William Hoagland: The Real Value of the Budget Deal

It has been one week since Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) announced they had reached a bipartisan budget agreement, which is now being considered in the Senate. CRFB board member Bill Hoagland, a longtime expert on the federal budget process and former staff director of the Senate Budget Committee, weighed in on the deal in an op-ed today. Even though the agreement is small and leaves many challenges unaddressed, the fact that they were able to reach an agreement is a positive step in the right direction, demonstrating "that two very different political philosophies can still find common cause in a polarized country and a divided Congress."

How remarkable is this achievement? Understand that not since 1986 has a divided Congress – then a Senate controlled by Republicans and a House run by Democrats – reached a budget conference agreement under the orderly procedures of the Budget Act. But even more astonishing is the simple fact that in the nearly 40 year history of the Budget Act there has never been a conference agreement on a budget outline when the House was controlled by Republicans and the Senate controlled by Democrats. We have had budget agreements over the years but primarily when one party controlled both chambers or, as has been the case for the last four years, no agreement with divided chambers, and ad-hoc procedures held together with little structure. Ryan and Murray have clearly shown that even with a conservative House and a left of center Senate, the federal government can still do its job of budgeting.

There is still much more to accomplish in the coming months, including raising the debt ceiling and addressing many expiring provisions. But whatever the flaws of the budget agreement, it should be valued as a sign that compromise and cooperation is still possible in Washington.

And while the policies and the numbers of the Ryan-Murray agreement will be arrayed and flayed by those on the polar opposites of the right and left, such critiques will miss the real value of their accomplishment. It is a step, yes a baby step, in restoring some order and structure to our fiscal decision making process. After the recent government shutdown, the mindless sequester, threats of default to our national debt and a federal government stumbling from one crisis to another managing its operations, it breathes life back into a system that has always operated best with compromise and bipartisanship.

Can a democracy survive without compromise? The answer from the last few difficult years of failed budget negotiations, is probably yes, but at what cost? The biggest cost has been not to the federal accounting sheet, but the trust and support of the American public for our institutions of governance. The Founding Fathers of our democratic system, who themselves possessed strongly held and often opposing positions on the respective roles of the federal government, a federal executive and the states in managing the affairs of a young and expanding country, found the need to compromise and move forward. Indeed the Great Compromise of 1778 – the Constitution – was and is the touchstone upon which our democratic system has survived (and thrived) over 220 years. The Ryan-Murray agreement can never be compared to that agreement, but it can be a start to restore much needed faith in a functioning democratic government once again.

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"My Views" are works published by members of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, but they do not necessarily reflect the views of all members of the committee.