Finally, a Budget

At 1,582 pages, the new federal budget makes War and Peace look like a short story.

Nevertheless, despite the rather inordinate length of the bill, the fact that Congress has been able to reach a budget agreement — the first since 2009 — is, perhaps, a hopeful harbinger of increased peace to come between the warring parties. After last year’s sequestration and this year’s threat of default, it looked like Congress would subject the American people to the specter of a continual legislative gridlock. Congress is supposed to negotiate, reaching agreements that require concessions from both parties, and not act like a bunch of spoiled children.

Of course, the members of Congress who refused to compromise during previous rounds of negotiations would claim that they did so out of principle, but in their reluctance to reach an agreement they had violated the reason they are in Washington in the first place: ensuring that America has a functioning government. For the sake of “principle,” Congress was willing to watch markets roil, federal contractors go unpaid, thousands of federal workers be furloughed and important medical research grind to a halt.

We say a hopeful harbinger because Congress has chosen to kick the can down the road on certain budget issues — again. True, this budget has some cuts in it, but there’s still the minor matter of a $17 trillion deficit, increasing at $2.5 billion a day, that hasn’t been addressed. Split that debt among all American citizens and the tab runs to $54,000 per person. There’s also the matter of the Social Security trust fund, projected to be emptied in 2033. By then, the system’s total intake will only cover 75 percent of those eligible for benefits. Medicare is on equally shaky fiscal footing. The program’s trustees predict the fund that covers hospital costs will run out in 2024.

Even in this agreement, so-called principle trumped common­  sense. The long-term unemployed saw their unemployment benefits cut. Some members of Congress believe that providing benefits to those out of work only perpetuates a culture of dependency. That assertion makes no sense. The long-term unemployed did not choose to get laid off. Had they not been working, they wouldn’t be receiving any unemployment benefits at all. And if they hadn’t been still looking for work, they would also be ineligible. Neither are the benefits providing a lavish lifestyle to those collecting benefits. Even in the most generous states, unemployment checks don’t amount to more than a few hundred dollars a week.

Instead of callously slashing unemployment benefits, Congress should have devoted more effort to job creation and staunching the flow of white collar and manufacturing jobs to India, China and other countries. As Americans experienced the healthcare.gov fiasco, what has been somewhat off the radar is the fact that the technology firm, CGI, awarded the contract to develop the website, was Canadian. In the brouhaha that followed the crashing website, CGI lost the contract, but the new vendor, Accenture, won’t likely create many jobs for Americans. Accenture is a heavy user of offshore technologists, meaning in India and Canada, and even the ones it employs in the U.S. are low-paid immigrants with a H1-B visa. If jobs are leaving the U.S., how will cutting benefits put the jobless back to work?

Leave it to Congress to find a way to nickel-and-dime Americans. The outright raising of income taxes would cause a hue and cry, so Congress had to find other ways to slip in a higher tax. Airline passengers will have to shell out more in taxes this year. Congress decided to hike the tax that purportedly goes to pay for the TSA. According to Nicholas E. Calio, president of the trade group Airlines for America, the new tax will cost passengers an additional $730 million. The TSA already receives more than $2 billion a year. What does it plan on doing with all that additional funding?

Airline passengers already grumbling over the cost of fees will have more to gripe about. Passengers taking a round-trip flight will now have to pay $11.20 to fund the TSA, more than double the current $5 tax. With passengers already hit with a 7.5 percent federal tax, passenger facility fees, a $3.80 federal segment fee and luggage fees, piling on more costs will only depress air travel and the tourism industry.

This budget compromise is a good first step towards a viable legislative body — but was the agreement reached only because Congress has more pressing issues to worry about — such as the midterm elections in November? Could election jitters, and Congress’ all-time-low popularity rating, have also had something to do with the rather surprising speed in which the budget was passed? Congress has 10 months left to convince the American people that they have turned the corner on unyielding partisan politics.