It is both premature and exaggerated to suggest, as Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray stated on Tuesday, that congressional negotiators have "broken through the partisanship and gridlock" that characterizes the federal budgeting process. But they certainly have provided some grounds for hope.
Hope may not be a measurable commodity, but it is the most gratifying product of the deal reached between Murray and Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, the one ingredient lending validity to the ubiquitous declarations that the agreement is a "first step" toward both a more satisfying federal budget and a more productive process for achieving it.
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The deal itself is, by all accounts, modest. That is a reasonable attribute for a positive first step. It proposes more permanent spending reforms involving military spending, federal employee pensions and Medicare rather than the temporary and broad sequester cuts, and provides an alternative to what the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget called a "seemingly endless cycle of lurching from one crisis to the next."
It barely dents the $17 trillion federal deficit but does eke out $23 billion while setting spending limits for the next two fiscal years and delivering $85 billion in spending cuts to be realized over the course of the next decade.
No one denies that these are inadequate measures for fully resolving the deficit crisis and curbing Washington's spending addiction. But they are not insignificant. They do demonstrate that federal lawmakers can make policy trade-offs and pay for necessary programs without adding to the deficit.
And that demonstration lends hope -- there's that word again -- to the possibility that lawmakers can "fix the system," as the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget put it, so that fixing the debt can follow.
No one should take that progression as a given, however. In a very real sense, the Ryan-Murray deal does still reflect Washington's not-so-proud tradition of finding ways to delay a crisis, and many budget experts aptly note that with this deal, Washington will have exhausted nearly all its "easy" options for budget reform, leaving it still to face tough wrangling over entitlements and the tax code.
The budget compromise provides a two-year window for Congress to engage in that wrangling and produce meaningful systemic approaches that balance reasonable spending needs against a fair means of paying for them. Seen simply in that context, the deal is a little scary. We simply must not find ourselves facing government shutdowns and reckless budget slashing come the end of Fiscal Year 2015.
But, demonstrating a willingness to acknowledge the merits of competing demands, the compromise also provides that one other intangible quality that has been so lacking in the budget debate so far, hope.
Now lawmakers have two years to justify it.