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Some Are Miffed the Cliff Tiff Not Diff

The headline above is how Variety, the Hollywood news magazine that uses its own insider lingo — what it calls “slanguage” — might describe what’s currently happening with the fiscal cliff.

The translation from slanguage to Washingtonese is that some on Capitol Hill and elsewhere are upset that the fiscal cliff discussions still seem to be stuck where they were a week or more ago. But, like most translations, this one doesn’t really reflect the full sense of a fiscal cliff situation that so far has provided more entertainment than policy changes. Hence, at least for this week, federal budget slanguage is definitely called for.

The headline is most appropriate as you watch Congress and the White House feign anger that the fiscal cliff discussions are taking so long, going down to the last minute and are so contentious. As I said in last week’s column, is it really possible that anyone who has watched any of the previous episodes of “As the Budget Turns” over the past two years could be even slightly miffed that the fight — or tiff — over the fiscal cliff is not any diff  . . .  erent from what’s come before? After all, the fight to the death that is currently under way is what was, or should have been, expected.

Many of those involved in the fiscal cliff seem to be using the standard comedy writers’ technique of having the characters talking to each other without anyone hearing what anyone else is saying. For example, there has been a great deal of talk about the need for a big deficit reduction deal at the same time others effectively are suggesting that a small agreement that does just enough to allow everyone to feel good about canceling the cliff’s tax increases and spending cuts is the only thing possible.

Enacting a grand bargain on the budget during the lame-duck session of Congress was always the longest of long shots. There simply was never going to be enough time to get the two key elements of a big deal — tax and entitlement reform — through the extreme legislative and political gantlets they were going to face. It would have been difficult to put a grand bargain in place even if there had been a bipartisan consensus when the lame duck began about what should be done. On the contrary, there wasn’t even the whisper of a tacit agreement, let alone a pact of any kind.

With four of the six weeks between the start of the lame duck and the fiscal cliff now gone, the big budget deal some are still talking about as it if were a real option is even less likely than when Congress reconvened Nov. 13. That’s why, at this point, any talk about a grand bargain has to be considered secondary to the main fiscal cliff plot. Like red-herring clues, all that’s doing is distracting the audience’s attention away from the primary story.

Even if President Barack Obama and Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, could agree on something big, there’s little to no chance that the politics of the budget, the legislative technicalities involved with multiple big tax and spending changes and the needed buy-in from voters can be dealt with before the fiscal cliff policies go into effect starting Jan. 1. Therefore, if there’s any fiscal cliff agreement at all, it’s most likely to be something much, much smaller than a grand bargain.

The entertainment provided by the fiscal cliff has also been created from the political equivalent of the classic scene in a movie where the husband or wife who is caught cheating demands that his or her spouse believe their denials rather than what they’re seeing with their own eyes.

The most obvious example of this is the House Republicans insisting they’re not going to vote for a tax increase while also making it clear they’re willing to agree to an increase in revenues. Even more cheating-like still are the GOP protests that voting to eliminate existing deductions and credits to get more revenue isn’t the same as voting for a tax increase, even though many of the people who will no longer be able to use the eliminated provisions will end up — wait for it — paying more in taxes.

And then there’s the growing dispute about whether this is really a fiscal cliff that will have immediate and terrible economic consequences or a slope that will impose limited instant damage that will get much worse the longer it stays in place.

This is a bit like what Hollywood tries to do when it estimates the weekend ticket sales for an about-to-be-released film. The difference, of course, is that the only thing poor sales might ruin is the studio that made the picture rather than the U.S. economy. In Variety, the first would be called a “floppola.” The second would be a disaster in any language.

Stan Collender (@thebudgetguy) is a partner at Qorvis Communications and author of “The Guide to the Federal Budget.” His blog is capitalgainsandgames.com.

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