I realize I watch Congress from the far reaches of the hinterland and it is likely I am a typical ignorant rube, but what was that all about? The crisis, the shutdown, the edging toward default, the toying with the prospect of not paying debts or obligations, the late-night Washington-behind-closed-doors drama, the gasping TV hosts — what did all that accomplish?
Apparently the great design of this political universe, the push of the invisible hand, the work of the great political clockmaker, the cooks of this swirling pot of turmoil, were leading to one moment — Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray met for breakfast.
That was this morning. I hope they enjoyed the oatmeal and a pleasant, constructive conversation, because much depends on their ability to work together toward an eventual agreement on a federal budget. They could, if sufficiently flexible and willing to compromise, provide a map of federal spending that reduces the chance of financial cataclysm just down the can-covered road.
Good luck to them. Ryan and Murray are the chairs of their respective budget committees, appointed to lead the House-Senate conference committee mandated by Wednesday’s last-ditch agreement to reopen government and raise the debt ceiling. Their duty is to reconcile differences between vastly different House and Senate budgets, possibly taking up such difficult issues as entitlement reform, spending cuts and taxation, and wrapping up an agreement by Dec. 13. That is the deadline, and some deadline it is. Two months to solve the intractable problems that have vexed us for a generation. They are far apart. Generally, House Republicans want spending cuts without tax increases and Democrats want to minimize spending cuts through tax increases on the wealthy.
These conflicts have proved irreconcilable over years of effort. All the commissions and analyses and supercommittees could not do it. How this effort will succeed when all others failed remains to be seen. Realists are not hopeful.
The politics may have been slightly altered by the Republicans’ foolishness, trying to extort concessions on a health care law, threatening disaster for political posing purposes, while the major issues facing government go unaddressed. The challenges are still large. The Congressional Budget Office September report said that federal debt is now at an all-time high of 73 percent of gross domestic product. In a decade, publicly held debt has nearly doubled as a percent of GDP. Debt will reach 100 percent of GDP in 25 years, or if spending cuts are ineffective, could reach 190 percent. Debt will rise, where previously it was predicted to fall, because Congress made supposed temporary tax cuts permanent, and because spending on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security will rise substantially.
That’s the gloomy big picture. To fix it will require some alteration to Medicare and Social Security benefits, such as raising the retirement age or changing how cost-of-living raises are calculated, plus tax increases of some kind. Spending cuts everywhere else won’t do the job, and everybody knows that.
Don’t expect Murray and Ryan to come up with miracles. More likely they will tinker on the edges, reports say. The automatic budget cuts called the sequester, set up in the budget agreement of 2011, will probably be the focus. The sequester is what remains of Republican leverage after they spent the last month burning their political capital in a giant bonfire of vanity. President Obama has made mention of the need for entitlement reform — he did so again today — but how that comes about nobody knows.
Somewhere there is hope. Our own House Republicans — Reps. Dave Reichert, Doc Hastings, Jaime Herrera Beutler and Cathy McMorris Rodgers — all wisely voted in favor of the Senate compromise to end the budget shutdown. McMorris Rodgers, a conspicuous member of the Republican leadership, did so even while, in a Fox News interview posted on her own website, she vowed she would not. At least for brief moments, sense can prevail.
Meanwhile, wish for Ryan and Murray to be overwhelmed by some newfound spirit of compromise. We can dream.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.