Congressional budget negotiators are moving to meet a December 13 deadline to produce – well, something. Commentators say even the narrowest agreement will be a signal achievement. Doesn’t that seem like an awfully low bar to you?
Yes, I know. The atmosphere on Capitol Hill is poisonous. Yet there are consequences to not producing an agreement that brings clarity to fiscal affairs. Right now, government agencies cannot plan ahead. They’re forced to fund programs that have outlived their usefulness and cannot fund programs they know are necessary. Contractors and people who depend on federal spending can’t plan, either. Our economy can’t achieve liftoff, and millions of ordinary Americans remain mired by its slow growth.
Things are not wholly bleak. Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the lead House negotiator, and Democrat Patty Murray of Washington, who heads up the Senate team, have been working to address the sequester. As you’ll recall, this is the draconian set of across-the-board budget cuts put in place in 2011. The sequester is a cleaver, cutting good and bad government spending without rhyme or reason. If congressional negotiators can take a smarter approach, that’s all to the good.
But if they’re going to do that, shouldn’t they address the real problems? The country needs gradual deficit reduction that avoids disrupting the economy or harming the vulnerable. It needs reforms to Social Security and Medicare that put them on a solid footing for decades to come.
These are daunting challenges, but Congress’s toolbox is hardly empty. There are literally scores of possible tradeoffs, none of them easy but all of them offering adroit negotiators the chance to craft a long-term solution to problems that have beset Capitol Hill for years and held economic growth far below its potential.
At some point, Congress will have to put the federal budget on “a sustainable path for the long term,” in the words of the Congressional Budget Office. So long as it does not, the economic consequences hurt everyone.
Congressional leaders seem blissfully unconcerned about this and aim only for low-hanging fruit. But Americans know that Congress can and should do better, and are rightly tired of careening from crisis to crisis. As members of Congress continue to make politically attractive suggestions that don’t come close to achieving a lasting solution, let’s urge them to get real. It’s time for Congress to go big.
Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District as a Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.