President Obama has cut his Christmas vacation short, and
members of Congress are also scheduled to return to Washington, a
city largely abandoned for the holidays.
There is something distressingly symbolic in that.
Unless Washington acts, the decade-old Bush tax cuts will expire in less than a week, and across-the-board spending cuts will begin. Add the expiration of the Alternative Minimum Tax fix, the Social Security payroll tax cut and extended unemployment benefits - to say nothing of new health care taxes and big changes to Medicare reimbursements - and the nation faces immediate and serious fiscal trouble.
The combination, if implemented, could spin the United States back into a recession it is struggling to escape. In Hampton Roads, the impact could be worse.
For years, the country has been slowly edging toward that "fiscal cliff," the perverse product of Washington's inability to move on just about anything, thanks to partisan paralysis.
The Bush-era tax cuts, passed in the wake of 9/11, were scheduled to expire automatically after a decade. That gimmick allowed lawmakers in 2001 to skirt rules to predict the impact on the federal deficit, which has since exploded. The tax cuts were extended but are now due to end on Jan. 1.
The impending spending cuts are the result of Congress' failed attempt to agree on specific reductions as part of the 2011 debt- ceiling deal. Rather than cut the budget, Congress created a so- called "supercommittee" of 12 legislators who were supposed to find a way to reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion over 10 years. The bipartisan group failed utterly, triggering $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts, starting with the new year.
There is always a chance that progress is being made far from the madding crowd. Sadly, there's an even better chance that it isn't.
Even optimists don't expect much more than a temporary, stop-gap measure, another in Washington's accommodations to the reality that partisanship makes doing the nation's business impossible.
Despite months of wrangling, House Republicans continue to resist increases in the tax rate. Democrats continue to resist sufficient cuts in spending. These positions aren't new. Neither do they change the math: Tax revenues are too low, and spending is too high.
Raising taxes or cutting spending alone won't solve the nation's financial problems, headlined by a national debt nearing $17 trillion, larger than the entire U.S. economy.
Those are huge, almost unimaginable, numbers. Yet the alternatives Washington is considering this holiday week range from the tiny and temporary to the small and insufficient.
If the situation weren't so dire, it would be laughable.
Starbucks, whose CEO stopped making political donations last year during the battle over the debt limit, now has proposed his own gimmick for 75 D.C. stores: Writing "come together" on cups of coffee sold there this week.
If cups of coffee drive home the message, bottoms up. It's time for Congress to find common ground.
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