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The Fiscal Debate in Context

SOURCE: AP/ Scott Applewhite

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI), left, speaks with Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, November 13, 2013.

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Congress is currently operating under a budget agreement that represents an enormous compromise for progressives. At the end of 2013, Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) negotiated spending levels for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. That agreement cut spending below the levels agreed to in earlier budget compromises, which had already locked in drastic cuts.

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The Murray-Ryan agreement limits discretionary spending to $1.014 trillion for FY 2015. That is better than allowing sequestration to continue, but it was a huge concession. The Murray-Ryan deal cut FY 2015 discretionary spending well below the pre-sequester levels Congress agreed to in the Budget Control Act, which was negotiated to end the debt limit standoff in 2011. The Murray-Ryan deal even cut spending by more than Rep. Ryan originally called for in the budget he wrote after Republicans took over the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections.

Looking back a few years, the Murray-Ryan deal is an even bigger cut. If Congress had simply frozen spending at the levels enacted for FY 2010, adjusting only for inflation, discretionary programs would have received about 17 percent more funding in FY 2015 than they will under the Murray-Ryan deal. And President Barack Obama’s budget for FY 2011 called for over 20 percent more discretionary spending in FY 2015 than the Murray-Ryan deal provides.

The Murray-Ryan deal enabled Congress to reverse some of the worst sequestration cuts, but it still forced many damaging cuts and missed opportunities. President Obama’s FY 2015 budget proposes a $56 billion Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative to make targeted investments in education, research, infrastructure, and other key sectors within the discretionary budget. Those investments would begin to steer our economic policy away from austerity and toward growth, but they are a relatively modest step. Even if Congress enacts President Obama’s proposal, discretionary spending would still fall below the compromise levels agreed to in the Budget Control Act, and well below where things stood a few years ago.

Harry Stein is the Associate Director for Fiscal Policy at the Center for American Progress.

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