If anyone thought the drama over the fiscal cliff was intense – unnecessarily intense, in fact – just wait for Act II. Congress must still deal with the federal budget deficit and the debt ceiling the government crashed through this month. Get ready for more grandstanding.
It’s not that the issues aren’t serious; they are. That’s why it is so frustrating that Congress can’t stop its theatrics and acknowledge the obvious truth that in a large and politically diverse country, officeholders have to compromise in order to safeguard the nation’s larger interests.
There is little reason to believe that will happen. Indeed, the only way is if House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell come to grips with the fact and resolve that it is not only in the country’s interests, but the Republican Party’s, to sideline the zealots who think they have all the answers and refuse to entertain the possibility that anyone else, Republican or Democrat, might have a more realistic view of events.
And there are realistic views. On the subject of the debt ceiling, there should be no repeat of the 2011 fiasco. Raising the debt ceiling doesn’t raise spending; it merely allows the government to continue repaying debts it has already incurred. It’s about old spending and it is unconscionable for the nation’s putatively conservative party to flirt with defaulting on the debts Republicans helped to incur.
Regarding spending, there are cuts to be had both on entitlements and military spending. Both are urgent and each is opposed by one of the parties.
Anyone who can add understands that Social Security and especially Medicare are under financial threat. Something has to change, and Democratic howling notwithstanding, those changes could including raising the age of eligibility for Medicare users or changing the way the Social Security cost of living increase is calculated.
Similarly, Republicans need to accept that the military does not need every new weapon that campaign donors want the Pentagon to buy. Even the Pentagon doesn’t want some of them, yet members of Congress – of both political parties – push for them because they provide jobs in their districts. Add on top of that the traditional Republican affinity for defense spending and the result is unsustainable and unnecessary growth in the Pentagon budget.
Those are the obvious places to begin as Congress and President Obama look for ways to reduce the budget deficit, which exploded at the tail end of the Bush administration as Washington sought to cope with the consequences of the Great Recession.
That level of spending continued full tilt for Obama’s first term, and while deficit spending is necessary during a financial crisis, it has to end at some point. The deal on extending the Bush tax cuts for the middle class while raising them on the wealthy will bring in some new revenue, but new taxes, alone, won’t fix this problem. It will also require spending reductions and, at least as important, a growing economy.
Democrats and especially Republicans have already compromised on the matter of taxes, with some Republicans endorsing the idea of tax rate increases and Democrats compromising on the income level at which they should begin. There may be more to discuss on that matter, but they also must talk about how to reduce a level of spending that nobody believes to be sustainable.
Together, those actions on revenue and expenditures could help encourage the third necessary development, economic growth. In any case, if Congress wishes to be responsible, there is no choice.