After sailing through the House, the first bipartisan budget deal in years was passed by the Senate on Wednesday.
The sudden compromise is surprising from such a polarized Congress. How is it that the two sides fought tooth-and-nail for so long, but are now shaking hands like a Christmas miracle? It's not a miracle; it's a simple matter of timing. For the majority of Congress, including the 12 Republican senators who voted with the Democrats, this budget deal is a ticket home for the holidays.
For the GOP senators facing primary challenges from the right, re-election worries have driven some of them to vote against the bill. For Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), overseeing a celebrated compromise might be a boost to a 2016 presidential run. But what do all the senators have to gain here? It's the same thing Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is threatening by stalling Janet Yellen's nomination, the same thing their colleagues in the House of Representatives gained last week after passing this bill, and the same thing that gets college students through finals: Christmas break.
For the two parties, this agreement is more or less a wash. The deal sets federal spending at a little over $1 trillion per year in 2014 and 2015, leaving both sides with some complaints: no extension of unemployment benefits (but no cuts to discretionary spending), no real entitlement reform (but no new taxes). Democrats and Republicans have plenty of ammo from the government shutdown and the Obamacare rollout, respectively, to attack each other in campaign ads soon. Squabbling over budget numbers would only hurt their already abysmal approval ratings. But remember, those approval ratings have been in the gutter for a while, so it's not like this is a gift-wrapped response to public outcry.
Clear away all the spin and buzzwords and put yourself in a senator's loafers. You've been pulling multiple all-nighters on the Hill. Your House buddies are emailing you from the comfort of their homes. In 2014, you'll have to sort out all kinds of budget specifics, while juggling everything from Obamacare to immigration reform. The citizens you're supposed to represent think you're worse than hemorrhoids and cockroaches. Your family is waiting for you across the country, and you know this holiday may be the only quality time you'll get with them before campaign season hits full swing. Christmas is days away.
I don't agree with everything in the budget deal. It kicks the fiscal can down the road, as usual. Still, if you put me in those loafers, I'd vote for it. My political principles might genuinely clash with parts of the legislation, but how much better of a compromise could I realistically pass in time? How would I benefit my country by risking another government shutdown just to argue for days on end with people who will never agree with me on everything?
This story should remind us all of a simple (and sometimes frightening) truth about our politicians: they're just people. At the end of the day, people typically look out for themselves. This is why lobbyists and Super PACs are so influential, why a sitting president will tell the "lie of the year" dozens of times as a campaigning incumbent only to take it back later, and why some of the most powerful men alive risk it all just to cheat on their wives. Fortunately, in this particular case, the best interest of senators overlaps with the best interest of the country. Let's all ask Santa for some fresh ideas about how to fix our broken government, because holiday exhaustion won't always cut it.