Gimme shelter! Your Rolling Stones guide to the 'fiscal cliff'
Yes, we know the fiscal cliff is not always easy to understand. But help is here. Mick Jagger and the music of Rolling Stones can explain it all – with satisfaction – in nine easy steps. Seriously.
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The president and Speaker Boehner can't do this all by themselves. They need to rally votes withing their party ranks. With power divided between a Democratic president, a Republican-controlled House, and a Senate that's closely divided (with a Democratic majority), this is tricky. A deal that's acceptable to enough senators may not be one that all House Republicans are eager to rally behind. In the end, some lawmakers in both parties may vote "no." What counts is whether a majority in each house of Congress can vote "yes."Skip to next paragraph
Mark Trumbull writes on economic and other news for the Monitor's National section. He's based in Boston.
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"I don't have much time" (from "Wild Horses," 1971)
Ideally for the economy, this all would have been settled long ago. It's not a good for the job market when employers have a major (and man-made) reason to be unsure what the economy will look like next year. With the Christmas holiday fast approaching, the window for reaching a deal before year end is fast closing. An 11th-hour compromise could be reached. If it isn't, negotiations would continue in the new year – with politicians feeling added pressure because as spending cuts and tax hikes start to appear as realities in the lives of voters.
"You can't always get what you want" (song title and lyric, 1969)
Earth to Washington: Mick's dose of realism here is helpful to keep in mind. Given the division of power in Washington, any solution will call for some sacrifice on both sides.
And from taxpayers, too. Many budget experts predict that lawmakers will ultimately need to expand tax revenue and restrain entitlement spending, even though neither of those things wins popularity contests with voters. That's because the path of current policies, if continued, is projected to bring an ever-higher debt burden, which could dim the economy's vibrancy and threaten a loss of investor confidence. The steps are unlikely to occur all at once in a "grand bargain of 2013," but the cliff talks may chart part of the path.
"This town's full of money grabbers" (from "Shattered," 1978)
OK, that song was about New York, not Washington. But the lyric can serve as a reminder that money plays a significant role in federal politics. A fair amount of it flows to politicians from Wall Street. But the broader point is that as lawmakers consider various fiscal reforms, just about every federal program or tax break has a constituency that is fighting for its importance. Here's hoping that what Abraham Lincoln called the "better angels of our nature" will guide the decisionmaking in the national interest.
"I sit and watch as tears go by" (from "As Tears Go By," 1965)
American voters may be forgiven if they feel a little frustrated as they watch all the fiscal saga unfold. But they're players in the process, too. The approval ratings of Congress are at epic lows, but each member of the House or Senate is there because he or she won a vote, often with high approval from constituents. So it may not be fair to gripe that you can't get satisfaction, politically. There's the opportunity to write a letter to your representative, to rethink your preferences each time an election rolls around, and to weigh changes such as the district-drawing reforms that some states have undertaken.
"Paint It Black" (Song title, 1966)
The fiscal dream come true for deficit hawks would be a plan that ultimately brings black ink back onto the federal ledger. Remember when, for a time, the fiscal debate was about what to do with surpluses instead of deficits? What seems realistic for that ledger in the near term, however, is just a plan to let it bleed a little less red ink. And maybe to give us some shelter from the risk of a tax-induced recession in the near term.