WASHINGTON – Stuffy oil paintings of Cabinet secretaries are out. Old-style light bulbs win a reprieve. For the health care overhaul, it’s a wash.
Policy trades big and small make up the $1.1 trillion spending deal that Republican and Democratic leaders are rushing through Congress this week to avoid a repeat of October’s partial government shutdown.
Five things to know about the compromise, and something to watch for next:
1. THE BIG THING: LAWMAKERS HAVE STEPPED BACK FROM THE ABYSS
So long shutdown, “sequester” and “fiscal cliff.” Next to you, a deal to keep the government’s lights on for nine more months feels like a masterwork of negotiation.
Lawmakers began backing down from three years of government-by-standoff after watching their approval ratings sink into the single digits. Republicans, especially, were stung by shutdown backlash.
To keep the government running past this week’s deadline, negotiators had to agree on 1,582 pages of details, completing a budget approved before Christmas.
They did it without those pet projects often referred to as “pork” that used to be handy for winning over wavering lawmakers, but now are banned.
Budget-making still wasn’t the lengthy, open process that civics textbooks say it should be.
The horse-trading was done by only about four dozen of Congress’ 533 members, working in private. What’s supposed to be 12 separate spending bills was combined into one mammoth stack that finances the government through Sept. 30.
2. THE DEAL EASES SOME UNPOPULAR BUDGET CUTS
Head Start gets more money for its preschool programs, federal workers and troops see a 1 per cent pay raise and the Pentagon can build new aircraft carriers and fighter jets.
In all, the bill halts $45 billion in automatic spending cuts due to kick in this year. It also restores some of the money chopped last year when a budget device known as the sequester took hold government-wide.
Those across-the-board cuts were never supposed to happen. They were time-released to compel lawmakers and President Barack Obama to set aside their differences and substitute a more logical deficit-reduction plan before it was too late.
Didn’t work as intended.
With Washington deadlocked, the cuts took effect last year, nipping programs favoured by Democrats and those esteemed by Republicans. In the end, those cuts are belatedly doing their job, giving lawmakers on both sides additional incentive to make nice and make a deal.
3. THERE ARE LOSERS
Two unloved agencies — the Transportation Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service — are among those getting less money than last year.
Republicans added restrictions to ensure the IRS never again targets conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
Spending for Obama’s high-speed rail plan is cut off. Money promised to the International Monetary Fund is withheld.
The deal prohibits spending any more on the portraits of Cabinet secretaries, Congress members and other big shots.
Environmentalists’ loss is a boon to fans of incandescent bulbs. Enforcement of a national shift to energy-efficient lighting is banned.
The bill puts the kibosh on the post office’s plan to stop delivering mail on Saturdays.
The December budget imposed pension changes that will cost newly hired federal workers and younger military retirees; the new bill exempts disabled veterans from the military cut.
Overall, spending for government operations will drop $79 billion, or 7 per cent, from the high-water mark set by Democrats in 2010.
4. THE HEALTH CARE LAW SURVIVES AGAIN
The October shutdown grew out of tea party-backed Republicans’ determination to kill Obama’s health law before it could take root.
That backfired, leaving GOP leaders with even less muscle to defund it this time around.
They did nibble around the edges, refusing to add additional spending that the president sought and shrinking a public health fund created by the Affordable Care Act. The Obama administration says that won’t hinder implementation.
The bulk of its spending is on autopilot — think Social Security and Medicare — and separate from annual appropriation bills, anyway.
5. THIS IS NO GRAND BARGAIN
The compromise lays out day-to-day government spending, decreeing which programs will flourish and which will wither.
That’s a humble feat next to the tattered dream that congressional leaders and Obama could come together to overhaul taxes, fix the nation’s long-term debt problem and secure the future of Medicare and Social Security as baby boomers retire.
The Appropriations Committee leaders, Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., described their accomplishment as achieving the most basic duty of Congress: financing the government.
You’ve got to start somewhere.
ONE THING TO WATCH: ANOTHER CHANCE FOR FINANCIAL CHAOS
Does this mean a spending truce, at least through the November election?
Probably. But there is a catch.
If conservative Republicans want to fight another day, they could demand concessions in exchange for raising the nation’s borrowing limit. Obama says he won’t negotiate that.
The Treasury Department estimates that money to pay the nation’s bills will run out in late February or early March if Congress fails to act.
Once the big spending bill is approved, you can expect a return to warnings about the perils of a U.S. default.