Who would have thought that the United States Congress—after a year filled with gridlock and subsequent political inertia—would end up giving the American people a gift just before Christmas week? As of last week, comprehensive legislation finalizing the federal budget for fiscal year 2014 received final passage from both the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. While generally modest in scope, the mere fact that a piece of fiscal legislation garnered the support of key Democrats and Republicans in Congress represents a significant achievement.
A quick review of the legislation reveals the following basic provisions.
- The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 sets overall federal discretionary spending for the current fiscal year at $1.012 trillion—about halfway between the Senate budget level of $1.058 trillion and the House budget level of $967 billion.
- The agreement includes $63 billion in sequester relief over two years, split evenly between defense and non-defense programs. In fiscal year 2014, defense discretionary spending would be set at $520.5 billion, and non-defense discretionary spending would be set at $491.8 billion.
- The sequester relief is fully offset by savings captured elsewhere in the budget. The agreement includes dozens of specific deficit-reduction provisions, with mandatory savings and non-tax revenue totaling approximately $85 billion. The agreement ultimately will reduce the deficit by between $20 and $23 billion.
According to Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), “this vote shows both parties—in both chambers—can find common ground. We can work together. This bill is only a small step. We need to do a lot more.” His co-negotiator in the Senate, Senator Patty Murray (D- Washington) said, “this bill isn’t exactly what I would have written on my own, and I’m pretty sure it’s not what Chairman Ryan would have written on his own. It’s a compromise, and that means neither side got everything they wanted, and both sides had to give a bit.”
Given some of the issues still to be addressed, it can only be seen as a positive development when elected legislators like Ryan and Murray, who chair their respective chambers’ Budget Committees, are willing to sit down and seek the middle ground on a complex issue. The real challenge is going to be whether this momentum can be maintained during the coming year. In October, Congress and the administration suspended a $16.7 trillion cap on borrowing until February 7. Thus, a vote on whether to permanently raise the federal debt ceiling looms on the horizon. Bipartisanship like that shown of late will most certainly be required.
Library advocates should take this opportunity to find out how their own Members of Congress voted with regard to the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013. If citizens expect their representatives to really get something done, it follows that we should share with them our happiness on one of the few times in 2013 that this actually occurred. Sadly, the voices of obstruction from varied interest groups—on each end of the political spectrum—have already started to criticize this legislation. For the conservatives, the budget pact abandons some of the principles of fiscal discipline, in that it reversed a portion of the harsh sequestration cuts (which reduced federal finding for libraries and a host of other discretionary programs). On the left, liberals are displeased in that some of the expanded relief for unemployed individuals will be cut back at the end of 2013.
Advocates for libraries and other essential public services must remind those we send to Congress that we must not let the perfect become the enemy of the good, as the philosopher Voltaire would have said. In spite of the skepticism that citizens across the country feel toward Congress, now is not the time to disengage from promoting positive change. Active advocacy in support of grass-roots causes that seek to maintain and even improve funding and government support for libraries represents the best approach to prodding Congress to set aside negativity and come together behind issues that deserve bipartisan endorsement.