Congress Ends Its Age of Austerity

In bipartisan votes on Friday, the House and Senate pass both a $1.15 trillion spending bill and a $622 billion package of tax breaks.

Andrew Harnik / AP

The age of austerity in Washington is over.

In a series of overwhelmingly bipartisan votes, the House and Senate gave final approval on Friday to an enormous package of new spending and tax breaks that will fund the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year and add hundreds of billions of dollars to the deficit over the next decade. The $1.15 trillion omnibus appropriations bill loosens spending caps that were put in place in 2011 when concerns over the nation’s budget shortfall were paramount. And the $622 billion tax measure makes permanent dozens of popular but costly credits and deductions that help both businesses and low-income individuals and families.

While Republicans carried the tax bill to passage in the House on Thursday, the spending legislation—which totaled more than 2,000 pages—earned majority support from both parties in a 316-113 vote on Friday morning. The Senate quickly followed suit, demonstrating that a chamber famous for its dithering can act rapidly when it wants to—and never faster than when lawmakers want to catch flights home for Christmas. In a 65-33 vote after barely a word of debate, the Senate cleared both the tax and spending bills just two hours after the House vote. President Obama plans to sign the package into law.

The year-end package was a victory for congressional leaders in both parties, who took advantage of the fading deficit concerns to pack the legislation with perks for special interests and passed it without much of the drama that has accompanied spending debates in recent years. House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell secured a key policy win in the spending bill with the lifting of a 40-year-old ban on the export of U.S. oil. And they achieved a long-standing GOP goal of making permanent business-friendly tax breaks that could make it politically easier to pass a broader overhaul of the tax code in the coming years.

“This is one of the biggest steps toward a rewrite of our tax code that we’ve made in many years,” Ryan said of the tax portion. “And it will help us start a pro-growth, bold tax-reform agenda in 2016.” The spending bill, he argued, was “a big win for American jobs and the energy industry.”

Yet Democrats were equally jubilant. Party leaders bragged that while they consented to the GOP’s demand to lift the oil embargo, they beat back Republican efforts to include dozens of “poison-pill” policy provisions, such as measures to defund Planned Parenthood, suspend the Syrian refugee program, or block money for the president’s climate agenda. They championed the extension of tax credits for low-income Americans and renewable energy, along with a permanent renewal of a program granting health benefits to survivors and first responders to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (Democrats largely ignored the fact that Republicans also succeeded in delaying provisions of Obamacare.)

“We began with a bill that had all of the bad stuff in and all of the good stuff out,” said Representative Steve Israel, a New York Democrat and member of the party leadership. “We ended up with a bill that had all the good stuff in and most of the bad stuff out. That’s the definition of victory.”

The final House vote was much less suspenseful than Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader, predicted it would be on Thursday, when she warned that her party had concerns and could not guarantee the votes needed to put it over the top. Democrats were particularly angry that Republicans excluded aid for debt-ridden Puerto Rico. But Pelosi won a commitment from Ryan that the House would address the problem early in the new year, and with her support, all but 18 Democrats supported the spending bill. On Friday, she conceded that she had deliberately downplayed the Democratic victories so that Republicans would not vote against the deal.

In the end, the biggest losers in the outcome were deficit hawks and conservatives opposed to large spending packages. Senator Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat from West Virginia, decried the tax bill as leaving an “unconscionable” debt on future generations. And both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz denounced the legislation with equal fervor.