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Budget deal: Good news, bad news

A Capitol policewoman walks through the empty Rotunda.
A Capitol policewoman walks through the empty Rotunda.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • William Bennett: Was President Obama serious about bringing deficits under control?
  • Paul Begala: Democrats, independents want compromise; most Republicans don't
  • Ruben Navarrette: The dispute isn't about Planned Parenthood but about levels of spending
  • Steven Taylor: If agreement can't be reached on these relatively small cuts, what next?

(CNN) -- A last-minute agreement averted a government shutdown late Friday, but analysts say the high-stakes standoff revealed persistent issues that Washington still must address. CNN Opinion asked a number of regular contributors and guests for their views.

David Frum, a weekly columnist for CNN and former special assistant to President George W. Bush, is the editor of FrumForum

Obviously this is no way to run a railroad. Still - the train did not crash.

The deal to avert a government shutdown is a story of good news and bad news.

Good news:

The dealmakers in both parties have prevailed over the confrontationalists in both parties. Speaker John Boehner persuaded his Republican Congress to accept "yes" for an answer. President Obama resisted the temptation to entrap the Republicans in a shutdown that would almost certainly have hurt the GOP more than it would have hurt him.

Good news:

If Republicans and Democrats flinched from a government shut down, they will certainly flinch from the much more catastrophic consequences of failing to raise the debt ceiling in May. We can reduce the worry level about a politically forced default on the national debt.

Good news:

Washington is beginning to think seriously about restraining the growth of the public debt. Notice I said "begin." We're going to need better answers than we have heard so far, but at least the answers are starting. Somebody tweeted this evening about the paradox of a liberal president hailing budget cuts. But even liberal presidents have to worry about a excess debt - and the signs are there that Obama does worry.

Bad news:

The debate dramatizes how completely budget policy has displaced economic policy in Washington debate. Tonight's action may help stabilize federal finances. But even economists who support spending cuts will acknowledge that the immediate effect of cuts is to subtract demand from the economy. A strongly growing economy can sustain and benefit from this demand-subtraction. The US economy in 2011 is not a strongly growing economy. Yet how much time has the new Congress spent debating ideas to accelerate growth?

More bad news:

The 2011 budget was due in the spring of 2010. Despite control of both houses of Congress, the Democrats irresponsibly failed to enact a budget while they could. We will resume debating temporary funding of the government next week--and then seamlessly move into still fiercer battles over the budget for 2012. The most important and difficult decisions still await.

Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House. He is an affiliated professor at Georgetown University's Public Policy Institute:

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We came awfully close to shutting down the government. And why? On February 2 House Republicans called for cutting $32 billion from current spending.

Reliable reports I received in the final stages of the negotiation showed that Democrats were willing to accept $38 billion in cuts. That's nearly 120% of what the GOP went into the negotiations seeking. And yet, for much of the day, Speaker John Boehner wouldn't take yes for an answer.

That's because this was about ideology as much as money. Oddly, the GOP reportedly drew a line in the sand over funding Planned Parenthood. But if it weren't Planned Parenthood it would have been something else: restricting the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to regulate air pollution or canceling Obamacare or something else. Because while the overwhelming majority of Democrats and independents in the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll say they favor compromise over a government shutdown, only 38% of Republicans do.

Republicans want confrontation. They want conflict. They do not want consensus. And so their political leaders are going to give them what they want: if not now, then in the fight over avoiding default on the national debt, or the 2012 budget.

In their defense, the GOP did not run in 2010 on a platform of conciliation. They promised radical, even revolutionary change. Now they're just giving their voters what they want.

William Bennett, CNN contributor and Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush:

It didn't have to be this way. The Reid-Pelosi Congress could have passed a budget last year, but it did not. So today, we are facing an ongoing dispute between a Reid-Boehner Congress -- with the president mostly absent on the budget until only recently.

But the president did deliver a few signals over the past several months and year, perhaps most strongly in his State of the Union address in January when he said, "But now that the worst of the recession is over, we have to confront the fact that our government spends more than it takes in. That is not sustainable. Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same."

That is what the dispute over the cuts are about -- a serious effort to curb spending which, yes, means a government that begins to live within its means. We have yet to see a cut that is not disputed, but we need to keep in mind, if we can't legitimately cut x program or y program, without threats and vetoes, we will never be able to seriously move our government to live within its means.

We either cut or we do not. There are no other options. So did the president mean what he said in his State of the Union? Or was it just lip service?

S.E. Cupp is author of "Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media's Attack On Christianity," a columnist at the New York Daily News, and host of the "S.E. Cupp Show "on GlennBeck.com.

After months of procrastinating and weeks of negotiating, Congress buys a few more days? When Sartre said, "If a victory is told in detail, one can no longer distinguish it from a defeat," I think this is what he was talking about.

Who knows what looms in the next week, but it appears that when it comes to the crass and crafty business of political calculus, someone's math was way off. When they kicked the budget can down the road to stave off a detrimental midterm election battle, Congressional Democrats lost an opportunity to stuff the 2011 budget with all the spending goodies their ample arms could have carried.

And for the Republicans, coming in with a low-ball proposal of $61 billion in spending cuts means that they ended up haggling over merely half of that. Had they aimed higher, say with the $100 billion they had initially promised, they might have left this goat rodeo looking like they had some teeth.

Finally, President Obama made a huge misstep in allowing Reid and Boehner to duke it out while he largely carried on with business as usual. In his efforts to keep from getting dirty, he leaves with more than a little egg on his face.

At least if we had a shutdown, we'd all have gotten to see just how nonessential most of government actually is.

Kathryn Pearson, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota who is working on a book on party discipline in Congress.

The politics surrounding the debate over the budget shutdown reveal the huge gap between the way contemporary Congress works and what political scientists refer to as "regular order."

First, Congress and the White House missed the October 1, 2010 deadline to pass the 12 annual appropriations bills to fund the federal government for Fiscal Year 2011. The 11th-hour "bridge" agreement of April 8 is the seventh continuing resolution enacted to keep government agencies funded since September 30, creating great uncertainty for federal agencies, employees and contractors, particularly in recent days.

Second, by attaching policy riders to the continuing resolution, Congress circumvents the normal legislative process that includes committee hearings and markups. The policy riders being debated should be considered separately, not strategically attached to "must pass" legislation.

Third, power is centralized in the hands of congressional party leaders at the expense of rank-and-file participation. While Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Reid may be consulting with some of their most extreme members, the only opportunity available to most members of Congress is an up or down vote on the final package.

Lastly, and perhaps most troubling, the shutdown negotiations highlight the deep partisan divisions in Congress. Democrats and Republicans operate as two teams engaged in a competition for policy outcomes and electoral majorities in a zero-sum game. Each party acts most concerned about its own reputations at the expense of Congress' reputation and its ability to make policy. Boehner, for example, seeks a resolution supported by a majority of his party's members rather than by a majority of the House as a whole.

Unless leaders of both parties put the American people and Congress' institutional reputation ahead of the party's reputation, it is hard to imagine how the 112th Congress will effectively address the budget debates yet to come, including entitlement reform and the next two appropriations cycles.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a CNN.COM contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist:

As the clock ticked toward the midnight deadline, the budget shutdown drama went from agonizing to absurd. Did Harry Reid and Senate Democrats really threaten to shut down the government under the pretense of defending Planned Parenthood, abortion and women's rights?

As someone who is unflinchingly pro-choice, I'm down with those causes. But seriously, raise your hand if you think that this massive stalemate is really about abortion, and not a reluctance by some to make tough spending cuts.

If Democrats really cared about empowering women, they would have made one their party's presidential nominee when they had the chance. The only thing this is about is empowering the Democratic Party and the special interests that keep it fueled.

Steven L. Taylor is a professor of Political Science at Troy University in Alabama. He writes daily on politics at Outside the Beltway and at his personal blog, PoliBlog. His most recent book is "Voting Amid Violence: Electoral Democracy in Colombia":

What's the one lesson that needs to be taken away from the current battle over the budget? It is that American policy-making takes place in the context of a bicameral legislature and separation of powers. In short: it is largely a result of the peculiar institutions of the American constitutional system. All legislation must be passed in identical form by both chambers of the legislature, and hence the need for negotiations. Further, the president, sitting as he does in an institutionally separate sphere, holds the veto pen, thus making it possible for him to negotiate as well. All of the above is further complicated by the fact that the Congress is split between the Republican and Democratic parties.

All of the above is supposedly known to us all. We learned it all in high school, right?

And yet, I don't think we, as a public, fully get it. We want things "to work" in Washington. Plus we want our services to continue unabated whilst cutting the budget (well, at least the "waste" and, of course, foreign aid). All of the obvious contradictions with these impulses have been made manifest in the members of Congress that we have sent to Washington and then complicated further by the above noted institutional constraints (which are far more complicated than described).

The institutional structures in place in Washington do not create a smooth and easy process for implementing serious policy change. We saw this with the health care debate, insofar as it took overwhelming Democratic majorities in both chambers to pass major reform and even then the changes were far more modest than most Democratic voters would have liked.

Likewise, serious fiscal reform to deal with long-term deficits or the difficulties associated with Medicare costs is going to prove extremely difficult to address. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, and his allies, for example, need to be paying attention.

The ongoing budget battle for fiscal year 2011 underscores this: The impasses that have emerged have been over small, relatively short-term issues. If agreement cannot be reached on what amount to, as the cliché goes, rounding errors, it makes one wonder what it is going to take to motivate serious debate in the Congress.

The opinions expressed in these commentaries are solely those of the authors.

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