Debt deal falls largely in lap of next Congress 

The best thing — maybe the only good thing — about the debt-ceiling deal Congress finally approved yesterday is that it would avert a technical default by the U.S. government on its financial obligations, with Uncle Sam stiffing our creditors starting this week.

It does Congress no credit that it let the country get that close to the deadline, and President Barack Obama did his Democratic allies in Congress no favors negotiating over their leaders’ heads with House Speaker John Boehner on a “grand bargain” that would have combined $3 trillion in budget cuts over the next decade with $1 trillion in new tax revenues.

Boehner was unable to sell that deal to fellow Republicans. Later, he embarrassingly was forced to yank his own bill to increase the debt limit when he was unable to round up the votes for passage. It was not a good week for the speaker, either.

It was a good week for the House Republicans’ tea party movement. These lawmakers got most of what they wanted, although the spending cuts weren’t as deep as they would have liked and they only got a commitment from the Senate to vote on a balanced-budget amendment, but not to enact it. As before, the amendment will certainly pass the House; it will almost surely fail in the Senate.

Obama and the Democrats did emerge with one potentially significant concession: The deal pushes the need for another increase in the debt ceiling off until after the presidential election next year.

What will come up right around the election is whether to renew the George W. Bush tax cuts. Last fall, Obama tried and failed to end the cuts for the wealthiest taxpayers. He can argue that in the new spirit of deficit reductions, spending cuts must be matched with revenue increases. As either safely returned to a second term as president or a lame duck, Obama will have a certain political invulnerability if he chooses to fight that particular battle.

The tradeoff for increasing the debt ceiling comes in two stages. The first is an initial $917 billion cut over
10 years in all domestic discretionary spending programs — basically, all government agencies, including a third of that from the Pentagon. If we’re still engaged in one or more wars, we will presumably keep on fighting, just not as hard.

The remainder of the $2.4 trillion in spending cuts is to be decided by a “supercommittee” of 12 lawmakers, with Democratic and Republican leaders from the House and Senate choosing three members each.

The supercommittee could save itself a lot of time by dusting off last fall’s very thorough and very thoroughly overlooked copy of the Bowles-Simpson recommendations of deficit reduction.

If the supercommittee cannot agree or either chamber rejects its proposed cuts, then an across-the-board spending cut of $1.2 trillion would start going into effect in 2013. Such blanket cuts — often proposed, but rarely enacted — are more butchery than budgeting.

The flaw in this, unmentioned in the self-congratulations at having dodged a bullet, is that one Congress cannot bind its successor. Maybe next year’s Congress will be better at this sort of thing — hopefully much better.

Dale McFeatters is an editorial writer and columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service.

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