But, do elections matter any more? Remember, we would not be looking at a “fiscal cliff” right now if it weren’t for the gravely irresponsible, and highly undemocratic, fight over raising the debt ceiling that Republicans provoked in 2011. That was supposed to be a vote to pay the bill for government spending already authorized, something past Congresses had done routinely. It had nothing at all to do with the deficit or the debt — or taxes or spending, for that matter. Those are all issues, each of which deserves serious debate.
Instead, Republicans brought the nation to the brink of default, effectively blackmailing Obama to make a deal or risk a possible global meltdown. The deal was the mix of tax increases and mandatory across-the-board cuts to government programs due to take effect on Jan. 2 — what’s known as the “fiscal cliff.” Except, of course, no one intended these cuts to happen, either. Rather, they were to be used as leverage to hold the economy hostage as part of yet another crisis to force other, deeper spending and tax cuts. Which is where we are now.
If this seems like an insane approach to governing, that’s because it is. When Standard and Poor’s downgraded the U.S. credit rating from AAA to AA+ last year, it was in large part because of the alarming dysfunction of a political system that threatens catastrophe in place of debating policy, and in which the expressed will of the people counts for little.
Yet, Republicans seem ready to do it again: House Speaker John Boehner recently vowed that raising the debt limit would depend on massive spending reductions (that, typically, he refused to enumerate: that’s for deals done in back rooms.) Some Republicans reportedly are considering a surrender now on letting the Bush-era tax cuts expire for the wealthy, but staging another crisis in a few months when a debt-ceiling vote comes due. And another one after that, and after that.
(In a bizarre example of legislative maneuvering last week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell demanded a vote on a bill that would have allowed the president to unilaterally raise the limit, apparently thinking that Democrats would be forced to publicly oppose it (it’s unclear why). When Majority Leader Harry Reid called his bluff and agreed to allow a vote, McConnell ended up filibustering his own bill.)
So, President Obama should hang tough on his pledge to not negotiate with the debt-ceiling gun to his head. Declaring last week that it is “a game I will not play,” Obama is asking business leaders in particular to pressure Republicans to allow the debt ceiling to rise automatically, thereby preventing an annual (or even more frequent) set of fiscal cliffs in the future. Getting rid of this ploy is the only chance the nation has to reassert anything approaching rational budget negotiations.