On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci voted to reject the bipartisan agreement that reopened the federal government and raised the country’s debt ceiling. In doing so, the Wadsworth Republican highlighted the size of the national debt, nearing $17 trillion, and explained: “We are beyond fortunate to live in the greatest nation in the history of the world, and I refuse to bankrupt it.”
Put aside that the country isn’t going bankrupt, or anything close. The agreement, crafted by Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate, hardly aggravates the country’s budget problems. It reflects reduced spending levels, not far from what House Republicans proposed. More, the federal budget deficit has been declining, now approaching what economists view as a manageable level of 3 percent of the overall economy.
Renacci often talks about his willingness to work across party lines, even citing his record as a practical-minded mayor. Yet he opposed an agreement that sets a framework for no less, Democrats and Republicans from both chambers having until the middle of December to bridge differences in their budget plans for the fiscal year.
Here was an opportunity to end a harmful and unnecessary episode, to recognize the possible, something that Speaker John Boehner and David Joyce of Geauga County did, no matter their opposition to the Affordable Care Act. Renacci said no. His stance serves as a reminder about how temporary the current agreement is and how easily the confrontation could be repeated in January.
Encouraging is that those lawmakers looking to craft a budget compromise are not pursuing a “grand bargain,” a sweeping measure that would address entitlement spending and tax reform. Neither the trust nor the time is there. Rather, they have a chance to replace the misguided and damaging sequester, the automatic spending reductions, now in effect, stemming from the clash over the debt ceiling two years ago.
A second round of sequester cuts is set to bite next year. Recall what has been cut so far, among other things, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ($300 million), border security ($595 million), Head Start ($400 million), public housing ($1.74 billion), the Food and Drug Administration ($209 million), special education ($827 million), the National Institutes of Health ($1.6 billion), the National Science Foundation ($360 million), the Library of Congress ($30 million).
Add reductions in unemployment assistance and benefits for veterans. Hard to argue against all agencies and departments seeking efficiencies and savings that do not harm their missions. Yet the offices noted above are not responsible for the country’s longer-term fiscal problems. They enhance the economy and boost our quality of life.
The task for the House and Senate negotiators is avoiding the harm of the sequester, beginning to find savings in those items that are driving the federal deficits, the large entitlement programs, from farm subsidies to health care. Small yet significant steps can be taken, without afflicting the poor and vulnerable or undermining the economic recovery, already set back by the sequester.
Eventually, a balanced approach to fiscal discipline must include new revenues. For now, lawmakers have ample reason to explore what is possible, finding a substitute for the sequester, doing what they can to start building a framework for compromise going forward.