How To End Fiscal Cliffhanging

Matt Miller has a column today at WaPo suggesting that the pattern of successive “fiscal cliffs” might extend indefinitely until such time as the American people make up their minds between the progressive and conservative governance models:

Here’s the scenario. Recall that all this started in the summer of 2011, when gridlock in the debt talks and the later breakdown of the supercommittee led to creation of the cliff we now face. It seems almost certain that any new deal that is struck, either before January 1 or some time afterwards, will involve some minor near-term “action” or “down payment” combined with the creation of a new fiscal cliff of unpleasant consequences to be triggered sometime in 2013 if a broader deal on tax and entitlement reform is not reached.

This, because a divided Washington needs “a forcing device” to instigate action.

But what will have changed later in 2013 to produce a different outcome? Arguably nothing. And so we have the prospect of another deal with illusory progress later in 2013, along with the creation of the next forcing device. Which eventually forces the next sham deal and the creation of the next forcing device.

And so on. Endless forcing devices that force the creation of new forcing devices. Cliffs that bequeath future cliffs.

Yeah, that seems more than a little likely, particularly if the widespread predictions of economic calamity prove illusory.

[T]he truth is that — unlike the banks’ situation on the eve of TARP, or Greece running out of cash — the debt situation we face is not urgent in the near-term. In the near-term our problem is slow growth and desperately high unemployment. So markets and creditors, despite some year end jitters, might find they can grow accustomed to a new equilibrium level of hijinks and theater in Washington (so long as the self-induced recession the cliff threatens is kicked down the road, as it will be).

No, if we do enter the Endless Cliff, it may be that only elections have the power to shock us out of it. Americans may have to try one party rule (and its Senate corollary, filibuster reform) to align our officials’ parliamentary behavior with an ability to govern and be held accountable.

What’s refreshing about Miller’s column is that he attributes the gridlock not to childishness or reflexive partisanship but to trends within both parties holding them to philosophically semi-consistent positions. I don’t know that this has been true of Democrats recently (it certainly wasn’t the last time voters gave them robust majorities in Congress plus control of the White House), but it probably is now. We’re at a point now where the very policies the two parties most violently oppose–significant tax rate increases and “entitlement reforms” that make “entitlements” more or less just a set of additional discretionary programs–are at the heart of what the Beltway Deficit Hawk folk are demanding as the first points of agreement towards setting the parameters of fiscal policy for the foreseeable future. You don’t have to accuse pols of being cowards or knaves for resisting that course of action.

And it’s also important to note that “the American people” haven’t “chosen” divided government in order to force the two parties to the table to accept the dictation of Beltway Fiscal Hawks. The sizable majority of voters agree with party leaders. More of them agree with the position of Democrats than of Republicans, which is why Obama has an advantage right now. But the constituency for tax-increases-on-everybody-plus-gutting-entitlements is tiny.

The sooner the chattering classes figure that out, the sooner we can begin exploring the true options. Perhaps the parties will change their positioning, but it’s very unlikely (viz. the phony “struggle for the soul” going on in the party that lost the last two presidential elections). Figuring out ways to keep the federal government functioning and the economy moving forward while awaiting a more definitive electoral reckoning (along with reforms to make majority rule in Congress easier) could be a first, not last, resort.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.