A Road Map For Success

Today President Obama signed a two-year budget deal passed by the House and Senate last week in a bipartisan deal to get the nation through and beyond the election of 2016.  Indeed, it is called the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015.  It accomplishes several things.  Foremost among them is that it suspends the nation’s debt ceiling until March of 2017, taking that issue off the table until after the next president is sworn into office. Additionally, it provides relief from the Budget Control Act of 2013. That is the bill that set spending levels for domestic and defense programs that many thought were too severe.  It has become known as the “sequester bill”  putting arbitrary limits on spending.

This is a good deal — not perfect for either Republicans or Democrats — because we would have hit our debt limit tomorrow (3 November) with the distinct possibility of a major financial crisis as a result. It also provides for increases in defense and domestic spending above the sequester limits. Perhaps more importantly, it provides a two-year deal that will finally give some stability to military and other planning and allow for more long-term investments, rather than living weeks or months at a time on Continuing Resolutions (CR) that may or may not be held hostage for political reasons each time they come up for renewal.  The CRs provided the ever-present opportunity to threaten a default or a government shutdown should certain minority demands not be met.

There are of course other provisions in the 144 page bill addressing a number of issues, but perhaps the most important of the other provisions is a fix for Medicare to keep premiums from rising drastically and a provision to keep the Social Security Disability Insurance trust fund solvent through 2022.

It also shows that members of both parties in the House and Senate can work together and actually accomplish meaningful results.  To me, this reinforces my belief that many of our nation’s problems can be solved with moderate Republicans and Democrats working together to compromise on important legislation rather than letting the extremes of either party hold the rest of the body hostage.

From a political standpoint, this may be the last gift from the former Speaker of the House John Boehner to the rest of us.  Given his imminent retirement, he was freed from having to negotiate with the Freedom Caucus — the group of 30 or 40 Tea Party conservatives in the House — and could get sufficient bipartisan support for it to pass.  The Senate recognized a solution when it stared them in the face and ignored objections by Senator Ted Cruz (R – Texas), another Tea Party favorite and Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky).  Both are running for president as “outsiders” and condemn the leadership of both parties in Washington.  I suppose the bill gave them another meaningless grand standing opportunity to make it look like they are “standing up” to Washington when they knew full well that the bill would pass anyway.

While this is a major milestone — even as one might argue that doing the nation’s most basic business should not be a “milestone” — there are obstacles ahead.  It is too early to sing kumbaya as we all hold hands around the campfire.

The new Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin) has promised to use the Hastert Rule in bringing bills to the floor of the House.  The Hastert Rule is named for the now disgraced (he is on his way to jail) former Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois).  Basically, it is a “majority of the majority” rule whereby a Speaker will not bring a bill for a vote if it is not guaranteed that the majority of the party will vote for it. Speaker Boehner often invoked this same rule.  What it does, is give groups such as the Freedom Caucus inordinate power within the House of Representatives to veto any legislation that they do not like, regardless of the ability otherwise to get a majority of the Representatives to vote for a given bill.

Speaker Ryan may be a new face and a respected leader.  I hope that he is able to get the House working again.  Unfortunately, he seems to have already tied his own hands by promising over the weekend that he would  continue to use the Hastert Rule, thus again inordinately empowering the minority of Tea Party Republicans in the House.

Another reason to keep from breaking out in song is that the deal is not done.  The bill that President Obama signed today is really only a framework for work yet to be done.  Because the legislature and White House could not reach a deal prior to the start of the new fiscal year, the nation’s business is currently conducted under a Continuing Resolution that keeps things going only until 11 December this year.  The CR is based on the sequester spending caps and there are some in the House and Senate that believe those caps should stay in place regardless of the just concluded compromise. As we all know from our civics classes, the budget is meaningless until the Congress passes Appropriations Bills (to say exactly how much money goes where) and Authorization Bills (allowing the government to actually spend the money).  Normally those are passed in 12 individual bills to fund each area of government (Defense, Education, Homeland Security, etc.).  Given the time remaining (and the propensity for Congress to take weeks off for holidays such as Thanksgiving), it is likely that there will be an omnibus bill (all of them rolled up together in one big bill) to cover the ability to spend money to the new budget guidelines.  This will give those that oppose the agreement more time to undermine it, especially by adding amendments to the bill that have little to do with the subject at hand but are used because they know that the overall bill needs to be passed and thus their individual proposals get little scrutiny.  There is also the possibility that some of those amendments may be “poison pills” added to scuttle the agreement totally.  One example would be to add a rider totally defunding Planned Parenthood.  That would open up a new debate that could cause the 11 December deadline to pass and result in shutting down the government after all.  There are some presidential candidates that think that would be a very fine idea.  Only time will tell on how skilled House and Senate leaders are in moving forward.

For all us political junkies, last week there was further cause for hope that maybe the House could act in a bipartisan way for the good of the country.  Many Tea Party members in the House (and Senate) want to eliminate the Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im Bank).  Most moderate Republicans and Democrats see the bank as important to American commerce and small businesses.  Without going too far into the arcane rules of the House of Representatives, moderate Republicans utilized a little used rule to set up a petition, signed by enough Republicans and Democrats to force a vote on a bill that was previously held from the House floor by Speaker Boehner and the rest of the leadership as a “bone” to the Freedom Caucus.  The measure to restore the Ex-Im Bank passed on a vote of 313 to 118, (within the Republican Party the vote was 127 for and 117 against), demonstrating again that the majority can work together to accomplish common goals when the full House is able to cooperate. After debate, the Senate is also expected to pass the bill.

I hope that these two accomplishments are more than a mere flash in the pan but are instead a positive sign of things to come.  It does demonstrate that there is a road map that can lead to success when compromise is not considered a dirty word and our leaders work together to move our nation forward.

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