Like nuclear war, some outcomes are too horrible to contemplate. That, at least, seems to be the takeaway from the debt ceiling deal that's emerging from Congress and the White House.
This does not mean the Republicans are happy about the deal, which would raise the federal borrowing limit to avert a catastrophic default on government debt. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the all-but-certain replacement for John Boehner as speaker of the House, said on CNN that the process by which the agreement came together "stinks."
"Under new management, we're not going to do business like this," he continued. "As a conference, we should have been meeting months ago to develop a strategy on this."
I don't think anyone can argue with the idea that budget-making should be more sober and deliberate. Significantly, though, that's not a hit on the actual content of the deal.
Ryan has been mum on that point. And it would be hard for him to be otherwise, since the new deal bears a striking resemblance to a budget compromise Ryan himself hammered out with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.) two years ago, when both were key budget and finance chairs in the House and Senate, respectively.
The table was set for Murray and Ryan after the debt ceiling confrontation of 2011 resulted in spending cuts across multiple categories. Mandatory spending for domestic programs like Medicare and food stamps was reduced for the next decade, as was discretionary spending on both defense and non-defense issues. But two years later, in 2013, Ryan and Murray orchestrated an agreement to raise spending in 2014 and 2015 by a total of $63 billion, split roughly evenly over defense and non-defense discretionary spending. And they paid for the spending increase with a grab bag of small cuts and revenue raisers elsewhere.
The new deal Boehner and the White House have cooked up does roughly the same thing: In 2016, it raises both defense and non-defense discretionary spending by $25 billion over the baseline set in 2011. Then it does the same by $15 billion apiece in 2017. That's a total of $80 billion over two years. Plus, there's another $32 billion thrown in for the Pentagon to do with as it pleases overseas.
The new deal would also extend the sequester's original cuts to Medicare spending for one additional year, while at the same time slowing down and spreading out hikes to the premiums people on certain parts of Medicare have to pay. Other details include repealing an ObamaCare requirement that large employers automatically enroll workers in health care plans, as well as changes to tax compliance, crop insurance, and the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, in order to balance out the finances.
The other big detail worth mentioning is to the disability benefits program under Social Security. Benefits are currently calculated based on a recipient's past income, and Republicans and conservatives argue that the program is running out of money and that it encourages dependency. So the deal would change benefits to a flat rate for everyone, and require two doctors to certify when someone is disabled.
While the thinking behind that last change is particularly pernicious, the degree of the change isn't too severe. One could argue it's just something Democrats and the left have to eat to get the deal done. Indeed, the main takeaway is that the new debt deal shuffles money around, giving both sides bits and pieces of things they want.
That's exactly the sort of compromise that Paul Ryan enacted in 2013 to great acclaim — and now it's putting him in a tough spot.
The hard right, just about the only thing that could stand between Ryan and the speakership, is splitting its frustration between the deal's retreat from the 2011 sequester, and the rushed, top-down way the deal was negotiated. You can see why Paul Ryan, then, would like to gin up the latter concern, and brush the former under the rug.
But between squishy Republicans, defense hawks eager to finance every last gun, bomb, and missile, Democrats hungry for their own concessions, and anyone who's just ready to avoid catastrophe, Boehner and the White House may be able to thread the needle here.
Unfortunately, any deal with strings attached will cement, just a bit more, the idea that threatening to nuke the economy is a legitimate way to extract policy concessions.
And, of course, the deal hasn't been passed yet. They may vote on it as early as tomorrow. So we'll see.