Political Animal


December 05, 2012 1:10 PM How To End Fiscal Cliffhanging

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on December 05, 2012 1:29 PM:

    If our lazy, compliant, complicit, entitled, wealthy, entrenchend, and sycophantic, MSM could actually remember how to do the jobs described to them when they applied, we might not have to face constant "Mexican Stand-offs."

    But, since only a handful of individuals and corporations own the various mediums in the MSM, and their own interests are Conservative (at least regarding money, taxes, and profits), and the fact that any reporters who "buck the system," will find themselves on the unemployment line, much like those who told the truth to the run-up to the Iraq War, who found their shows cancelled, their column contract not renewed, themselves fired, and otherwise marginalized, I don't expect anything to happen that would show me a scintilla of change.

    We have met the enemy. And, on top of it being us, it's also the Fourth Estate - which is why, in the times I do watch the TV news shows, I want to drink a fifth.

  • stormskies on December 05, 2012 1:42 PM:

    gulag as ever has nailed it. all these 'pundits' and the vast amount of the corporate media are nothing more than corporate props who have been made millionaires to do the bidding of the corporations who hire them. so of course to do what they are told to do: it their job description.

    next time any of us watch a presidential news conference just remember that all those 'reporters', the majority of them, ARE IN FACT MILLIONAIRES. millionaires asking the president whatever questions they have.

    interesting picture isn't it ?

  • jjm on December 05, 2012 1:56 PM:

    Memo to Matt Miller. re "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": THEY JUST DID.

    The people voted for progress -- not mean spirited sadistic 'conservative' governance whose appetite is for debt (so that bankers can make money off of us) and spending limitless amounts on the military, hoping to make every other country on earth knuckle under.

  • Gandalf on December 05, 2012 2:03 PM:

    We're all entitled to our opinions. Some of them are stated much more eloquently than others. I think that the only sure fired way to get over this nonsense is to vote these doughy brained consevatives out of office. I'm hopefull that the state of California is an indicator of where the country's going. It has been in the past. That would mean voting the obstructionist aholes out so that we can actully get something done here. I mean what the hell where's the flying cars?

  • BJ smith on December 05, 2012 3:09 PM:

    Jesus, Mary & Joseph, why in the hell can't everyone figure out what Gandalf just said?

  • T2 on December 05, 2012 3:35 PM:

    The Fiscal Cliff is wholly created by the Administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, voted in by Republicans......they got a Surplus from Clinton, turned it into a Deficit with 2 wars and a Tax Cut for the Rich and watched while an unregulated Financial System created the Great Recession. Then voted in a House full of crackpots.

    In a nutshell, folks, thats the story behind the Fiscal Cliff. And Republicans think they should be at the bargaining table????

  • AndThenThere'sThat on December 05, 2012 6:38 PM:


    "Fiscal Cliffs" are only going to be "indefinite" as long as a Democrat is in the White House. Can anybody say with a straight face that a future Democratic party in control of just one chamber of congress will threaten the credit of the USA by blocking a debt increase unless the R white house and other chamber agree to a tax hike on the wealthy? Riiight. Now, can anybody say with a straight face that a future Republican lead government will have any problems spending like drunken sailors once again on their next favorite war or piss down style tax breaks? Riiiight.

    The only way this becomes a chronic showdown is if a future Republican led government holds a gun to their heads and demands entitlement cuts or else they'll intentionally tank the economy they're in control of.