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Last updateThu, 19 Nov 2015 8pm

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Washington: Standoffs, intransigence, gridlock

After months of negotiations, most of it done through surrogates, press releases, and press conferences, the 112th Congress passed a bill to temporarily forestall the fiscal cliff. It was their last official act before they adjourned. The compromise, if you can call it that, deferred sequestration cuts by two months and raised taxes on those making over $400 thousand a year. It was hailed by many as a victory. The nation didn’t go over the cliff. But the government’s financial crisis, deferred perhaps, nonetheless continues.

By the first of March the $105 billion in spending cuts will once again fall due. The question is will the Administration and the Congress come to any agreement about spending cuts? Will they consider entitlement reform?  Will they cut discretionary spending? And in particular will they cut the Defense budget? The answer, unless something changes, is probably not. It’s been decades since Congress has cut a budget and the President is unlikely to exert the kind of leadership needed for significant cuts in national spending. There will probably be yet another rush to the edge of the cliff, a last minute negotiation, and lots of brinkmanship, and once again, somehow the decision will be deferred. In Washington, tomorrow is always another day.

But that’s not the only “do or die” date looming in the distance. One that’s barely been talked about, overshadowed by the fiscal cliff, is legislation to increase the debt ceiling. Our nation’s debt ceiling has reached its limit of $16.1 trillion and if the government is going to continue spending it needs to be raised. However, many on the Hill will only consider a debt increase if spending is cut. This is a fight, yet another standoff, that we’ve seen before. The threat to not approve the increase in the debt prompted the Budget Control Act of 2011 and sequestration. Needless to say, that hasn’t worked out too well. Just how willing legislators are to use the debt ceiling as a hammer, particularly as the President is likely to stand firm on this one, isn’t all that clear.

It seems that in the second decade of the 20th century Washington politics is defined by standoffs, intransigence, and gridlock. The problem with this inertia isn’t just the frustration it produces in the United States. It also impacts our standing in the rest of the world.  World financial markets are getting nervous as they begin to openly worry about America’s long term fiscal health. At the same time the prospect of yet another downgrade to our debt rating is a real possibility.

While some worry about the future of the U.S. dollar as the world’s primary reserve currency, there is also the question of national security. The world is an uncomfortable place. Relations with China, Russia, and Iran are all tense. How will these nations view us if we appear unable to cope with our own tax and spending issues?  And how will they view us if we continue to borrow a third of our annual budget while running up a massive structural debt. Already, many of our allies, seeing our financial situation deteriorate, are worried that the United States may someday slip from its position as the world’s premier power.

Congress and the President don’t seem to grasp the ramifications of the current financial crisis. It’s too often viewed as a short term issue. During the recent discussion the Democrats got several digs at the Republicans over Medicare and throughout the debate the GOP was able to accuse the President of being unwilling to deal with spending. Unfortunately these back and forth accusations did nothing more than fuel the now infamous 24 hour news cycle. It was a sad sight, but with a new Congress, and perhaps a new focus on the seriousness of the situation, there is still hope for legislation that addresses our long term fiscal health. Both sides will have to make compromises. Favorite programs will have to be cut. The tax code may need changes. But, the consequences, if we don’t do this, at home and abroad could well determine our future as a major power. The stakes are that high.

You may reach David Kerr at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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