This year will be our last Christmas, because the military programs that fund Santa Claus will be automatically cut in January 2013. That’s when the $1.2 trillion sequester of forced reductions in “defense and non-defense spending”—a weird epithet we have all agreed to use—will kick in as a result of the budget super committee’s failure to do dick about anything. Those spending cuts will coincide with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts to create a sort of economic compression pose known as the Fiscal Cliff. Ben Bernanke coined that expression. It’s his big accomplishment from last year. Meanwhile, businesses have delayed hiring and investment until they see what economic conditions will look like in 2013. The Republican and Democratic parties have agreed on two things this year. One, they will not talk about gun control no matter how many insane people shoot however many sane people. Two, going over the Fiscal Cliff would be bad. As we speak, Congress is working on a third agreement: to do nothing about it.
The fiscal cliff is of our own making. It is a punishment we invented to keep ourselves from doing exactly what we are doing now. Last year at this time, Congress formed the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, better known as the budget super committee. They were convened to as a result of the legislative branch’s failure to reach any sort of agreement on extending the debt limit—a staring contest that led to a federal credit downgrade. The solution adopted by Congress in 2011 was to extend the debt limit and insist that okay, this time somebody has to do something about the deficit or something bad will happen. That somebody was the super committee, and they formally gave up three months after they were consecrated. That bad thing was the fiscal cliff, and it’s coming along right on schedule.
Meanwhile, the legislative branch has taken a break from doing very little to do absolutely nothing. John Boehner has written an open letter suggesting that Congress return from its recess, replace the military half of the sequester with domestic cuts, and make the Bush tax cuts permanent. That’s what the Republican half of the super committee insisted on and didn’t get. Democrats are no more interested in compromise than they were a year ago, because they see an opportunity to finally make the GOP agree to raise the top marginal income tax rate. When the Bush tax cuts expire, congress can vote to reinstate them on all but the top bracket, thus averting the no-tax-increases-ever promise Republicans made to Grover Norquist. Of course, that will entail going over the cliff first. But everyone agrees that nothing will get done before then, because this is an election year.
Think about that statement for a moment. In a functional republican democracy, you would think that an election would put more pressure on elected officials to address looming problems. Congress presently enjoys some of the worst approval ratings in its history. Their nearly unanimous rejection by the American people coincides with two consecutive sessions in which they passed almost no significant legislation, minus the sequester plan. In synthesizing these two propositions—A) everyone hates us and B) we haven’t done anything—sensible lawmakers might conclude that C) we should do something.
But that is not how American politics works. Right now, American politics works in such a way that no one is doing anything about the deficit, because both raising spending and cutting the deficit are unpopular. That’s like not fixing the hole in your roof because you’re afraid of heights and you don’t like to work with contractors. Republicans refuse to raise taxes on anyone, especially millionaires. Democrats and economists believe that significant spending cuts will push us into a recession. All parties agree that the deficit is a huge problem and the Fiscal Cliff will be really bad, so they freeze. Confronted with several hard choices certain voters are known to dislike, they choose a result that all voters are known to dislike—but which offers the enticement of not happening until the future.
That’s the important thing: that nothing bad happen right now. In a person, such refusal to endure any unpleasantness now no matter what problems it may cause in the future is a character flaw. That flaw is so common that we had to create a republican system of government to address it. It’s the reason you need to put armed guards around the granary to prevent the townspeople from eating a whole winter’s food on the first cold weekend. It’s why you don’t put the national budget to a general vote. Now that the legislative branch has agreed to lower the deficit, never raise taxes and not cut spending—and to achieve these goals by doing nothing until we vote them all back into office—I’m wondering why we need a Congress at all. Maybe we should try finding some leaders.