As Congressional dysfunction seemed to be barreling us toward a government shutdown, comes the news of an 11th-hour deal, announced Monday at midnight.
Let’s start with the good news. Our government, it appears, won’t be shutting its doors. The United States will pay its bills rather than endangering its own economy, and the rest of the world’s, by defaulting on them. Let’s pause and take a breath and/or tear out a few hairs as we reflect that this is what passes for “good news” these days.
We are three years into a budget deal, the Budget Control Act, that was supposed to restrain the budget deficit by making equal cuts to the military and non-military parts of federal spending over a ten year period. In two of those three years, Congress basically said, “Yes, we really mean to do this, but not right now.” House and Senate Budget Committee chairs Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Patty Murray (D-WA) negotiated a bipartisan deal that returned some of the money that was originally cut. Now, the deal before them would do the same thing for the next two years. They are the dieters who promised themselves they would start that diet next year, now deciding, “Nah, it can wait until 2018.”
Some good things will come out of this.
Programs for child health and nutrition, education, environmental protection and myriad others that were due to be drastically cut will likely get a reprieve. As will the diplomatic and international assistance functions , including aid to Syrian refugees, that constitute our alternative to a foreign policy of war.
But so will that foreign policy of war. As George Orwell might put it, in this universe of equality for the military and non-military sides of our budget, one side is more equal than the other. According to this budget deal, the original limit on next year’s military spending of $523 billion will now increase to $548.1 billion, while the rest of our government’s funding (the “discretionary” part that Congress votes on every year) will rise from $493.5 to $518.5 billion.
And the military budget gets even more equality than that. In recent years Congress has been funding its wars through a separate account called the “Overseas Contingency Fund”, over and above the “regular” military budget. The beauty of this fund, from the defense hawks’ point of view, is that it’s not subject to the restraints of the 10-year Budget Control Act. And while this account is supposed to fund current military operations, it has in practice become a slush fund for military projects that have nothing to do with the wars we are currently fighting. The new deal currently on the table gives that fund more money, too.
And oh yes, it’s not at all clear that this new deal will become law. Numerous members of Congress are venting their unhappiness with it, including many of those for whom shutting down the government would be a statement of principle. Telling our government to stop functioning – also still on the table, at least for a few more days.
Government shutdown or an ugly deal? That’s the choice this Congress is giving us. We have a long way to go in the fight for a budget that puts peace, people, and the planet first.