It is hard to say just what Congress averted on New Year’s Day. The “fiscal cliff” was a self-inflicted crisis. And the agreed-on package of tax increases for the wealthy merely postpones a larger battle over debt reduction and the long-term stability of the world’s most important economy.
As unsatisfying as the bargain is in substance, however, its achievement reaffirms an essential element of America’s democracy – the need for compromise – at a time when the tone of the country’s politics must better reflect the gravity of its problems. The significance of the bargain should therefore not be lost in the cynicism about its crafting.
Yes, the deal kicks the can of spending cuts down the road. Both sides are angling ahead of new debates about debt reduction through tax- and entitlement reform as Congress considers raising the debt ceiling at the end of February.
Even so, a Congress shaped by puritanical partisanship ended its session with an old-school gentleman’s agreement between Vice President Joe Biden and the Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, followed by bipartisan approval in both houses of Congress.
Grumbling on all sides means the system worked as the Founders intended it to – bridging majority and minority views – although the deal left President Obama expressing the hope that future policy debates might unfold “with a little bit less drama, a little less brinkmanship.”
The debate over deficits and the national debt elicits strong opinions because it is essentially a moral question: how to meet the needs of today without burdening future generations with our bills.
The current course is unsustainable. The federal balance sheet is still burdened by a decade of tax cuts, foreign wars, and the 2008 housing collapse, while rising health costs and retiring boomers make health-care programs unaffordable.
At the same time, the US is falling behind in investing in areas critical to international economic competitiveness, such as education in math and science, research and development, and infrastructure.
Fierce partisanship, built into the structures of government and encouraged by media that feed off divisiveness, have brought effective self-rule to a near halt. The 112th Congress, which ended with the fiscal-cliff deal, enacted fewer laws than any Congress since legislative accomplishments were first tracked in 1947. The cliff, a contrived set of automatic spending cuts imposed as a penalty for inaction, was itself emblematic of the dysfunction.
Economists and partisans decried the bargain from both ends for including neither enough new revenue nor sufficient curbs on spending. As the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office noted, it “represents an incredible failed opportunity” to put in place a comprehensive plan “to truly control rising debt.”
That may be too much to ask of any piece of legislation even in the most bipartisan of times. But it paints the target that Congress and the administration will have to work toward incrementally. That is why the deal’s compromise matters. If they did it once, they can do it again.
Having swallowed larger tax increases than they ever imagined, Republicans will rightly look for a quid pro quo on spending cuts. But using the impending debt ceiling debate as leverage, as they did in the summer of 2011, would likely diminish prospects for progress.
Both parties should take a lesson from the British experiment with austerity, and avoid cutting too quickly and severely. Two years after cutting government agencies by as much as 30 percent, George Osborne, the Conservative finance minister, admitted last month that the approach would not eliminate the budget deficit within four years as planned. Instead, Britain has fallen back into recession, the deficit is worsening, and the country’s triple-A credit rating is at risk.
A comprehensive strategy for a secure, just, and prosperous future will require less rigidity and more gentle agreements – most likely through a step-by-step approach.
Kurt Shillinger is a former political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor.