Last week’s election results did not change my opinion that we’re more likely to go over the fiscal cliff than to avoid it.
Yes, I heard the less defiant tone Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has used to talk about the cliff. Yes, I heard the president use the word “revenues” instead of “taxes.” And, yes, I read the conclusions from many of the same pundits who were so wrong on the elections saying that the new tone and the use of revenues instead of taxes indicates that a deal is just around the corner.
But the fundamentals of the fiscal cliff situation haven’t changed that much since before the elections. In spite of outward appearances that an agreement is more likely, there are as many new reasons to conclude that preventing the cliff from going into effect and being the worst fiscal policy since an austerity plan was implemented prematurely at the end of the Great Depression is still more likely to happen after than before it occurs.
Some things about the fiscal cliff were never going to change no matter what happened in the elections.
The limited time between the start of the lame-duck session and when the cliff begins obviously couldn’t change. The fiscal cliff is still only about six weeks away as the crow flies, and closer to four weeks when you subtract Thanksgiving, Christmas and the time the House and Senate will devote to organizing for the next Congress.
Also, as was fully expected before the elections, there are still a large number of incumbents who, because they lost or decided not to run again, are true lame-duck members of Congress whose attention will increasingly be focused elsewhere over the next six weeks. That makes their votes on anything having to do with the fiscal cliff unreliable; some may not show up to vote at all.
The White House continues to have considerable political leverage over congressional Republicans, perhaps the most it has had since President Barack Obama took the oath of office in 2009. This is also the most leverage the Obama administration may ever have on spending, taxes, the deficit and national debt — and that means a big White House move toward the GOP position on any cliff-related issue is as unlikely now as it was before.
That was what’s the same. Now add the following new developments.
First, the largely unexpected increase in their majority means Senate Democrats have less incentive to compromise on anything considered in the lame duck-session — before we reach the fiscal cliff. That makes avoiding the cliff less of an imperative for Democrats now than it was before.
Second, there also appears to be a growing realization among House Republicans that they have become the last bastion of GOP power in Washington and that it will be jeopardized by a compromise with the White House to avoid the fiscal cliff.
This new and apparently growing mindset is that, while GOP control of the White House and Senate may be long shots in the next few cycles, Republicans can be relatively certain of having a majority in the House as long as the party’s base enthusiastically shows up at the polls.
Because taxes are the prime issue for these voters, the post-election thinking in some parts of the GOP is that a deal with the White House that includes anything labeled a tax increase will give Democrats a chance to take control of the House that, because of redistricting, they otherwise would not have been able to capture through the end of this decade.
An additional new factor is that the understanding that the fiscal cliff is really more of a fiscal slope that won’t create an immediate economic catastrophe in January has now expanded as the media focus has shifted away from elections. This is changing the imperative to prevent the cliff that some on Capitol Hill had been feeling.
Finally, since the elections there’s also been an increased interest in the “let’s let the peasants storm the castle with pitchforks” strategy. The theory seems to be that actual layoffs, program reductions, tax increases and stock market drops will do what threats of the same have not yet been able to do: Change the political situation enough to make votes on higher taxes for some and bigger deficits for all politically acceptable.
I have no doubt that the fiscal cliff situation will continue to change as it gets closer and the pressure on Congress and the White House to prevent it grows. For now, however, any pressure to prevent it is being matched with new incentives to let it happen. Because of that, in spite of what you’re hearing elsewhere, a week after Election Day, nothing much has really changed.
Stan Collender is a partner at Qorvis Communications and author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.” His blog is capitalgainsandgames.com.