WASHINGTON — Tired of economic brinksmanship and political crisis? Get used to it. This is the new normal — at least for a while.
Regardless of the outcome of this weekend’s frantic efforts by congressional leaders to reach a fiscal-cliff compromise, the new year promises to be dominated by more unresolved battles over debt, taxes, and spending.
US consumers, business groups, and financial markets desperately want Congress to settle on a broad plan and provide a sense of certainty for the government’s financial future and, by extension, greater stability for the economy.
But with the House and Senate still locked in basic disagreements about how to levy taxes and prioritize spending, the quest for solutions is being shifted to a later date.
Even if this weekend’s legislative Hail Mary pass works and a small-scale deal is passed Monday in time to ward off more than $500 billion in automatic tax increases and spending cuts, any sense of relief will be replaced quickly by continued partisan warfare over financial problems, likely featuring the same dynamics of dysfunction that became so familiar in 2012 and 2011.
The preview of coming attractions includes a debate over the government’s borrowing limit — a repeat of the 2011 showdown that resulted in a national credit downgrade and the mandated budget cuts being debated today.
The United States will hit its credit limit on Monday, according to the Treasury Department, but various maneuvers the department can make to continue paying the country’s bills will buy the nation up to two months. If the debt ceiling is not raised sometime in February, the nation will be at risk of defaulting on its debt.
In late March, Congress will face another test, when it must pass a resolution to keep government running or allow it to shut down. Republicans have used the threat of previous government shutdowns as bargaining chips.
Meanwhile, congressional leaders and President Obama will face pressure to make good on their promises of a comprehensive tax overhaul and reductions in spending growth on Social Security and Medicare. Efforts to wrap these large, thorny issues into a big fiscal deal failed in 2011. They have now fizzled again, in the aftermath of Obama’s reelection. The prospects for 2013 remain uncertain.
When the new Congress is sworn in on Jan. 3, the divided balance of power will remain the same as it has been for the last two years, with the GOP controlling the House and Democrats in charge of the Senate.
Representative Richard Neal, the Springfield Democrat and a high-ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he believes a tax code overhaul and other big solutions are achievable in 2013, because the second-term Democratic president and Republican Speaker John Boehner will begin thinking about their place in the history books.
“It’s a matter of legacy now,’’ said Neal. “The stars are aligned for getting something done this year.’’
Yet the factors that contribute to Washington’s profound gridlock will remain in place next year — a Republican majority in the House that is heavily influenced by staunch conservatives and has demon-
strated an unwillingness to compromise; the strong influence of outside groups and lobbyists; relentless media scrutiny of every twitch and shift by legislative leaders that makes private negotiations difficult; and an erosion of respect, for colleagues across the aisle and even for the institution of Congress.
“What you’re witnessing is a pitiful process of pettiness, and party over country, and it breaks your heart,’’ said former Republican Senator Alan Simpson of Wyoming, a leader of the Simpson-Bowles commission that recommended a tax and spending overhaul in 2010 to fight deficits.
He said spending on Social Security, Medicare, defense, and other programs urgently needs to be reduced in a meaningful way, but Congress has proven incapable of grappling with big issues. “It’s hard to believe, but what they are doing is nothing,’’ he said.
In his weekly video address Saturday, Obama sought to harness public anger against Washington to prod lawmakers to act. “You meet your deadlines. You meet your responsibilities every single day. The folks you sent here to serve should do the same,’’ Obama told listeners. “We cannot let Washington politics get in the way of America’s progress.’’
Former congressional staffers, scholars, and politicians pine for the atmosphere of the 1980s, when major political figures such as the late Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy and former Republican Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker were able to set aside partisan animosity and negotiate deals.
The most frequently cited example is that of Republican President Ronald Reagan and Thomas P. “Tip’’ O’Neill Jr., the late Democratic House speaker, who reached agreement on the last sweeping tax overhaul, in 1986. Obama and Boehner have not achieved that level of cooperation.
“There was a level of respect for your adversary that doesn’t seem to exist as widely now,’’ said Steve Bell, a former Republican staff director of the Senate Budget Committee in the 1980s and now senior director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank. “Now, you really do believe he or she wants to turn us into France, or that he or she wants to push grandma off the cliff. Those ideas are quite extreme.’’
Many newer members of Congress — particularly those aligned with the Tea Party — won their seats by running against the status quo in Congress, against compromise, against rising deficits, and what they consider excessive spending.
“Do I believe that Mitch McConnell, Harry Reid, and the president and John Boehner could get a deal that would move the country forward? Absolutely. No doubt in my mind. They are all old school,’’ said Bell.
“It’s the new guys, who have no respect for the institution,’’ he said. “If you foul in your own nest, eventually it’s going to start stinking. They have demeaned the institution itself, and now they are paying a price for it.’’
Bell also attributes the lack of cohesion to a decline in the percentage of senators and congressmen who have served in the military — people like Senator John Kerry and Senator John McCain, whose lives and careers were shaped by the Vietnam War and who frequently work together despite membership in opposite parties.
Fewer members share that sense of purpose and team effort, he said, which has eroded respect for the authority of committee chairmen and majority and minority leaders.
The intense scrutiny on congressional leaders by special-interest groups such as the Club for Growth, which raises money for conservative candidates to run against GOP members it views as too liberal, or the AARP, which works aggressively to prevent Social Security and Medicare cuts, makes it difficult for lawmakers of both parties to compromise, said Ross K. Baker, an expert on Congress at Rutgers University.
Club for Growth president Chris Chocola shrugged off the suggestion that his organization discourages compromise. “Members of Congress make their own decisions. If they are truly conservative, if they are really going to support a pro-growth agenda, they don’t have to worry about anything we would do,’’ he said. “Our role isn’t to negotiate.’’
The glare of media scrutiny also makes it difficult to conduct a quiet give-and-take to solve complex problems — from an extension of unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, to the price controls on milk in the farm bill.
“Crisis politics on domestic issues is not entirely new, but the magnitude and complexity of this particular period — encompassing the fiscal issues and things like the debt-limit extension — is new,’’ said Baker. “I don’t know what is going to change in the long run that is really going to alter the contentiousness of American politics.’’