Budget Deal Postmortem: Who Won?, Who Lost?, Does It Matter?

What, if anything, does the budget deal mean for the future?

Listening to the parties involved in the budget deal, they all seem pretty pleased with themselves and they’re all convinced they won:

Congressional leaders agreed late Friday to a compromise that will keep the federal government funded for the remainder of the fiscal year — averting a government shutdown less than an hour before it was set to start.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) announced the deal just before 11 p.m. The agreement came together in a few frantic hours at the near-deserted Capitol, with a midnight deadline looming.

“I’m pleased that Senator Reid and I and the White House have been able to come to an agreement that will, in fact, cut spending and keep our government open,” Boehner said at an impromptu news conference, mentioning Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

Shortly after, President Obama read a statement from the White House, pointing out that the Washington Monument, seen lit up over his shoulder, would be open as usual on Saturday.

“Today, Americans of different beliefs came together,” Obama said. He said the cuts would be painful but necessary to maintain the country’s fiscal health. “We protected the investments we need to win the future.”

To keep the government running through Friday, lawmakers approved a short-term spending measure overnight — the Senate at 12:20 a.m. and the House at 12:40 a.m. — and said the final agreement should be approved next week.

If that happens, the measure would cut $37.8 billion from the federal budget through the end of September, congressional aides said.

Democrats had wanted to cut billions less: they assented to the larger figure, and in return Republicans dropped a demand to take federal funds from the group Planned Parenthood, according to aides in both parties.

However, Republicans did win the inclusion of a policy rider that forbids public money from going toward abortion procedures in the District of Columbia, a restriction that had previously been enacted when Republicans held power in federal Washington. The deal also adds money for one of Boehner’s favored projects, a program that provides low-income District students with money to attend private schools.

After 11 p.m., Reid described the negotiations briefly in a speech on the Senate floor.

“We didn’t do it at this late hour for drama, we did it because it’s been very hard to arrive at this point,” Reid said. “Both sides have had to make tough choices. But tough choices is what this job’s all about.”

The cuts, if enacted, would add up to the largest budget reduction for federal agencies in U.S. history. Some conservative Republicans had pushed for much more and grumbled about the compromise Friday.

Political activists and pundits on both sides of the aisle, though, weren’t in quite such a back-slapping mood. On the right, the opinion seems to range from those who think this was an unacceptable surrender by the GOP leadership to those who think that the GOP leadership won the day by getting the Democrats to agree to some of the largest spending cuts ever enacted by a sitting Congress. In that latter category, for example, there’s NRO’s Andrew Stiles, who calls the deal a big win for John Boehner:

House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio), on the other hand, initially proposed $32 billion in spending cuts. House Republicans, led by an undaunted freshman class, bumped that number up to $61 billion ($100 billion off the president’s budget), before settling on $38.5 billion.

That’s $6.5 billion more than Boehner asked for to begin with, and $5.5 billion more than the $33 billion that Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Democrats claimed had been agreed to less than two weeks ago. It remains to be seen how much of that will be “real” cuts to discretionary spending, but all told, it appears that we”ll see a substantial reduction in baseline spending that will yield hundreds of billions in savings over the next decade.


Republicans should feel plenty confident heading into the upcoming debates over the debt ceiling and the 2012 budget, Paul Ryan’s daring proposal to cut the deficit by $6 trillion. This deal, thanks to Boehner’s robust leadership, was a good start — much less for the size of the spending cuts it yielded than for the political dynamic it revealed. They will need all the political capitol they can muster going forward, because it’s only thebeginning.

Stiles’ colleague Andrew McCarthy, on the other hand, is among those on the right who are entirely unhappy:

With due respect, I think those who are praising the budget deal are deluding themselves. Under circumstances where we are trillions of dollars in debt, the GOP just caved on its promise to cut the relative pittance of $61 billion in spending because it’s just not worth fighting for more than the half-pittance of $40 billion Democrats claimed was their drop-dead number. “Drop dead” meant daring Republicans to shut the government down (which, as we know, doesn’t actually shut the government down). The Republicans blinked.


The only thing Boehner won is future assurance that GOP leadership can safely promise the moon but then settle for crums because their rah-rah corner will spin any paltry accomplishment, no matter how empty it shows the promise to have been, as a tremendous victory.

And what’s the rationale for settling? Why, that these numbers are so piddling — that the $21 billion difference is so meaningless in the context of $14 trillion — that it’s best just to settle, make believe the promise was never made, make believe we didn’t flinch, and put this episode behind us so we can begin the “real work” of the next promise, the Ryan Plan.

Regarding that plan, you’re to believe that the captains courageous who caved on $21 billion — and who got elected because of Obamacare but don’t even want to discuss holding out for a cancellation of $105 billion in Obamacare funding — are somehow going to fight to the death for $6 trillion in cuts. Right.

Like me, McCarthy is cynical about the GOP’s actual commitment to cutting spending and their ability to push something as radical as, say, Ryan Plan through Congress in anything resembling its original form. So, for that reason, it’s somewhat curious that he would be so worked up over the fact that they compromised here, especially when there really isn’t any rational reason to waste tremendous amounts of political capital on such a relatively small issue.

Over on the left, the reaction is some combination of grim acceptance and bitter disappointment.  Ezra Klein, for example, isn’t impressed with the victory laps that President Obama and Harry Reid took last night:

So why were Reid and Obama so eager to celebrate Boehner’s compromise with his conservative members? The Democrats believe it’s good to look like a winner, even if you’ve lost. But they’re sacrificing more than they let on. By celebrating spending cuts, they’ve opened the door to further austerity measures at a moment when the recovery remains fragile. Claiming political victory now opens the door to further policy defeats later.

Greg Sargent, meanwhile, suggests that the Democrats conceded too much by making the debate about avoiding a shutdown:

* The White House never wanted a shutdown, and let the right dictate the terms of the debate to avoid one. Obama and his advisers always viewed this battle as a chance to rerun the tax-cut-deal game plan, a second opportunity to play the “adult in chief” peace-keeping role, as the Beltway cliche has it. The result: Republicans knew full well that the White House wouldn’t allow a government shutdown, allowing them to continue to move the spending-cut goalposts in the knowledge that Dems would follow — again ensuring that the debate unfolded on the GOP’s turf.

Indeed, Obama’s weekly address on the deal explicitly drew a parallel to the tax cut compromise and even appeared to lend support to the right wing’s austerity framing of the debate. “Beginning to live within our means is the only way to protect those investments that will help America compete for new jobs,” Obama said, boasting that the deal amounts to “the largest annual spending cut in our history.”

Of course, the other side of the coin is that many Democrats believed that they had nothing to lose by daring the GOP to be so obstinate as to shut the government down. They thought it was 1995-96 all over again and their attitude was best summed up in comments made publicly by people like Howard Dean:

Howard Dean, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, sees an upside to a looming government shutdown – at least politically.

“If I was head of DNC, I would be quietly rooting for it,” said Dean, speaking on a National Journal Insider’s Conference panel Tuesday morning. “I know who’s going to get blamed – we’ve been down this road before.”

If Republicans were betting that Democrats would do anything to avoid a shutdown, then Democrats were betting that the GOP would be as dumb as they were in 1995 and let a deal fall apart over trivial issues. While it certainly seemed like that yesterday, it’s quite clear that John Boehner is no Newt Gingrich, and I mean that in an entirely positive way. Unlike Gingrich, Boehner didn’t let his own smug sense of self-assurance get in the way of making the right deal at the right time and, in the end, he got what some would consider a fairly good deal.

So, who’s the winner here? For the most part, I tend to agree with Ed Morrissey that it’s far too soon to tell:

This looks less like a victory for either side and more of a five-month truce.  The fight to cut just a tiny slice of the overall budget took months to resolve, and all of these issue will arise again in September when Congress has to pass the FY2012 budget.  Don’t expect the fight to get any easier, at least not on discretionary spending.


We’ll see who won in September, but Republicans have achieved one major accomplishment.  Not only did they force the first actual reductions in government spending in ages, but they have changed the political paradigm from whether to cut to how much and where to cut.  That’s a pretty impressive victory for a party that only controls one chamber of Congress.

True, but it’s worth keeping in mind that this was a relatively small part of the budget and that, with the exception of things like the abandoned Planned Parenthood rider, it didn’t really involve any of the hot-button issues in American politics. That won’t be true the next time around. Between now and September 30th, the House and Senate will have to thrash out a budget for Fiscal Year 2012. The GOP will try to include some version of the Ryan Plan in their proposals, and the Democrats and their friends in the punditocracy will either demagogue the plan or they’ll come up with one of their own and we’ll have a rational, adult conversation about reforming entitlements, spending, and the tax code. Personally, I’m not at all optimistic. And, oh yea, before that we’ll have to deal with a vote to raise the debt ceiling in about a month. This is far from over.

On the whole, I think this was the right deal to make given the players involved and the realities of American politics. As much as I would’ve liked to see deeper spending cuts, the fact that the GOP controls only one-half of one-third of the entities involved in the budget process means that they aren’t going to be able to do that. Additionally, it’s still not clear to me that the American public is ready for the kind of cuts that are needed to bring our fiscal house in order and return American government to the limitations set forth in Constitution. Finally it’s worth noting that we were talking about the final few months of FY2011 here and the opportunity for cuts in funding that hadn’t already been spent and/or committed wasn’t all that extensive. So, while I’m not out celebrating this deal, I’m not going to trash it either.

Now, what’s next?

FILED UNDER: Congress, Deficit and Debt, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. john personna says:

    Big picture, it makes clear that both parties are united for milquetoast budgets.

  2. Darren Pope says:

    We all lost. The cuts agreed to are a mere drop in the bucket compared to the insane spending going on in DC. If the GOP and the Dems don’t soon realize what any idiot knows: that you can’t continue spending more money than you take in . Both parties are driving this country into the ground and if everyone doesn’t stand together to stop it our nation won’t last much longer….

  3. Antisthenes says:

    Winners – the rent seekers in DC
    Losers – the American public and their children and their children’s children

    Same as it ever was.

  4. Barbie says:

    I think any cuts are good. I mean, if you order a cheeseburger and fries and they are out of fries, do you leave hungry or do you just have a burger??? Yes, there is still a long way to go, but this is like boxing and round one goes to us. As a centerist, I am happy that SOMETHING got done. I think there are more people like me, that aren’t vocal or particularly politically active, than there are far-right and far-left. They maybe the loudest voices in the arena, but we control the most votes. A shutdown might have awakened a sleeping giant, people like me that are sick and tired of the loudest voices forcing the decisions. So what if you didn’t get the $61 billion cuts you wanted. So what if the other side didn’t get the $0 cuts they wanted. Scream and yell that leadership “sold out” until your blue in the face! This was a good thing for those of us that are rational.

  5. Patrick T. McGuire says:

    Doug, the tone of your post here is one of “it’s over so let’s analyze who won or lost”. The problem with that is that it’s not over, not by a long shot. The GOP gave up on funding Planned Parenthood this time but that doesn’t mean they have given up on it entirely. It will come up again, along with the other policy issues, and soon too.

    This isn’t game over, who won? This is the end of the first quarter and the score is tied. We still have a long way to go before we have a final winner.

  6. wr says:

    Hmm, all these voices screaming about how we can’t spend more than we take in, and not one of them seems to understand there are two sides to that equation.

  7. ponce says:

    The real issue is whether Americans got some entertainment value out of these budget antics.

    I felt it was quite entertaining, considering “The Right” and “the Left” were fighting over about 1% of the budget.

  8. matt says:

    Ponce : Does that even consist of 1% of the budget?

  9. george says:

    The real issue is whether Americans got some entertainment value out of these budget antics.

    I felt it was quite entertaining, considering “The Right” and “the Left” were fighting over about 1% of the budget.

    I agree – this was all about entertainment. There’s not going to be any long term consequences either way. No one is going to touch the two big items (medicare and the military), and so they have to pretend to be involved in minor price items.

  10. Axel Edgren says:

    If Obama lets the republicans sabotage the recovery more, he won’t be there in 2013 to protect the nation from the undead supply-side ideas and corporatism. He needs to realize that the best thing he can do for the nation is be selfish and don’t budge when the debt-limit is to be raised.

    If republicans want to play chicken with a new great depression and complete eradication of the global order of finances, Obama should let them. I can understand letting them play hostage with the shutdown-bomb, but if they are insane enough to do the same with the default-NUKE, he should just stand back. The little bitches are going to raise the debt limit and they are not going to get so much as a cookie for doing so. Obama needs to make that clear.

  11. Steve Anthony says:

    There will come a time when President Obama needs to take the lead in the federal debt situation.
    Playing political chicken on the issue with the GOP isn’t resolving anything long term, and this is the one thing I agree on with the Republicans.

    The fact that not one of the recommendations of the Debt Commission has been enacted is troubling and maddening.