As signaled in recent days, President Obama’s State of the Union address puts the spotlight firmly on domestic policy. Creating economic opportunity was a major theme. In addition to a hike in the minimum wage for government contract employees, the president called for a economy-wide minimum wage increase, an extension of unemployment benefits, immigration reform, and other measures to attack income inequality. The only surprise was a new Treasury instrument, MyRA, to encourage retirement savings.
The news shows this weekend were filled with optimism from across the political spectrum that the congressional budget conference, which begins Wednesday, will produce a deal. I am skeptical. The aim of the conference will be to find agreement on spending for the remainder of FY14 at levels of spending above those that resulted from the 2011 Budget Control Act and the failure of the “super committee” (enforced by sequestration, or “the sequester”). All factions are united in their distaste for the sequester, which cuts too deep and too broadly across both defense and domestic areas. But there is little consensus on what to do about it, and no ideas about how to bridge the fundamental divide between Democratic calls for more revenue and Republican insistence that the focus be on entitlement reform. At this point, the most likely scenario is that a deal on spending will come in January, not December, and will be at (or very near) sequester levels of spending.