There is so much talk about the “fiscal cliff” that you would think that it is the moral equivalent of war or of a monstrous natural disaster. It is of course quite monstrous, but it is not natural – quite the contrary. This potential disaster is man-made, or, more accurately, Congress-made. And so, as we cross our fingers that the fiscal cliff issues can be constructively addressed before year-end, let us not forget that its very existence signifies several great failures for which Congress must be held accountable no matter how successfully it can address the cliff itself.
The most obvious of these failures is that the cliff results from that epitome of congressional dysfunction, the debt ceiling debacle of the summer of 2011. At the time the debt ceiling was raised no remedial fiscal action was agreed upon, only a “supercommittee” process which, if it failed, would lead us to where we are today. That possibility was deemed so unacceptable, that it was assumed that failure of the supercommittee was not an option. Once that failure occurred, about a year ago, the course we are now on was determined by Congress.
Another way in which Congress has failed, regardless of any success in avoiding the fiscal cliff itself, is by addressing it through last minute brinksmanship. The issues involved affect virtually every sector of our society, from those who pay taxes, to those who are affected by the government spending on the bubble, to those who are affected by fears that another recession might be triggered. The deleterious effects of this needless uncertainty over the past six months or so are huge, even if not easily quantifiable.
And further, while Congress spends virtually all its time on this remediation of its past toxic behavior, all legislative oxygen is being consumed, and a great many important policy needs fail to get addressed.
There will be much self-congratulation if the fiscal cliff is avoided. Among those who understand that this necessity to avoid it is itself a great governmental failure, there will be less congratulation.