Editorial: Congress needs to make a vow -- no more 'fiscal cliffs'

January 3, 2013 

The 112th Congress is likely to go down in history as the most dysfunctional ever.

Failure to pass a farm bill. Failure to act on judicial appointments. Failure to approve disaster relief for Hurricane Sandy victims. The list goes on and on. Yet the biggest reason for condemnation is Congress' failure to deal, in a real way, with this nation's fiscal and economic challenges. President Barack Obama doesn't escape responsibility for this debacle, but at least he pushed for a "grand deal" that would get spending in line with revenue. House Speaker John Boehner seemed interested in negotiating such a pact.

But as occurred repeatedly during the last two years, Boehner was undercut by his fellow Republican leaders, particularly by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, who appears to have lost any pragmatism he possessed in the California Assembly.

Had Cantor and McCarthy stood by their leader, it is quite possible that Boehner could have crafted a deal that would have avoided the shenanigans that shamed the nation over the last week. While the United States did not fall off the "fiscal cliff," Congress again dropped over the precipice of credibility.

The lesson for future Congresses should be clear: Never again put off a tough decision by setting up a perceived confabulation of pain points that will force a future decision.

What were the key events that led us to this precipice? The first was passage of the Budget Control Act of 2011. Designers of this fiscal cliff legislation thought that a combination of deep, automatic spending cuts and tax hikes would prompt both parties to seek an alternative.

The second came two weeks ago, when Boehner tried to get his fellow Republicans to support a "Plan B" of tax increases and spending cuts. It was a terrible plan, but it at least would have given the House the upper hand in negotiating a final deal.

Once again, the intransigents in the House rejected Boehner's plan, allowing the Democratic-controlled Senate to dictate terms. Thanks to the intervention of Vice President Joe Biden, the Senate agreed to raise the threshold on new taxes to households making $450,000 a year – $200,000 higher than what Obama had sought. With time running out, the House had to hold its nose and approve the deal, or else be blamed for potential economic calamity.

Many tea party Republicans complained they were forced to decide on legislation they hadn't closely read, and we agree – Congress needs to get itself out of the habit on voting on budget bills that are only cooked at the last minute. But House Republicans have only themselves to blame. Had they crafted a bill and sent it to the Senate weeks before the deadline, they could held the upper hand in negotiations and insisted upon full disclosure of the outcome.

As it is, the fiscal plan approved by Congress and signed by Obama brings in only $600 billion in new revenue, instead of the $1.6 trillion the president sought. Moreover, it puts off hard decisions on spending cuts. Disaster was averted, but only temporarily. The nation has hit its debt limit and will run out of borrowing sources in two months, and Republicans appear ready to hold the nation's finances hostage to get concessions they couldn't extract in this round. So there are still more cliffs ahead, with even more menacing valleys for Congress and its reputation.

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