same week we saw this spending deal emerge we saw yet another rebuff to unemployment insurance (UI) for the long-term unemployed, which is a proven immediate booster to the economy, with demands to pay for something that has routinely been extended in the past without a pay-for.

If the spending deal, which was set in motion by the budget deal crafted by Paul Ryan and Patty Murray, was a sign that we have turned a corner toward artful compromise and away from line-in-the-sand tribal dysfunction, my unease might be dismissed as mere carping. But I see no signs that this deal is anything other than a one-off. With but 97 days in partial or full session set for the 113th House; with a barren agenda other than investigating Obamacare, and probably Benghazi and the IRS; with the farm bill foundering yet again; and with the bitter partisan dynamic on display in the Senate over UI, the signs of life are slim.

So a Congress-watcher and Congress-lover will give the appropriators their due, be grateful for small pleasures—and brace for more of the usual in the rest of 2014.