Dec 13, 2012 - By Steven R. PeckAnother high-stakes budget stalemate makes Congress appear ridiculous
Last month's election was touted by some as a possible turning point in improving the destructive pattern of partisan gridlock that the overwhelming majority of American citizens say they hate but which our top elected leaders can't seem to avoid.
There have been a few tiny cracks in the dam of rigid ideology and partisanship, but there have been just as many signs that the election merely was a brief interruption in what looks to be a never-ending story.
Consider this the latest installment of our occasional series under the general heading "Why don't politicians do the things that would make them popular?"
Today's exhibit is the ceaseless back and forth over the debt-reduction debate lumped under the newly coined phrase "fiscal cliff," meaning the mandated series of steep tax increases and deep spending cuts that are scheduled to take effect next month if no other way can be found to start to whittle away at the gargantuan federal budget deficit and national debt (which are two different things, by the way).
Were a majority of Republicans and Democrats to manage a way out of the wilderness through a legislative compromise that would stave off the headlong dive over said cliff, it's highly probable that those who found and navigated the path to a better solution would be praised by the public.
But detachment from the obvious often appears as an almost pathological affliction of members of Congress -- not all of them, certainly, but enough of them that budget governance now has devolved into a continuing series of deadlines, ultimatums, scare tactics, and down-to-the-wire stalemates. It is precisely these tactics that have led us to the brink of the fiscal cliff in the first place. Earlier in the year, this idea was presented and approved as the best we could do. Practically speaking, a majority of the elected bigwigs said the following: If we can't do the smart and popular thing by the end of the year, then we will be forced to do the stupid and despised thing instead. That'll show us, by golly.
These are supposed to be some of our most learned citizens, among the most dedicated, skilled and service-minded we've got. Yet they conduct themselves in the political equivalent of the Keystone Kops. Is this really the best we can do -- create and maintain a constant climate of fear and anxiety?
Here is a very unsatisfying prediction: Crippled by their refusal -- yes, refusal, not inability -- to do the right thing on the fiscal cliff, Congress instead will simply pass an extension of the deadline at the last possible moment. Rather than solve the problem that they have been fighting about for years with barely a hint of compromise or cooperation, they will vote not to solve it at all. They will just play out some more line from the reel.
If that happens (and it has happened before), it will serve as an infuriating demonstration that compromise is possible after all, because they finally will have found something in which they can be in agreement -- two things, actually. First, to ignore the very dire warnings they have been spouting for months and simply do nothing; and second, to blame each other for it.
It is a ridiculous, dismal show, but the actors on stage don't seem to hear the boos from the audience.
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