Maybe this is the end whose arrival T.S. Eliot ordained would come “not with a bang, but a whimper.” Ignore the puffed-up rhetoric. Set aside the dramatics of casting major votes less than 48 hours before a new Congress took the oath of office. The deal that staggered across the president’s desk last week was a legislative whimper of the first order.
Where are the tough choices? Where are the sacrifices? Avoiding the immediate consequences of the “fiscal cliff” involved two actions that come naturally to most legislators: not cutting spending and not raising taxes. It was the easy path, and that’s precisely why we’re in trouble.
Say goodbye to the days when our leaders took a carrot-and-stick approach to important legislation. The stick was nowhere to be seen. For all of the agonizing, antagonizing, and endless negotiations, the bill that the House of Representatives disgorged on Tuesday resembled a big pile of overripe carrots.
Beyond maintaining the lower Bush-era tax rates for most Americans, Congress cleaned out just about every goodie on the shelf in the year-end salvo. They protected doctors from scheduled Medicare cuts, exempted millions of people from the Alternative Minimum Tax, extended research tax credits, renewed wind subsidies, and even found time to qualify algae for the biofuels tax credit. A carrot-fest if there ever was one.
From the beginning Republicans conceded that more revenues should be part of a package addressing fundamental budget problems. They insisted, however, that real spending control be part of the solution as well. Perhaps their mistake was believing President Obama wanted the same thing. He talked a big game, but as soon as Democrats complained about proposed changes to the inflation index for Social Security, even that small spending restraint was tossed out the window.
This latest failure to control spending keeps us fixed upon a dangerous path. The Congressional Budget Office calculates the deal adds $4.6 trillion to our deficits over the next 10 years. By 2016, the total national debt will stand at $20 trillion, up from $10 trillion as recently as 2008. Last week the president stood at the White House podium and said, “We’re chipping away at this problem.” Who is he trying to kid?
The most logical answer is himself. Nearly alone in Washington, Obama seems to believe that the deal somehow addresses the unprecedented imbalance in the federal budget. In this worldview — let’s call it the “pixie dust theory” of the economy — reforming entitlement spending isn’t really necessary. Now that the “rich” will be paying their “fair share,” everyone will feel better, entrepreneurs will start creating jobs, and trillions of dollars in unfunded costs will magically disappear.
In the Capitol, however, they know a missed opportunity when the see one. Walk the halls today and you’ll hear legislators on both sides despair over the growing danger posed by their collective failure to rein in spending. They also understand that the deal has squandered most of the incentives that might have attracted votes for a much bigger, more meaningful deal.
Given the opportunity to act on a much larger deficit-reduction package, Democrats could have explained to supporters that they had to accept some entitlement spending restraints but had won the long-demanded “higher taxes on the rich.” Republicans could have justified their concession on taxes with steps made toward real deficit reduction — not the kind that the CBO scores as $4 trillion more in deficits. The president failed to put this ready-made political cover to use. Now, that chance is lost forever.
Congress even delayed the dreaded “sequester,” a set of automatic budget cuts, for another two months. That debate will now coincide with action to raise the debt limit yet again — to make that $20 trillion national debt possible. Republicans are sure to push for new spending caps and entitlement reforms cast aside by the White House in the most recent talks. But with the carrot pile gone, they’ll be working with nothing but stick.
The president won the political struggle over lines drawn in sand. He reveled in Republicans’ acquiescence to higher tax rates, and berated them at a pointless White House cheerleading session slapped together on New Year’s Eve. In time, that news conference may stand as the moment when the president embraced the petty, celebrated the hollow, and rejoiced in the whimper. He failed to comprehend the value of the concessions he won. For that we will all pay the price.John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.