The clear mandate of the 2012 elections was for a balanced approach to the nation’s fiscal problems, a “grand bargain” that includes the expiration of the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy, some common-sense changes to Medicare and Social Security, cuts in unnecessary defense programs, and elimination of unproductive loopholes in the tax code. Taken together, these moves would not only cut the debt load being imposed on future generations, but they would also clear the way for targeted investments in education and infrastructure. The result would be a stronger nation better positioned to compete in the global marketplace.
Since the election, most Americans, and this editorial page, have refrained from making any programs into sacred cows, or asserting any rigid demands, in the belief that all options must be on the table — that a balanced agreement, acceptable to most Republicans and Democrats, would naturally flow from the results of the election. The “fiscal cliff” of expiring tax cuts and mandatory spending cuts set to take effect on Jan. 1 would serve as a prod, making the end of 2012 a meaningful deadline for such a deal. Then, with a fixed set of tax rules and spending plans in place, businesses could begin the new year with a more predictable landscape and the confidence to hire more workers.
Unfortunately, as revelers prepared to take to the streets Monday evening for First Night and other celebrations, their noisemakers and fireworks weren’t to celebrate an end to the nation’s fiscal woes. Lawmakers were still struggling to approve a pared-down deal that would preserve income-tax cuts for the middle class, and enact compromise positions on the estate tax and other provisions that were set to expire. It was the least Congress could do — and a terrible portent for the new year. Under the deal being discussed Monday, almost all forms of spending cuts and entitlement changes would be put off, no doubt to await more legislative brinksmanship and more procedural maneuvering.
Throughout the process, the overwhelming obstacle has been the most conservative faction of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, which repeatedly uses the implicit threat of removing John Boehner as speaker to prevent him from allowing votes on compromise measures. For a brief moment last November, the election results had seemed to sink in among mainstream Republicans, who seemed poised to reject the extremism and intransigence of their Tea Party faction. But if the fiscal cliff couldn’t force a meaningful compromise with those lawmakers, nothing will.
In coming months, responsible GOP leaders must work around them. Budget fights like these must not become a permanent fixture of the political landscape.