Fortunately, not much of note has happened in the political world since the election. For most of that time, the theatrics over the "fiscal cliff"--an already cliche term--have occupied Washington's time and energy. Having actually jumped off a cliff in Jamaica (an excursion from which the pictures in this post come), I am happy to explain what is going on to those who remain blessedly ignorant of it all.
The fiscal cliff refers to the cuts in federal spending, much of it on defense, and the expiration of the so-called "Bush tax cuts" established in a rather odd deal during the summer of 2011. That deal, struck to prevent the federal government from reaching its borrowing limit (the "debt ceiling"), stipulated the following: if the congressional commission created by the deal failed to achieve meaningful action to reduce the deficit, then the cuts being debated today would take place automatically (unless Congress voted to get rid of them when the time came).
Since the summer of 2011, we've had a Republican primary and a presidential election. In the latter, President Obama successfully ran on a campaign that identified two percent of the American population as the source of all of this country's ills, a characterization applied by association to Mitt Romney. Obama's main pitch during that election? "Ask the wealthiest Americans to pay a little more." Now that he's won, that's exactly the pitch he's attempted to translate into legislative action. And he's already largely succeeded. The haggling of the past few weeks has mostly seen members of the Republican House debate amongst themselves how bad of a deal (in their terms) they'd be willing to stomach. A tax increase on the wealthiest two percent is already a given; House Republicans now need to decide how meaningless the spending cuts they'll be forced to accept will be--slightly, as were those achieved by the Reagan-O'Neill '82 compromise, or completely, as in last summer's deal.
Some Republicans in the House, as well as many conservatives outside of it, reject this false choice, to coin a phrase. Last night, the former group showed this by refusing to vote for House Speaker John Boehner's "Plan B," a compromise that, realistically, probably constituted the least bad option for Republicans. Congress and the White House have about ten days to achieve the sort of compromise that would prevent at least some of the worst stuff that happens in its absence. If they don't, we "plunge over the cliff," in the current Washington parlance.
Got all that? Great, I barely do either. The chaos and confusion that have marked these "fiscal cliff" proceedings says a lot about Washington today. The twisted legislative chronology that has brought us to the current situation stands as one of the clearest demonstrations of President Obama's inability even to understand Republicans, much less to negotiate with them, as his Democratic predecessor was able to do. The negotiations themselves, to be fair, have also shown that many House Republicans lack the strategic division to accept both political reality and defeat; to those conservatives who want Boehner to hold out for a better deal, I ask: how good of a deal do you expect? Obama won the election; Republicans control the House--and barely, after the election. The best Republicans will be able to do in the next two years (at least) is to stop really bad things from happening--you won't balance a budget with spending cuts against a Democratic president and Senate. House Republicans are better off concentrating on the former.
But here's the truest lesson one can learn from these fiscal cliff negotiations : they don't matter. As someone who spent much of the past three weeks procrastinating, I--pace Justice Potter--know it when I see it; these negotiations are classic examples of putting off the real problem. Many politicians (and many voters) remain convinced that this country can somehow maintain European levels of government spending with Singaporean levels of taxation. Sooner, rather than later, we're going to have to choose: one can't have both. Readers of this blog know which choice we'd prefer, but no choice is better than no choice. And until this country definitively chooses what it wants--big government and big taxes, or limited government and lower taxes--then this protracted series of mini-crises will define our political process, just biding time. And the national debt clock will keep ticking upward.
Whatever happens, it's not going to be pretty.
|Not the likeliest outcome|