Congress is back in Washington—a warning that reminds me of the comment many years ago by then-mayor Jeff Friedman of Austin, Texas, who, when asked for his thoughts about the fact that the state legislature was coming back to town soon, said “Lock up the kids and dogs.”
The legislative branch and the president are back in town, in theory, to deal with the prospect of more than $600 billion worth of budget cuts and tax increases scheduled to go into effect next week. They’re not making much progress, as you might imagine.
Remember, the “fiscal cliff” is a threat the legislative and executive branches imposed on themselves a year and a half ago. To resolve an impasse over extending the debt ceiling so the government could continue to borrow money and pay its bills, our “leaders” set this time bomb of higher taxes and cuts to federal programs to force themselves to come to agreements on taxes and spending and debt ceilings before the “unthinkable” happened. Well, now we’re on the doorstep of the unthinkable, and look what they’re doing. (By the way, the Treasury department says we’re going to hit the debt ceiling next week!)
Perhaps more annoying than our elected leaders’ inability to govern—for that is what it really comes down to, their inability to do what they were sent there to do—is the realization that the focus on the fiscal cliff isn’t what’s really important anyway. Not to say that higher taxes and program cuts don’t matter, but that the real cause of the government’s economic problems—spending more than we take in—still isn’t being addressed.
The fiscal cliff was a crisis of Congress’ own making, brought on by its inability to address many of the same problems last year. The bigger problem, which lawmakers aren’t addressing, is the lack of sustainable fiscal policy.
We are in this mess in part because for decades leaders from both parties have been reading from the same economic playbook. They haggle over the small change while trying to convince Americans that it will make a profound difference in the country’s finances.
Houston Chronicle business columnist Loren Steffy recently offered another on-target analysis that reminds us the real problem isn’t the fiscal cliff, it’s the historic lack of honesty on the part of the political parties.
The budget battle playing out in Washington is nothing more than a giant national temper tantrum. Since 2001, we have been on a spending jag that has ballooned well beyond the costs of inflation and population growth. We’ve funded wars and prescription drug plans, bailed out banks and automakers and stimulated the economy. These programs have spanned both parties’ control of the White House and Congress.
At the same time, we’ve cut taxes. We now have the lowest average tax rate in about 30 years, yet many still complain taxes are too high and protest any threats to cut or curtail entitlement programs.
For more than a decade, we have demanded more while expecting to pay less. No one wants to admit the party’s over.
But they do want to admit—they’re desperate to admit—that the other party is causing the problem. As for the immediate issue, after the House speaker and the president couldn’t come up with a deal last week John Boehner has insisted that the Senate must come up with a plan and then the House will consider it, while the Democratic leadership in the Senate “stands strong” insisting that the House approve a measure it’s already turned down…or else. (Or else what?) And just while I’ve been writing this, CNN reported that President Obama is about to make a new offer, until it reported that he won’t.
As disheartening as it is to see our national leadership apparently incapable of acting in the nation’s best interests, the situation becomes damn near depressing when you recognize who is really to blame: it’s us. You; me; them; those guys over there, too—we are responsible for the evolution of a system in which ideological extremists representing the view of a minority of citizens are able to reach positions of national power, and we are responsible for not holding our leaders to account for not putting national interests first, and we are responsible for taking more and more from our government but not being willing to pay for what we take.
The solution to our government’s economic problems won’t come out of Congress this week or next; it won’t come from refusing to reduce spending on government programs (which, frankly, no one is doing), nor from refusing to raise taxes and threatening to hold one’s breath until one turns blue (which, candidly, more than one are doing). It will come, when it comes, with the realization by Americans that America can’t keep putting its everyday expenses on a credit card and only make the minimum payments indefinitely and still expect to remain fiscally healthy. It doesn’t work like that, and we have the national debt and the federal budget deficit to prove it.