The daily drumbeat of depressing details about the deadlock in D.C. has created an unexplainable and unpleasant uptick in anxious and addictive alliteration.
If Congress and the president don’t agree to a deal, the nation will spend New Year’s Day in a collective nose dive into budgetary oblivion. To help, we present Answer Man Special Edition: The Fiscal Cliff.
Question: Just what is the fiscal cliff?
Answer: It is a term used to describe a Congress-created crisis in which big tax hikes and massive spending cuts will kick in automatically unless Congress and the president reach a deal on big tax hikes and massive spending cuts.
A: No, really. Washington, D.C., is so dysfunctional that the only way they could force themselves to deal with trillion-dollar-a-year budget deficits and an expanding federal debt was to create a Doomsday Machine. Both parties have a key, but they must use them at the same time to deactivate the bomb.
Q: I loved “Dr. Strangelove,” but it was fiction. Why would the politicians do that in real life?
A: It all started in 2011 when House majority Republicans used the need to increase the federal debt ceiling as a wedge to force Senate Democrats and the president to cut into federal spending. To get beyond that threat, they all agreed to create the so-called “Supercommittee” to find a trillion dollars in new revenue and/or reduced spending. The 12-member committee was supposed to be motivated to deal because if it failed, a batch of tax cuts would automatically expire and deep cuts in both defense and social programs would automatically occur.
Q: Why do they call the cuts sequestration? Is that even a real word?
A: Sequestration is formed by combining “sequel” and “castration.”
Q: Sounds about right. Was the Supercommittee super?
A: Yes. Super disappointing. Republicans said no to any increased revenue and Democrats wouldn’t consider cuts to programs without some new taxes.
Q: What has changed since last year?
A: His re-election has empowered President Barack Obama to push even harder for higher tax rates on the wealthy. Republicans are a bit chastened by the election results, and some have softened their hard line.
Q: Cool. What’s the problem then?
A: Those softened Republicans say they will consider increases in federal tax revenue but not increases in federal tax rates.
A: Many have signed pledges to not support tax rate hikes but think they could close loopholes and deductions to increase federal revenue without violating that pledge.
Q: Interesting distinction. And what about the Democrats?
A: They say the solution should include both increased revenue and decreased spending, but they haven’t been too specific about what programs they would cut. And now some Democrats are saying that diving off the fiscal cliff might not be so bad after all.
Q: Not so bad? I read that the Congressional Budget Office predicts it could trigger another recession and lead to the loss of as many as two million jobs.
A: Sure, if the tax hikes and spending hikes are permanent. But the legislative lemmings, led by U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, are suggesting that once the cliff has been cleared, Republicans will be more anxious to deal. Besides, when all the tax cuts have ended, any vote to reinstate some of them can be portrayed as a vote to cut taxes, making everyone look like heroes.
Q: God, I hate that place. When might a deal happen?
A: At 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31. As Erskine Bowles of the budget-balancing Simpson-Bowles Commission said, the posturing since the election equates to Kabuki theater, an act to kill time until the real deal can be struck.
Q: Why so late?
A: Because the types of concessions both sides need to make can’t be done too early or the rank and file will think the leaders gave in too easily.
Q: Don’t the American people want compromise?
A: The latest Associated Press-GfK poll shows a majority want tax hikes on the rich but not on them, and they aren’t too keen on cuts to programs like Medicare and Social Security. In other words, all gain, no pain.
Q: We get the government we deserve, I guess. You have been slightly more helpful than usual.
A: See you at the cliff.
Peter Callaghan can be reached at email@example.com