Commentary: Congress will have to bargain to reach long-term relief

With Congress finally approving a budget for a fiscal year that is already half over, it’s time to focus on the far more serious problem of the $14 trillion national debt. The wretched debate over current spending offers no reason to believe that Washington’s leaders are ready for bipartisan compromise on long-term deficit reduction.

The wrangling over the deal to cut $38 billion from current spending came perilously close to shutting down the government and endangered vital government operations like pay for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though the total amount in cuts was less than one percent of the budget.

Republicans threw an ideological monkey wrench into the process by threatening funding for organizations like Planned Parenthood and National Public Radio, despite their having little bearing on the deficit numbers. Democrats cast every spending cut, small or large, in apocalyptic terms.

In other words, it was ugly. Only inside the Beltway could this be regarded as a “model of cooperation.” A long-term deficit solution will require much tougher decisions and real horse-trading — the kind that Republicans and Democrats used to engage in routinely before partisanship became so ingrained.

If both parties want to restore respect for the legislative process, they must avoid holding any deal hostage to threats to harm basic government functions. A refusal to raise the debt ceiling — the next likely bump in the road — would spell disaster in the financial markets. The mere prospect that the government would be unable to pay its bills would stop the economic recovery dead in its tracks.

President Obama has paid lip service to deficit reduction. He’s late to the party, but at least he has a real plan. He waited until this week to unveil it. He talks about tough decisions and shared sacrifice, but, again, the deal over this year’s budget is no model to emulate. The $38 billion reduction he agreed to included some phony figures, like the $6.2 billion “cut” from the Commerce Department for the census. Because the census has already been completed, the money would not have been spent in this cycle anyway.

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