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Republicans, Democrats playing chicken with economy

Lawmakers seem determined to plunge us into financial catastrophe for the sake of political gain as the payroll tax cut and Bush tax cuts are set to expire.

July 24, 2012|David Lazarus

It's called the fiscal cliff, and it poses a grave threat to our economic well-being, even though it's entirely avoidable.

Our elected representatives — mostly, it must said, our Republican friends — seem determined to plunge us into financial catastrophe for the sake of political gain.

At a time when many people and families are living paycheck to paycheck (that is, if they even have a paycheck), and when many businesses are struggling to stay afloat, politicians are playing a childish game of chicken, waiting for the other guy to blink first.

It would be laughable if it wasn't so pathetic.

"Unfortunately, this is the new normal in Washington," said Alan Auerbach, director of UC Berkeley's Robert D. Burch Center for Tax Policy and Public Finance.

His frustration was echoed by Gillian Hadfield, an economist at USC. "There's an inability to carry out basic policy," she said. "We've hit a high level of political dysfunction."

That's putting it mildly. The people entrusted with running our country are behaving like a bunch of 6-year-olds, squabbling among themselves over matters that in years past were regarded as strictly routine.

Such as the debt ceiling. That's the legal limit on how much money Uncle Sam can borrow. It was established in 1917 with a cap of $11.5 billion. The ceiling is now $16.4 trillion.

Since March 1962, lawmakers have voted largely without rancor to raise the debt limit 76 times, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Eleven such votes have been taken since 2001, when former President George W. Bush embarked on a spree of cutting taxes and engaging in costly government programs, such as fighting wars in multiple countries. The national debt nearly doubled on his watch.

Last year, after a bruising political battle, Republicans and Democrats agreed to a three-part increase in the debt ceiling. As part of the deal, the two sides set a goal of reducing the country's debt by $2.1 trillion over a decade.

To get the ball rolling, a bipartisan so-called supercommittee was convened to hash out the first $1.2 trillion in cuts. A poison pill was adopted: If the reductions weren't made, nearly $1 trillion in automatic spending cuts would drop like an anvil on federal programs, slamming everything from defense to national parks.

What do you know? The supercommittee failed to get anything done, so all those nasty budget cuts will start taking effect in January.

Meanwhile, the Bush tax cuts, which reduced the government's revenue by about $4 trillion over 10 years, are set to expire Dec. 31, meaning that tax payments could go up for everyone as of the first of the year.

The Bush tax cuts covered a lot of ground, so their expiration would be complex. In most cases, though, levies would rise for people's income and investments, and a number of popular deductions and credits would disappear or be reduced, such as the tax credit for dependent kids.

Then there's the payroll tax cut implemented last year as an economic-stimulus measure that's also set to end the same day the Bush tax cuts go bye-bye. That would reduce the average worker's earnings by about $1,000 a year.

Combined, these various elements are what's meant by the fiscal cliff. They represent repeated punches in the stomach and then a kick in the teeth for good measure to the nation's economic livelihood.

And, economists warn, if these tax increases and spending cuts hit at the same time, the blow could be severe enough to knock the country back into recession and push the unemployment rate even higher.

"There's fairly broad agreement about what needs to be done," said Lee Ohanian, a UCLA economist. "But, politically, it's difficult to think anything will get done before November. After that, the problem is that there's very little time."

There's plenty of blame to go around. Democrats, for example, are determined to take a bigger tax bite from the rich and super-rich, but they don't want to countenance cuts to popular programs like social services or healthcare.

Republicans, for their part, simply won't even be in the same room as a proposed tax increase, no way, no how.

According to FactCheck.org, the national debt rose 190% under former President Reagan. It rose 52% under President George H.W. Bush, 37% under Bill Clinton and 86% under Bush II. During his first three years in office, President Obama has presided over a 45% increase in the national debt.

As these numbers make clear, Republicans are just as fond of government spending as Democrats. The main difference is that they don't like to pay for it. They'd rather borrow from others.

Yet now the GOP has so ferociously politicized the debt-ceiling process that borrowing additional money has been made to seem downright un-American. Never mind that all such borrowing is for spending that's already been done or tax cuts that have already been handed out.

And never mind that the Government Accountability Office estimated Monday that this political grandstanding resulted in $1.3 billion in extra borrowing costs last year.

When will the debt limit have to be raised again? Around the end of the year, according to most estimates, just in time to exacerbate any negotiations to tackle the fiscal cliff.

UC Berkeley's Auerbach figures it'll be too much for lily-livered lawmakers. "They'll kick the can down the road for a few months," he said.

Eventually, though, these guys will have to make some grown-up decisions about serious problems. That's what we pay them to do.

All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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