In the aftermath of the election, we can now look forward to our political class in Washington addressing issues that have reached crisis proportions. The huge deficits of the past four years have driven up the national debt by more than five trillion dollars, and even the rosy White House budget projections for the next decade show us returning to trillion-dollar annual deficits within a few years. Entitlement programs continue to grow exponentially as the population ages, with fewer workers to fund the future liabilities that threaten to swallow most of American GDP in coming decades.
The US has to unwind one war while remaining vigilant about defending against a host of new, unknown enemies who can destroy our country through cyber warfare and other nefarious means. On top of this, a chronically stagnant economy with historically low levels of employment in the population threatens our ability to fund any of the above objectives, even if we had fiscal stability in the federal government.
What’s the solution? According to an increasing number of people … another election.
We are used to our political class playing “kick the can” when it comes to big problems. The fiscal cliff has presented itself on two other occasions – December 2010 and August 2011 -- and in both cases the same Congressional leadership and President that got elected in 2012 opted not to solve it. The crisis in unfunded entitlement liabilities has been apparent for years longer than that for anyone who can do math, yet most politicians either deny the problem outright or claim that no action is needed until the inevitable crash comes.
This post-election season has brought forth a new kind of obstinacy, however. It’s one thing to delay negotiations on issues in order to use them in election arguments, waiting until voters have their say to see whether a mandate develops. It’s quite another to refuse to negotiate on big issues even in the immediate aftermath of an election, demanding total surrender or obstructionism as the only two options.
Blame for this new kind of political trench warfare can be spread to both parties. Democrats led by Patty Murray, the new Senate Budget Committee chair, insist that they won’t cut spending or address entitlement reform without Republicans caving on tax hikes. Murray has emerged as a leader of the “let’s go over the fiscal cliff” caucus in the Democrat-controlled Senate, stating last week that raising taxes takes a higher priority over her new job to produce a budget in the Senate. She won’t budge on a budget until Republicans cave.
At the same time, Democrats refuse to even discuss entitlement reform as part of a larger fiscal solution. Dick Durbin mentioned it on Sunday, only to backpedal Monday and insist that entitlement reform negotiations would only come after a Republican surrender. Meanwhile, other Democrats argue that the fiscal cliff is more of a slope, and that they can blame any ill effects on Republicans anyway.
Republicans went into the election arguing explicitly that tax hikes would damage the economy at any income level and that massive spending cuts were necessary, although they offered an approach to tax reform that would generate more revenue. The GOP held the House but lost seats, while losing ground in the Senate and losing the White House to Barack Obama again, who argued almost entirely the opposite.