Congress fails yet again on delivering a sound budget

Congress fails yet again on delivering a sound budget
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Four and a half months late, Congress and President TrumpDonald John TrumpMcCabe says he was fired because he 'opened a case against' Trump McCabe: Trump said 'I don't care, I believe Putin' when confronted with US intel on North Korea McCabe: Trump talked to me about his election victory during 'bizarre' job interview MORE finally reached an agreement that will eventually fund the government for 2018. Even though enacting the deal was a close thing, it accomplishes many of the basic tasks of government.

For starters, the bill funds the executive agencies through March 23, and agrees to overall funding levels for all of 2018. It also establishes workable funding levels for those executive branch appropriations for 2019. Although the actual appropriations still need to be enacted, agreeing on the overall levels was the major stumbling block for 2018. This essentially settles the appropriations squabble until after midterm elections.

Moreover, the agreement suspends the debt limit until March 2019, again, after midterm elections. It also reauthorizes the Children’s Health Insurance Program for 10 years, giving this important and largely successful program greater stability and predictability, even as some reforms and enhancements would be helpful.

The deal funds belated disaster response for Puerto Rico, Texas and California, and provides additional funding for overseas contingency operations, known as OCO or the military activities in the Middle East, through 2019. The bill also provides targeted additional funding to combat opioid abuse, Veterans Affairs and infrastructure deficiencies, and to address other domestic priorities.

In short, the bill covers funding for functions that government should perform, but in many instances could not because of the constricting “sequester level” appropriations caps in law. Those appropriations limits were set to force Congress to take deficit-reduction action, which it failed to do. The limits were never intended to be implemented, and in fact they never were.

Meeting these obligations and priorities, of course, is not free. Despite imposing numerous cost offsets, some legitimate and some not, the budget deal will worsen the deficit by about $400 billion over two years. That price tag has some budget watchers looking for $1 trillion deficits again, but now in a fully-employed economy, not the conditions of the financial crisis in which such monsters first appeared.

Should we howl about the deal? Sadly, no. The truth is that it does essentially what government is supposed to do, which is to keep us safe, respond to emergencies, and fund the public services people need. But it could have been done months ago, which is to say, on time. We have known from the beginning that the “sequester levels” of appropriations, defense and domestic, were not viable.

It should come as no surprise that completing this year’s appropriations, like those of other years since the sequester, required a “fix” to raise the sequester caps, which was was unavoidable. If Congress had failed to address the key associated issues, including opioid abuse and the appalling natural disasters of last year, the American people would surely have charged our elected representatives with nonfeasance.

Our lawmakers and the president have recognized that meeting the legitimate needs of the American people requires higher levels of appropriated spending. How can they continue to fail to acknowledge the need to pay for those necessary higher levels of spending?

The problem is not that the budget deal does what governments should do. The problem is that Congress and the president seem to have no conception that we collectively must pay for the government we get. The American people certainly should not be accused of reminding their elected policymakers of that inconvenient fact in any recognizable terms.

The issue is not what was in the appropriations deal. The issue is what was not around it, which is a sound and sustainable overall budget structure. The clock is ticking, and the debt is mounting. We desperately need to get our fiscal house in order, before the financial markets command that we do so.

Joseph J. Minarik (@JoeMinarik) is senior vice president and director of research at the Committee for Economic Development. He served as chief economist at the White House Office of Management and Budget for eight years under President Clinton. He previously worked with Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) on his efforts to reform the federal income tax, which culminated in the Tax Reform Act of 1986. He is coauthor of “Sustaining Capitalism: Bipartisan Solutions to Restore Trust & Prosperity.”