The details of the budget deal being negotiated in Washington remain murky, but what we do know is promising: It appears the country will be spared another ridiculous, expensive government shutdown. In the current political environment, that alone is a real victory.
What a shame negotiators couldn't reach a compromise months ago. Instead, like little children, they had to learn their lesson the hard way and harm the nation they took an oath to serve.
The federal government has been operating without a budget since 2009. Lawmakers have approved periodic temporary funding measures, unsettling financial markets time and again before shutting down the government for 17 days in October when Democrats and Republicans couldn't agree.
If reports are correct, this bipartisan deal would extend for two fiscal years, through 2015. That's significant. It should allow Congress to begin focusing on the country's big-picture problems -- modernizing the tax code, accelerating economic growth, reforming immigration policy, rebuilding the middle class and reducing the long-term deficit. They have largely been ignored as lawmakers battled over current spending.
The deal looks like it will provide some relief from the terrible policy known as sequestration. Its across-the-board cuts this year were supposed to be so terrible that negotiators would compromise rather than let them go into effect. This deal may make improvements to the next phase, although it's too late to save the estimated 900,000 jobs the first round cost the country.
Sequestration has reduced the short-term deficit with the budgetary equivalent of a meat ax, slowing economic recovery. But the long-term deficit is the real problem, and it's driven primarily by health-care spending. Lawmakers have to get serious about reforms to address that.
This deal should include an extension of unemployment benefits, which expire for 1.3 million people Dec. 28. About 4.1 million people have been out of work for 27 weeks or more, some because of sequestration, and many are set to lose benefits. These folks have been hardest hit by the weak economic recovery, and they face skeptical hiring managers because of their extended time out of work.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the long-term unemployment rate is now 2.6 percent, twice the level at which unemployment benefits expired in the three previous recessions. Extending these benefits for a year would cost about $25 billion, but that would be quickly plowed back into the economy, boosting growth.
A two-year spending deal would help the economy too. Businesses could gain confidence in Congress' ability to avoid another crisis, which might prompt them to spend some of their record profits and create what the country and the economy need most of all -- good middle-class jobs.