Don't Wreck This Car, Congress

Stressful times in Washington.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

An omnibus spending bill is currently racing, and frequently braking, its way across the Capitol like a race car in rush-hour traffic. It remains to be seen whether it will pull smoothly into the White House driveway or get wrecked on one of those concrete barricades on Pennsylvania Avenue.

President Barack Obama has said he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk, and it's the right decision. The spending agreement is not ideal by any reckoning. It's a product of horse trades, half measures and compromises, some unseemly. But in the recent history of confidence-killing brinkmanship in Congress, it amounts to a positive development.

The $1.1 trillion bill would end the aimless drift of "sequestration," in which government spending levels were set in stone regardless of circumstances. Indeed, it would frankly acknowledge the changing world by increasing government funding for efforts to combat Ebola and other infectious diseases.

The legislation would avert a government shutdown and postpone to 2015 any Republican response to the president's executive action on immigration. Meanwhile, the Pentagon would be funded at $554 billion, roughly what the White House requested, and military personnel and federal employees would receive a 1 percent pay raise.

As always, the fine print bears scrutiny. The mining, trucking and banking industries would all receive dubious benefits courtesy of policy riders. (Notably, the bill would eliminate a rule aimed at reducing the risks posed by the vast derivatives businesses of the largest U.S. banks.) And a major change to increase funding limits for political parties has been attached without so much as a hearing on its implications. Critics are right to be outraged, but underhanded dealings are sometimes better than no dealings at all.

Some of the bill's funding choices are plain stupid. The Internal Revenue Service is in for a $346 billion cut -- in a budget that in the past four years has already shrunk by 14 percent, adjusted for inflation. That's good for tax cheats but bad for federal tax collection -- which is, after all, how the government is funded.

There are tiny bright spots. There is a small increase, $13 million, for the Federal Bureau of Investigation's system for conducting instant background checks on gun purchasers. (The FBI performed almost three checks per second on Black Friday this year, stressing a system that already has dangerous weaknesses.) The bill also would provide $73 million more for states to improve their criminal and mental health records, to make background checks more effective.

The legislation would also boost funding for the Government Accountability Office, enabling it to hire back some of the staff it has lost in recent years due to budget cuts. The GAO's audits and analysis help government be more efficient -- and more honest.

As a whole, the bill reflects the merged interests -- and flaws -- of the two parties that negotiated it. That's appropriate in a capital where government is divided and power is shared. While it's too soon to suggest that Congress is functional, passing the spending agreement would help raise what has been a dangerously low bar.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.