A budget deal that solves exactly nothing

The News TribuneJanuary 3, 2013 

Talk about setting the bar low. Congressional leaders are congratulating themselves for canceling a disaster they scheduled themselves. In fact, they didn’t even cancel it – they just rescheduled it.

Such is the absence of statesmanship revealed by the pathetic deal that averted the so-called fiscal cliff.

Much of the cliff – a set of mindless spending cuts set to take effect on New Year’s Day – had been engineered by Congress itself last year to force bipartisan agreement on a rational fiscal alternative. The sequestration plan was so bad, the thinking went, that it would terrify both Republicans and Democrats into doing something helpful.

No such luck. Sequestration turned into a game of chicken, with people in each party looking for a way to stick the blame on the other if the scheme’s failure spooked the markets. A slew of expiring tax breaks raised the stakes further: Most taxpayers stood to lose thousands of dollars without congressional action, sucking life out of an economy chiefly driven by consumer spending.

The slapdash misery of a deal that ultimately postponed the reckoning is no credit to anyone.

It gives the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans a haircut, ratcheting up their highest tax rate from 35 to 39.6 percent. That will produce some revenue, but – contrary to populist rhetoric – it isn’t remotely enough to patch Congress’ ruinous $1 trillion deficits.

Now that Democrats have scored their victory over people earning more than $400,000 – the political easy pickings – heaven help them if they suggest more Americans ought to pitch in for the sake of national solvency.

The deal also does nothing to curtail unsustainable entitlement spending; it again shows that Congress, collectively, can’t bring itself to require sacrifices from America’s middle class.

No one is pretending that this is a solution; leaders declared it an achievement merely because it wasn’t a disaster. Sequestration wasn’t repealed; it was put off a couple of months. The Republican House still plans to use the statutory debt limit as a nuclear weapon in budget negotiations, as it did in 2011.

What’s especially discouraging is the timing.

Come election year, candidates don’t dare bring up the subject of national sacrifice. The best opening for a share-the-pain agreement is right now, in the immediate aftermath of the last election.

But too many Republicans and Democrats show no interest in budging – whether on taxes or serious spending cuts – to bring the nation’s mounting debt under control. So we’re left with lawmakers who crow about solving a manufactured crisis while doing next to nothing about the real one.

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