Will lawmakers call small ‘Cliffmas' deal a victory?
"We know precious little about what this deal is — this is negotiated in private behind closed doors, they leak one or two little elements and they expect everyone else to comment intelligently on it when we don't know anything about it." — US Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said to Politico
As a rule, we don't predict much beyond imminent humiliation for devotees of Mayan calendars. We're especially guarded when the topic is official Washington, city of mirrors, where the trajectory of negotiations often is elusive.
But as Americans approach Jan. 1, federal tax hikes and across-the-board spending cuts, hints from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue suggest that (a) Congress and President Barack Obama will reach a menacingly small bargain on spending and revenue and (b) then heroically claim to have rescued America.
Believe it only when you see hard numbers that honest brokers outside the government have authenticated. It's in the interest of the pols, of both parties, to convince the rest of us that any deal they reach is momentous. But if those strategic leaks that flummox Lee are remotely close to accurate, the deal now deemed likely would expose the puny ambitions of Republicans and Democrats alike. Worse, the relatively paltry numbers now being discussed aren't enough to significantly affect annual deficits that threaten this nation's economic future (see: Meltdown, European).
We understand the politicians' urge to avoid what Beltway wags call "Cliffmas," a Christmas week — leading toward a fateful Jan. 1 — with no agreement. If that happens, they'll all look foolish.
But as you evaluate any agreement that's announced, keep this paramount point, well, paramount:
The "fiscal cliff" threatens recession, more unemployment and, for those who have jobs, less take-home pay. But if a book titled "Perils at Fiscal Cliff" sounds scary, the real horror story would be "Catastrophe at Debt Mountain."
As a result: Distrust any deal that doesn't deliver new reductions in spending growth, and new revenues, of at least $4 trillion over 10 years. The agreement that appears to be emerging would fall between $2 trillion and $3 trillion. Not that both sides wouldn't want to inflate those numbers. So if anybody tries to sell you on a deal that gets to $4 trillion by counting the $1 trillion in savings that was legislated in 2011, or an $800 billion "peace dividend" of reductions from yesteryear's level of spending in Iraq and Afghanistan, don't believe it.
That sort of gimmickry would confirm that Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and their respective parties are trying only to avoid a cliff — not save America from the even more menacing mountain.
Focus, then, not on the frothy politics and posturing of these final pre-Cliffmas days, but on our government's need to stop borrowing $3 million every minute of every day. As this debate lengthens, though, we're hearing more and more about "the need to cut a deal," less and less about "the need to lower our debt."
Democrats have tried to insulate entitlement spending — on Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid and Obamacare — just as feverishly as Republicans tried (and ultimately failed) to keep higher taxation out of any agreement. Each party is twisting numbers, and using them selectively, to enhance its own case and discredit the opposition's.
Our hope since last spring, though, was that both sides would use the fiscal cliff debate to defend larger principles: that America's economic future, not the politicians' electoral futures, is what matters most. That America might survive, but cannot build a new era of strong growth, if its lawmakers pretend they can continue to dodge, and delay, and deny that they're writing the final chapters to "Catastrophe at Debt Mountain."
If you cut a small deal and admit that once again you've stalled the unpopular decisions until some allegedly decisive tomorrow ... nah, you wouldn't do that. Would you?