Cutting a good deal is rarely a breeze. Ask Monty Hall. At 92, the legendary host of “Let’s Make a Deal” remains as genial as ever, while the show that made him a household name turned 50 this year. It’s an institution built on a simple premise: Hall would offer audience members a quick chance to win a small prize and then trade it away for a potentially bigger, but unknown, payoff. Someone could give up a toaster oven for “Door Number 1,” then forgo that for “what’s behind the curtain.” In the background, a frantic crowd screamed that the contestant was doing it all wrong. It was just like being in Congress.
Sometimes players won big, and sometimes they ended up with a goat. What made it fun was that you never knew whether players were winning or losing until the final choice was made and all the curtains were pulled back. Last week, Congress made a deal. They traded away the so-called sequester for some new spending caps, cuts to government pensions, higher airport fees, and a few other odds and ends. It wasn’t the deal of the century, but it also wasn’t a goat. We may have to wait until Election Day 2014 to really know who won.
Among the players, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan may have the most at stake on the outcome. He negotiated the terms, made the trade-offs, and sold the deal to other House Republicans. It was quite a sale. Despite the scolding and dramatics from self-appointed conservative watchdogs, the bill won 339 votes in the House, with support from over 70 percent of Republicans. It demonstrated Ryan’s abilities as a legislator and deal-maker and burnished his reputation as the sharpest numbers guy in Congress.
Patty Murray, the Senate’s Democratic budget chief, had a tougher time closing the sale in her chamber, but that had more to do with atmosphere than substance. When Majority Leader Harry Reid “went nuclear” last month and limited the filibuster, he destroyed a 200-year-old framework for bipartisan cooperation. With less incentive to work with the opposition than ever, Republicans were happy to make Democrats sweat over every vote. The size of the final margin, 64 to 36, belies the scramble for votes that took place the previous weekend.
Closer examination of the Senate vote reinforces the adage that there are three parties in Congress: Democrats, Republicans, and appropriators. Most Republican yes votes came from members of the committee that will oversee spending under the new budget limits. But their enthusiasm is about more than just spending; it’s about control.
Sequestration imposed uniform spending cuts across the board, while the budget standoff prevented the Appropriations Committee in either chamber from setting priorities or even shuffling funds from one agency to another. Although the deal does increase discretionary spending, the appropriators’ real victory comes from the restoration of their power to direct funds as they see fit.
Budget hawks didn’t walk away empty-handed, either. The savings from trimming pension and health care costs will keep growing for decades. And non-defense discretionary spending, despite the increase, will total $492 billion in 2014 — still less than when President Obama took office in 2009.
Perhaps most important, the deal will define and narrow the landscape for legislative battles over the coming year. With one final debt limit fight in March, Republicans can push for additional long-term budget savings. Yet the deal takes the government-shutdown rhetoric off the table for the elections, freeing the GOP to focus on the failures of Obamacare: higher prices, dropped coverage, lack of participation, and skyrocketing small business costs.
If there’s a loser in all this, it’s Harry Reid. More power for appropriators means less for him. Bipartisan agreement on spending levels makes it easier to bring spending bills to the Senate floor. That gives Republicans the vehicle to offer tough amendments on health care, Iran sanctions, or any other vote they think will make life difficult for vulnerable Democrats.
Sometimes life imitates art, and sometimes it imitates game shows. On “Let’s Make a Deal,” it wasn’t uncommon for a new refrigerator to come with an unwanted extra — like a lifetime supply of Spam. Republicans have choked down some of that Spam by giving in on higher spending, but it looks like they traded up in the end. Spending caps are set for two years, the deficit has been cut, and the decks are cleared for an Obamacare battle in 2014.
It won’t last 50 years. But, under the circumstances, that’s a pretty good show.
John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.