Divided House Passes 2-Year Budget Deal to Raise Spending

Though Republicans once trumpeted the budget act as the party’s crowning achievement of the Obama era, there is little love left in Washington for the 2011 law. The legislation created the sequester, automatic spending cuts that would sweep across almost all government programs if Congress did not abide by the caps. It was meant to be a way to force a bipartisan “supercommittee” to reach a more equitable deal to control the federal debt through a mix of tax increases, spending cuts and changes to the real drivers of government spending, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

But that committee failed, and programs at the annual discretion of Congress took the brunt of the cuts. The law is broadly seen as having stymied federal investment too soon after the 2008 recession, said Sharon Parrott, a senior vice president at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal research center.

“Every couple of years, we had this environment of crisis because we had to undo funding levels that most people in both parties thought were unworkable,” she said. “In the absence of that sort of crisis and brinkmanship environment, Congress still has to fund federal agencies and programs.”

Most policymakers in Washington believe that the spending caps were set at unrealistic levels, meant to threaten, not legislate. Several of the parties involved in the original 2011 deal stress that it was agreed to under great duress, and was never intended to dictate government policy.

“It was never meant to be a policy of choice; it was only adopted as a way to avoid default,” Jacob J. Lew, the director of the Office of Management and Budget at the time, said in an interview. “It was a crisis moment.” Gene Sperling, then the director of the White House National Economic Council, referred to the caps in a statement as “an unfortunate last-ditch device.”

Ultimately the lesson learned, said Brendan Buck, an aide at the time to Speaker John A. Boehner, was “that this is political reality and there’s not just much forcing mechanism left to achieve anything.”

“I don’t think the every-two-year, manufactured crisis is a terribly viable way of approaching this,” he added.

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