After the longest and most expensive campaign in American political history, every center of power in Washington – President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner (R) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) – have reason to interpret the 2012 election as justification for digging in their heels.
The problem? The “fiscal cliff” awaiting lawmakers in the lame duck session, a pile of stalled legislation, and the ever-growing national debt can’t take much more congressional gridlock.
Take Speaker Boehner. The Ohio Republican saw his colleagues turn back a host of challenges and emerge with the House majority largely unscathed. And that means something simple: The American voters affirmed the House GOP, so why should they change?
“While others chose inaction in the face of this threat, we offered solutions. The American people want solutions – and tonight, they've responded by renewing our majority,” Boehner told Republican loyalists assembled in Washington. "With this vote, the American people have also made clear that there is no mandate for raising tax rates.”
Then there’s the Senate, where many Republicans expected 2012 would be Senator Reid's last as majority leader. Senate Democrats not only retained their majority, they added a seat to their side to boot – though at press time two Senate races were still undecided.
On Tuesday night, however, Reid and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell played a familiar, sad tune. Reid, the man who routinely excoriated Republican filibusters of legislation while himself choking off the federal budget process for three consecutive years offered up the same “get with the program” message to Republicans he delivered with no success time and again in the halls of the Senate.
"Now that the election is over, it's time to put politics aside, and work together to find solutions. The strategy of obstruction, gridlock, and delay was soundly rejected by the American people. Now, they are looking to us for solutions,” said Reid in an e-mailed statement. “We have big challenges facing us in the months ahead. Democrats and Republicans must come together, and show that we are up to the challenge.”
At the same time, Senator McConnell continued to rip the president.
"The voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the president’s first term, they have simply given him more time to finish the job they asked him to do together with a Congress that restored balance to Washington after two years of one-party control," the minority leader said in a statement. "Now it’s time for the president to propose solutions that actually have a chance of passing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and a closely-divided Senate, step up to the plate on the challenges of the moment, and deliver in a way that he did not in his first four years in office."
And then, of course, there is Mr. Obama, who won a narrow majority of the popular vote but a resounding triumph in the Electoral College to earn him a second term. Obama has repeatedly vowed to veto any legislation extending tax cuts for households with income over $250,000 and has no reason to back down from that stance now.
In an analysis just before the election that laid out roughly this same situation, former Democratic budget staffer Stan Collender wrote, “in other words, obstruction and unwillingness to compromise will continue to be the orders of the day.”
Partisan gridlock is so fierce in Washington that bipartisan bills including the Violence Against Women Act, the farm bill, and cybersecurity legislation can’t make it to the president’s desk.
More pressing, however is that the nation faces expiring fiscal policy on Jan. 1 that would hit the US economy with more than $600 billion in spending cuts and increased taxes. That blow will send the economy into a recession in at least the first half of 2013, economists predict.
Those are the financial issue in six weeks. The issue over the coming 10 years, outside analysts agree, is reforming the American tax code, spending priorities, and entitlement programs to keep the US from reaching critical levels of debt relative to economic output.
And let’s not forget the debt ceiling. Political warfare over the limit on government borrowing during the summer of 2011 caused one credit rating agency to downgrade America’s debt for fear the US could not come to political compromises on even rudimentary matters.
“Having the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, and the White House and Congress come together during the lame-duck session on the precise list of issues that has separated them the most assumes they’ll be able to do in four weeks what they haven’t been able to do over the past four years,” Mr. Collender wrote in a subsequent commentary.
“No big budget deal during the lame duck means that the disconcerting 2011 budget debate most likely will be replicated and then some in 2013. The real difference is that with the 2011 experience still fresh, we know how bad this could really be.”