Politics trumps economics

The number of elected officials in Congress who can be counted on to put the country’s interest above their personal gain can be counted without the need for removing both hands from your pockets.

Once again, this crowd has validated our worst suspicions that the typical D.C. politicians, unlike criminals, are best judged guilty until proven innocent.

After having faced the threat of financial default this summer over the debt ceiling, Congress created the  Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, consisting of six Republicans and six Democrats from both the House and the Senate and charged them with developing a bipartisan plan to cut the budget deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years. As we know, these folks failed to agree on a deficit reduction package, and Standard & Poor’s stripped the United States of its AAA credit rating.

In sum, the Republican members of the committee were unwilling to increase taxes, while the Democratic members were against excessive tax cuts. So for the umpteenth time, we failed to make progress in putting our fiscal house in order. To put it mildly, another high-profile failure demonstrated the inability of the two political parties to reach consensus about how to attack our mounting public debt and recurring fiscal deficits. They diminished themselves, put the economy at risk and weakened America’s brand. A good man in politics, as in the popular old song, is hard to find.

Then we watched and listened to each side trip over one another to engage in the blame game. In theory, the failure to arrive at an agreement means that automatic spending cuts of $1.2 trillion over the next decade go into effect Jan. 1, 2013, without a change in legislation. Most of these trigger cuts will impact the Department of Defense and social programs. Once again, we saw the two parties choosing sides and the Republicans arguing to avoid all defense cuts and the Democrats refusing to cut social programs.

Just to put this all in perspective, we have $15 trillion in public debt corresponding roughly to the size of our annual gross domestic product, not too distant from the Ita!ian debt level of 120 percent of their gross domestic product. Of course, we are not counting the trillion more in unfunded liabilities that are not  reflected on the nation’s books.

Finally, in December, we watched the latest episode of the congressional soap opera when both houses agreed to a 60-day payroll tax cut for 160 million workers. Another example of business as usual.

To reach a one-year deal on the payroll tax cut, first enacted as a stimulus to the economy in January 2011, both parties will have to agree whether the tax cut will be funded through spending cuts or higher taxes on  the wealthy. Will Congress act this month to extend the tax cut for the entire year? Based on continued partisan divisions and with a presidential election in 11 months, who knows? But for sure we will not cut the deficit or make real progress on reducing our outstanding debt, helping the 25 million Americans who need work, and preventing the economy from sliding into recession without developing a sensible long-term fiscal plan that provides for tax increases and spending cuts. If not, we will continue to trade on the future and keep our fingers crossed that things don’t get worse over the next 11 months. But then whoever said governing was easy?

originally published: January 12, 2012