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How Democrats Lost the Budget War

Ending the debt limit crisis is a win for America. It's also an embarrassment.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There are two conclusions to draw from the fact that Republican and Democratic leaders have reached an agreement with the White House to budget for the government, and to extend the nation’s borrowing authority, through the next election.

One is that Democrats have conclusively, and in an enduring way, lost the fight over budget sequestration—an unpleasant and recurring reminder of just how poorly President Obama and Democrats handled the first debt limit fight in 2011.

The second is that Republicans have, in a much more consequential way, lost control of themselves. Their dysfunction runs so deep that they must, for strategic reasons, bundle together many of the basic obligations of the legislature and fulfill them furtively and hastily, like criminal conspirators hiding from the law. Senator Ted Cruz, a leading presidential candidate, has been warning conservatives that about a secret deal-in-the-works for weeks. His critics responded with persistent mockery and denial. But he was right. In a movement where the House speaker serves at the whim of a reactionary rump, and pragmatic votes can end careers, transparency and timeliness have become invitations to self-destruction.

This bipartisan agreement tees up a budget fight in early-to-mid 2017. Perhaps Republicans will win the presidency, and secure semi-permanent victory in the budget war. If not, you can practically pinpoint the end of Paul Ryan’s speakership somewhere in the spring or summer of 2017.

There are good things about the agreement, too. House Speaker John Boehner, faithful New Republic reader, recognized that failing to clear the deck for his successor would be reckless and irresponsible. In his lame duck capacity, he’s handing his presumptive heir Ryan a huge gift—by punting all of Congress’ most inflexible deadlines into 2017, Boehner will free Ryan from outright conflict with the House Freedom Caucus until after a new president is elected. This is a necessary reprieve for the Republican Party. It’s also healthy for Democrats and the country.

Likewise, government appropriations for the next two years will be allowed to exceed limits imposed by sequestration, without activating indiscriminate spending cuts. This should smooth the functioning of government, and provide the economy a small boost.

But Democrats didn’t force Republicans to abandon the strict limits they won on annual appropriations. They acceded to Republicans that sequestration will act as a control on government spending at a more universal level. Democrats can secure relief from sequestration for a year or two at a time, but only by drawing on other government resources to pay for it, or extending the caps into the future, preserving downward pressure on the budget indefinitely.

Sequestration was intended to prod Republicans and Democrats into agreement on a plan to increase taxes and hold down social spending, so that the federal budget, and all of the legislative landmines it contains, would be deweaponized for a decade. Indiscriminate cuts to non-defense spending were meant to motivate Democrats to accept more tailored cuts to programs like Social Security; indiscriminate cuts to defense spending were meant to motivate Republicans to accept higher taxes on affluent Americans. But it was badly calibrated. Democrats (and even some Republicans) failed to grasp that conservative opposition to taxes runs much deeper than support for military spending. After months of wrangling, Republicans decided to pocket sequestration cuts as a victory in and of itself. Democrats must now concede entitlement cuts or other mandatory spending cuts to Republicans in exchange for temporary sequestration relief. Tax expenditures for wealthy Americans remain as exorbitant as ever.

There’s no easy way out of this trap for Democrats. A big Democratic electoral victory in 2017 might cow Republicans into renegotiating the budget in a more thoroughgoing way. But it’s more likely that Republicans will continue to control the House and hold on to sequestration as a perennial source of leverage until single-party control is restored.

What makes that such an embarrassment for the country is it’s probably the best we can hope for. For even if Republicans lose next year’s election, nothing’s stopping them from subjecting Hillary Clinton to the full array of hostage-taking strategies to which they’ve subjected Obama. Ryan’s first big test as speaker won’t arrive for another two years, but it will be a big one: can he convince House Republicans to accept the constitutional limits of their power? And, if not, can he save his speakership?