If it weren’t for the Far Left and the Far Right in Congress, the nation’s future might be in more sensible hands. Democratic liberals don’t want anyone fooling with Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Republican conservatives don’t want any additional taxes, particularly any more for the wealthiest 2 percent of this country.
President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, are caught in between. They are the chief negotiators who are trying to reach a budget agreement that will help the nation avoid falling off a “fiscal cliff.” The cliff refers to the $1.2 trillion in spending cuts and tax increases that will take effect in January if a budget plan isn’t adopted.
Two ideas are on the table. Obama has proposed $1.6 trillion in higher taxes over a decade, and insists he won’t give in on his plan to raise tax rates on families making more than $250,000 a year.
The president wants the whole ball of wax — hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending, a possible extension of the temporary Social Security payroll tax and presidential power to raise the national debt limit without congressional approval. If Republicans go along, he would support $600 billion in spending cuts to health programs like Medicare.
A response didn’t take long. “I was just flabbergasted,” Boehner told Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who delivered the message. “I looked at him (Geithner) and said, ‘You can’t be serious.’ ”
Boehner offers a 10-year plan that would save $2.2 trillion by increasing the Medicare eligibility age and lower Social Security cost-of-living increases. His proposal also includes $800 billion in new revenue over a decade that could include reducing or eliminating some tax deductions for the wealthy. However, the GOP is adamant about not increasing taxes on the wealthy.
The White House called Boehner’s plan nothing more than “magic beans and fairy dust,” according to The Associated Press. A spokesman said, “If they (Republicans) are willing to do higher taxes on the wealthy, there’s a lot we can talk about. And if they are not, then they’ll push us over the cliff.”
Anyone who sees any reason for hope coming out of those White House and Republican responses has to be an eternal optimist.
Political analyst Charlie Cook said in a National Journal magazine column it is totally unrealistic for Democrats to expect Republicans to jump off their tax (for the wealthy) cliff without Democrats having to jump off their entitlement (Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security) cliff.
Members of Congress who think they can buck their parties’ wishes had better guess again. Boehner let it be known quickly that he wasn’t happy with an Oklahoma House member’s suggestion they give some ground on taxing the wealthy. The speaker also stole a page from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s political handbook when he stripped four conservative members of major committee assignments for voting against his wishes.
Leaders of both major political parties know how to keep their members in line, and that is another reason why it is so hard to reach common ground on this critical financial situation facing the country in January.
Matthew Dowd of National Journal said he spent nearly a week in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia talking to “real people and real businesses” there. He said he wanted to know what they were worried about and what they wanted from Washington.
Dowd said, “If they had one direct piece of advice for both the administration and Congress it would be: ‘Don’t act like children and let us go over the fiscal cliff for spite’s sake. Come to the table as adults and compromise and make whatever deal there is long term. Give some certainty.’ ”
Why can’t they do it? It’s because the Far Left and Far Right don’t believe in compromise. But that isn’t the only reason. People who benefit from government programs don’t want them touched, and their costs are a big part of the national financial dilemma.
The latest United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll shows the public supports spending cuts, but not to entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security. An astounding 79 percent of those surveyed said they don’t want Medicare cut at all, according to Matthew Cooper of National Journal.
The public is more open to changes in programs that benefit the poor and lower-middle class. Even so, the magazine said the poll showed 52 percent of women and 45 percent of men don’t want the government to cut food stamps and housing vouchers.
Reaction was mixed when people were asked about cuts to the military budget, another big ticket item. They don’t want to see $600 billion in automatic cuts if a fiscal cliff agreement isn’t reached, but 47 percent approve of some cuts to Defense spending.
As you can see, this fiscal cliff thing is awfully complicated. Members of Congress want to keep the folks back home happy, but too many of them who are on the left and right don’t want to give any ground. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough people in the middle willing to do whatever it takes to get the nation’s fiscal house in order.
Maybe Pogo had the right answer in that 1971 comic strip when he delivered that famous line, “Yep, son, we have met the enemy and he is us.”
• • •Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or firstname.lastname@example.org