Commentators quickly ran out of words to describe what happened to the Republican Party during fiscal cliff negotiations. They called it a “rout,” a “complete surrender,” and a “self-defeating strategy.” They accused Republicans of being “the worst negotiators in history” and Boehner of being an “emotionally compromised weeper.” And those were just Republicans talking!
Indeed, for Republicans, there was little to love in the final package. Yes, they shared in keeping tax rates lower for 98 percent of Americans. But, at the same time, they were forced to break their pledge to Grover Norquist by voting to raise taxes on the upper 2 percent, which, for most Republicans, is even more embarrassing than becoming embroiled in a sex scandal. In return for which they got no additional spending cuts, no changes to Medicare or Social Security, and added $30 billion to the debt to pay for unemployment insurance.
But what was bad news for Republicans wasn’t good news for Democrats, either. The only good thing you can say about the fiscal fix is that it represents the ultimate compromise. And it proves that, while compromise is the only way to get things done in Washington, this deal still reeks.
Democrats gave as much as they got. They won extension of unemployment benefits. And they locked in higher tax rates for the wealthiest of Americans. But only after agreeing to redefine the “middle class” as individuals making less than $400,000 a year, and couples making less than $450,000; only after swallowing an increase in the payroll tax for 100 percent of wage earners; and only after raising the exemption on estate taxes from $1 million to $5 million, which Congressman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) calls a million-dollar tax break to the “7,000 wealthiest estates in our country.”
But, for both parties, the worst part is: this is only a temporary fix. The deal is more notable for what’s not in it than for what is. Throughout negotiations on the fiscal cliff, President Obama repeatedly stressed, “I want a big deal. I want a comprehensive deal.” Yet he ended up accepting a much smaller deal that contained no agreement on an increase in the debt ceiling; no action on this year’s continuing budget resolution; and only a two-month delay of those massive, mandatory cuts to defense and domestic programs known as the sequester, which means three more nasty fiscal battles in the first three months of 2013.
Debate over the debt ceiling comes first. Even though, technically, the United States has already surpassed its legal borrowing limit of $16.394 trillion, the Treasury Department is using “extraordinary measures” to pay our bills — but only until Feb. 28. Congress must act to raise the debt ceiling before then, which won’t be easy. President Obama vows he won’t negotiate over the debt ceiling, as he did in August 2011. But he may have no choice. Republicans have already announced they’ll demand cuts to Social Security and Medicare as their price for lifting the debt ceiling. Or they’ll threaten to take us over the fiscal cliff. Again.
We may survive the next debt ceiling battle only to deal with the after effects of the last one. In August 2011, remember, in return for agreeing to increase the debt ceiling, Republicans demanded and won creation of a super committee charged with drafting a deficit-reduction plan. As part of the deal, if Congress couldn’t agree to the committee’s recommendations, $1 trillion in cuts — one-half in the Pentagon, one-half in domestic programs — would automatically kick in on Jan. 1, 2013. Of course, they didn’t. The fiscal fix legislation delays the sequester for two months, until March 1. Or we go over the fiscal cliff. One more time.
Which paves the way for round three: keeping the government up and running by passage of a continuing budget resolution. The current agreement expires on March 31. And in none of these three upcoming battles will President Obama have the same strong leverage he enjoyed this week with scheduled expiration of the Bush tax cuts.
Careening from one fiscal crisis to another? Surely, conservatives and liberals must agree, this is no way for Congress to govern. If anybody tried to run a business this way, they’d be fired.
Bill Press is host of a nationally-syndicated radio show.