Representative Jim Cooper, the Tennessee Democrat, worries that zombies will destroy Washington come December. He’s identified 55 of them, and feels certain that more will be lurching around after the November election. They’ll be easy to spot, since they’ll all wear suits and gather at the Capitol. “After November 6, we’ll have a zombie Congress,” he explains. “We’ll have the 55 members who have already announced they’re retiring or seeking a different office, and we’ll have everybody who loses reelection. So they’ll literally be the living dead, except they’ll be back in Washington and have voting cards.”
What concerns Cooper is that this zombie Congress will be called upon to solve a looming fiscal crisis set to strike on Jan. 1, when two huge changes are due to take place. Unless Congress acts, the Bush tax cuts that President Obama extended in 2010 will expire. And $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts to military and domestic spending — the "budget sequester" agreed to under last summer's deal to raise the debt ceiling — will also kick in. All told, this will cause $7.5 trillion in tax hikes and spending cuts, enough to halt the fragile recovery and possibly plunge the economy back into recession. Hill staffers have dubbed this scenario "Taxmaggedon."
Perversely, the sheer horror of Taxmageddon is a source of comfort to many in Washington: They cannot imagine that the two parties will fail to strike a deal and avert disaster. In theory, there's a plausible case for why they might be right. Last summer's negotiations over a "grand bargain" to cut the deficit failed, at least in part, because Republicans wouldn't accept higher taxes and didn't have to. This time, they'll have no choice but to negotiate in earnest, because they'll be staring down the double-barreled threat of tax hikes on the rich and a shrunken military — a "forcing mechanism," in Washington parlance. For Democrats, the need once again to raise the debt ceiling and prevent higher taxes on the middle class will get them to the table. And no one wants another recession.
Most political insiders believe that once the election has safely passed and everyone can quit posturing, a deal will be worked out during the lame-duck session of Congress in December.
But that scenario doesn't factor in zombies. "Think ahead to what that's going to look like," Cooper says. "We'll have all these goners [in Congress]. We'll have the most divided America in our lifetime because billions of dollars will have been spent [in the campaign] making us hate each other. You can almost guarantee half the country will be sore losers. Congress isn't going to suddenly come together and see the good in each others' hearts."
Still, what if somehow they do? Or, more likely, are motivated by their own self-interest? The parties did manage to raise the debt ceiling and extend the Bush tax cuts during the 2010 lame duck session.
Cooper has grave doubts. "That only happened because we were giving out goodies," he says. "This time, we're expecting a lame-duck Congress to miraculously impose extraordinary fiscal discipline to solve our long-term problems without hampering the recovery. It's the worst possible way to make major decisions."
But his real fear is that any decision will be seen as illegitimate, so none will be made. Since the size of the zombie battalion could easily triple the Republican margin in the House (25 votes), Republican "constitutionalists" might insist on waiting for the new Congress, whose new members, though legitimate, would be powerfully disinclined to cast their first votes on the unpopular measures necessary to clean up the mess bequeathed to them by their predecessors. "They'll view it as a death sentence!" he says.
Cooper is the rare congressman willing to act now. Last month, he and Steve LaTourette, a Wisconsin Republican, forced a vote on a budget amendment modeled on the Bowles-Simpson commission's plan to reduce the deficit, which would have prevented Taxmaggedon. It failed 38-382. As Cooper often points out, politicians have an unrivaled ability to put off tough decisions while convincing themselves, and many others, that everything will eventually work out for the best.
Even so, it's striking how few people share his alarm. If you take the recent level of congressional ineptitude and project it through December, the faith that pundits are showing in a lame-duck miracle does seem wildly misplaced.
Were Taxmaggedon indeed to bite, the lone consolation would be that it would almost single-handedly solve the country's deficit problem by doing what Congress will not: raising taxes and cutting spending. But not even Cooper, an ardent deficit hawk, relishes this scenario.
"It would be the ugliest thing you can imagine," he says. "Thoughtless, across-the-board cuts that would take a lawnmower to the budget and wouldn't preserve investments in growth. It'd be government on autopilot. You might as well have robots in charge."
Joshua Green is national corresondent at Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow him on Twitter @JoshuaGreen.