Times West Virginian
There was a glimmer of positive news from Washington last week amid ongoing budget talks.
Just a glimmer.
The federal government started the first month of the 2014 budget year with a smaller deficit. The Treasury Department, The Associated Press reported, said Wednesday that the deficit in October was $91.6 billion. That’s 24 percent lower than the $120 billion of October 2012.
Across-the-board spending cuts and the partial government shutdown helped reduce expenditures last month. Higher taxes and a better economy also boosted revenue.
The government ran an annual deficit of $680 billion in the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30. That was the lowest in five years and the first in that period below $1 trillion. A record $1.4 trillion gap was reported in 2009.
Still, there is plenty of uncertainty ahead.
A fight over the budget and President Barack Obama’s health care program led to a 16-day partial government shutdown in October. The battle ended with only a temporary agreement to re-open the government until Jan. 15. The borrowing limit was extended to just Feb. 7.
Congressional leaders also agreed to set up a House-Senate conference committee that is seeking a budget deal to avoid another shutdown next year. Lawmakers are facing an informal Dec. 13 deadline to reach a deal to fund government.
The nation’s economy certainly does not need another self-inflicted wound of a shutdown, but that, unfortunately, has become part of the political process.
Some hopeful words are being spoken.
“We’re trying to find common ground, but we’re not there yet,” said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
He said Republicans and Democrats have spent time airing their differences, but it’s now time to find a way to strike an accord.
“The hard part is figuring out where we agree,” Ryan said.
“This is my third time around, so I’m not going to make any predictions,” said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who’s participated in prior talks in 2011 on the deficit “supercommittee” and a group led by Vice President Joe Biden. “All I’m going to say is I’m very hopeful. And I think there’s a much better climate this time than last time.”
Real talks, according to the AP, are taking place not in public but behind closed doors between Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash.
Murray said the two “have had a number of discussions since our last meeting, regarding the parameters of a potential deal, and I’ve been very encouraged by those conversations. They are going to continue in the days ahead, and I’m hopeful we will get to a bipartisan compromise very soon.”
Willingness to find areas of agreement and to sensibly compromise is the key.
With Democrats in control of the White House and Senate and Republicans having the numbers in the House, no side is going to get a deal it considers perfect.
There isn’t even complete agreement among Republicans. Some oppose easing the sequestration cuts. Others, especially defense hawks worried about the Pentagon’s budget, are eager for an agreement.
“Sequestration is working. You can’t raise taxes high enough to satisfy the appetite of Washington to spend money,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said. “Closing loopholes are very legitimate. The tax code is a mess, but closing tax loopholes to spend more is not going to have long-range good results because you get the higher level of expenditure.”
Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf said last week as the conference committee met that a larger budget agreement addressing the nation’s long-term fiscal problems would be better than simply addressing sequestration for a couple of years.
“Big steps are better than small steps, but small steps are better than no steps at all,” Elmendorf said.
The best we can expect heading into 2014, an election year, is to reach a deal to avoid a second round of automatic spending cuts in January and keep the government operating efficiently. Spending cuts should be targeted and effective, not across the board. Negotiators already have pretty much given up hope of reaching a longer-term budget accord for reducing deficits years into the future.
We’ve stressed repeatedly that the country can’t tax or slash its way to prosperity.
Americans, every day, find areas where they agree and sensibly compromise in running their families, businesses, states, counties and municipalities.
Seeing the U.S. Congress do the same is the least we should expect.