Con­gress votes and the deal’s done. What does it mean?

Wash­ing­ton’s senior U.S. Sen­a­tor Pat­ty Mur­ray and her nego­ti­at­ing part­ner Con­gress­man Paul Ryan have avert­ed yet anoth­er bud­get cri­sis head­ing into the 2014 bud­get nego­ti­a­tions. The Sen­ate still has to vote, but the House has, by a sur­pris­ing­ly large mar­gin, gone ahead and signed off on the mod­est deal.

The agree­ment does­n’t extend deferred pay for the unem­ployed or pre­vent us from get­ting close to anoth­er default in ear­ly 2014, but it will elim­i­nate the threat of anoth­er gov­ern­ment shut­down in the near future.

What hap­pened? A bar­gain was struck, but what does it entail? Too much of the news cov­er­age to date has been about the pol­i­tics of the agree­ment, not the impact or the scope. The Amer­i­can peo­ple now have a chance to ana­lyze the details.

These bud­get nego­ti­a­tions were about seques­tra­tion and who gets what share of the fed­er­al dis­cre­tionary bud­get. What’s the dis­cre­tionary bud­get? It is the $1.5 tril­lion out of a total bud­get of $3.8 tril­lion pro­posed by the Oba­ma Admin­is­tra­tion to run our fed­er­al gov­ern­ment agen­cies in 2014.

The Repub­li­can game plan for the dis­cre­tionary bud­get is con­sis­tent at least: squeeze more blood out of the civil­ian agen­cies and pub­lic employ­ees that have been bled dry as a result of two over­seas entan­gle­ments, two rounds of tax cuts for the wealthy, and the recent effects of sequestration.

Democ­rats seem to be in a “hold the line” stance, which essen­tial­ly insti­tu­tion­al­izes the dra­con­ian blows to health, edu­ca­tion, hous­ing, and envi­ron­men­tal fund­ing absorbed dur­ing the past thir­teen years.

What if we demand­ed real bud­get nego­ti­a­tions where both sides argue for a bud­get that achieves mean­ing­ful gains for the Amer­i­can peo­ple and see who offers a fair deal? Just look at the way today’s bud­get rewards U.S. mil­i­tary and intel­li­gence agen­cies. They win fifty-sev­en per­cent of the dis­cre­tionary budget.

Every oth­er fed­er­al mis­sion gets peanuts. Edu­ca­tion and vet­er­ans? Six per­cent each. Hous­ing and health? Five per­cent each. And get this: inter­na­tion­al affairs (State Depart­ment and the Unit­ed Nations), ener­gy and envi­ron­ment, sci­ence, and trans­porta­tion get just three per­cent each, or twelve per­cent collectively.

A bud­get is a moral doc­u­ment. It is a state­ment of choices.

Today’s fed­er­al bud­get reflects a clear choice: fund the mil­i­tary while forc­ing our oth­er vital pub­lic ser­vices to com­pete for the leftovers.

The Con­gres­sion­al Bud­get Office has explored ways to rethink how to spend tax dol­lars. Instead of cut­ting $25 bil­lion from unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits and fore­go­ing the poten­tial cre­ation of almost 200,000 liv­ing-wage jobs, we could reduce mil­i­tary com­bat units to gen­er­ate $552 bil­lion through 2023.

Or, let’s exam­ine those gen­er­ous cor­po­rate tax loop­holes and deduc­tions that make it rare for cor­po­ra­tions to pay their fair share of a thir­ty-five per­cent cor­po­rate income tax rate. If the rate were increased by just one per­cent – at a time when cor­po­rate prof­its are at an all-time high – our avail­able dis­cre­tionary tax dol­lars would grow by $113 bil­lion. These num­bers have a way of chang­ing the way we define “suc­cess” in a bud­get nego­ti­a­tion, don’t they?

These are exam­ples of how to change the way we think about fund­ing the crit­i­cal needs of our peo­ple and nation. Just a few months ago, intran­si­gent Repub­li­cans man­u­fac­tured a six­teen-day fed­er­al gov­ern­ment shutdown.

Few in Con­gress seemed to feel the shocks to ordi­nary Amer­i­cans, but the rest of us sure did. Fur­loughs, lay­offs, and delin­quent pay­checks meant mil­lions of fam­i­lies held their breath and hoped for an end to the cri­sis before their rent or mort­gages came due. It is a good moment to ask: what are we doing to ourselves?

Cuts to bloat­ed mil­i­tary bud­gets will not hurt our nation’s long-or short-term inter­ests. But hikes to stu­dent loan rates along with indef­i­nite seques­tra­tion cuts hurt all of us. Accord­ing to Inside High­erEd, the effects of seques­tra­tion alone have been cat­a­stroph­ic: $1 bil­lion in cuts to uni­ver­si­ties means lost research into new can­cer treat­ments, the caus­es of Alzheimer’s, and cures for HIV/AIDS.

In con­trast, just imag­ine the impact of real­lo­cat­ing $100 bil­lion from mil­i­tary and intel­li­gence bud­gets to fund ear­ly learn­ing and high­er edu­ca­tion ini­tia­tives that expand research, increase stu­dent aid, make col­lege loans more afford­able, and pave the way for uni­ver­sal preschool in all fifty states.

More than twen­ty-five years ago, a Pen­ta­gon offi­cial request­ed my help. His office was try­ing to fig­ure out how Sovi­et lead­ers would react to pro­pos­als to cut strate­gic nuclear arse­nals by fifty per­cent. Back then, we nev­er talked about how much mon­ey the Unit­ed States was spend­ing on its strate­gic mil­i­tary pow­er. It is time to start talk­ing about it. The U.S. mil­i­tary bud­get is con­sum­ing our com­mon wealth.

Yet the debate revolves around how to spread the loss­es across agen­cies and pro­grams already in free fall. Details mat­ter. It is time to stop inflict­ing more pain. We deserve and must demand that the next bud­get deal hold promise for all of us.

About the author

Gael Tarleton is an NPI Advisory Councilmember and former Washington State Representative who led two Russian subsidiaries during the 1990s and lserved as a senior defense intelligence analyst on Soviet strategic nuclear programs at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency from 1981-1990. She served on NPI's board from its inception through 2021.

Adjacent posts