ALTHOUGH everyone’s diary says it’s December, America seems frozen in time—with each day noisily reminiscent of the last hours before Election Day. Voters went to the polls a month ago, but Washington politicians continue in electioneering form, as they struggle to keep their footing and avoid falling off "the fiscal cliff."
In recent years, analysts of U.S. politics have lamented the rise of the “permanent campaign” at the expense of deliberate, let’s-work-this-out governing for policies and problems. The choreography of the current cliff-dancing is a prime example of this new, hazardous reality.
Back in the summer of 2011, Democratic President Barack Obama and leaders of the Republican-majority House of Representatives tried to strike “a grand bargain” addressing the government’s massive budget deficit and resulting debt, now over $16 trillion. When their talks failed to produce an acceptable formula for additional revenues, spending cuts and entitlement reforms, Congress passed the “Budget Control Act of 2011”, establishing a joint committee (with six House and six Senate members of equal Democratic-Republican representation) to devise specific ways to decrease the deficit.
Operating with a deadline of late 2011, this joint committee also hit a dead-end, issuing a statement that “it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available.” As with so much that takes place in Washington today, a strict party-line approach by both sides prevented any action.
This failure triggered another provision of the Budget Control legislation—the prospect of automatic tax increases and spending cuts timed to start taking effect in January. Should nothing happen beforehand, federal taxes will rise by about $500 billion and expenditures will fall by roughly $200 billion in 2013, plunging the U.S. into recession and roiling the international economy.
Welcome to the edge of the fiscal cliff—a catch-all phrase conveying the stark situation—and the economic abyss that might await. One television news network even features a cliff “countdown clock” to keep everyone jumpy.
That’s why President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have been of late more visible than Santa Claus across the media, proposing different approaches to avoid a free-fall. While Obama waves increased taxes for wealthiest Americans as his banner, Boehner flies substantial spending and entitlement reductions as his flag.
After last month’s election, both Obama and Boehner retained their offices and emerged in similar political positions. Obama received less electoral support than in 2008, while Boehner’s party lost eight seats from the 242 they occupied after the majority-winning 2010 mid-term polling.
But neither figure seems weakened, and each champions his side in public speeches and media interviews. It’s a battle mostly conducted on the airwaves rather than sitting down to seek compromise. Indeed, although they’ve talked on the phone and met briefly Sunday, the leading Democratic and Republican office-holders scrupulously avoided each other at a recent holiday reception in the White House. So much for the spirit of the season.
Gone, it seems, are the days when Ronald Reagan, a Republican President, and Tip O’Neill, the Democratic House Speaker, would swap Irish-American yarns while conducting the public’s business through the give-and-take of conversation. Today’s more partisan, polarizing times mean less consensus-building, let alone human interaction—leaving the citizenry in a state of high anxiety as leaders edge closer to treacherous cliffs.
Barring a death wish of deadlock, the imminent deadline will no doubt concentrate opposing minds, and a bargain of some kind will emerge soon. At this point, Obama’s push for more revenue from the richest 2 pc gives him better cards to play, with opinion surveys already pointing the finger of blame at Republicans if there isn’t a deal. But House leaders will need concessions on cuts to keep their increasingly conservative members smiling, if not satisfied.
Potentially, though, the larger lesson of this December drama is that the U.S. seems only capable of finding gun-to-head, short-term solutions to problems—and politically unable to figure out comprehensive, governmental remedies that would give the world greater confidence in the nation’s financial security and global leadership ability.
Falling off this particular cliff might be deferred—but a rocky fiscal future for America still lies ahead.
Robert Schmuhl is Professor of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame.