As you undoubtedly know if you pay attention to national affairs, the United States faces a perfect fiscal storm at the end of this year. A confluence of deadlines and policy triggers unlike anything I can remember in a half-century of public life will produce massive budget cuts and serious tax increases. At least, it will if Congress and the White House don’t act. So it must be all hands on deck in Washington, right?
You know where I’m going with this. The House has worked for roughly a third of 2012 so far, and will be out of Washington campaigning or tending to constituents for half the remaining weeks of the year. The Senate, meanwhile, has been working on the highway bill, a measure to fix the postal service and a bill on insider trading, but not on addressing the coming fiscal meltdown.
The consensus in Washington seems to be that policy-makers will dither until after the November elections. Then, in a desperate scramble -- with a lame-duck Congress and either a lame-duck or a new President -- they’ll find some way of postponing the hard decisions for yet a few more months.
There’s a very real cost to this. Pentagon planners and transportation program managers have no idea what their budgets will be. Federal contractors don’t know if the funds will be available to pay them. Nobody knows if we will be able to pay our debts as a country. The uncertainty will surely erode the confidence of markets and investors, and even worse, of business-people.
We’ve never quite had a situation like this, where so clearly ahead of us is a fiscal crisis with enormous implications for the country, yet Congress feels so little urgency that it’s content to head home on recess. If the CEO of a major enterprise saw problems of this magnitude looming, it’s hard to imagine he’d call his employees together and tell them all to go on vacation.
Reducing the deficit is difficult. The only way to do it in a sluggish economy is by raising taxes and cutting spending, and both are unpopular. Our leaders can’t seem to summon the courage to deal with these issues, even as we move inexorably closer to a fiscal reckoning that will affect the lives of everyone who elected them. It all makes me wonder if the skeptics who say our government cannot work are right.
Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.