Steve Zelnak is a member of the Job Creators Alliance, a nonprofit committed to the defense of the free enterprise system. He is also the chairman of the Board of Directors and former CEO of Martin Marietta Materials, Inc., and chairman and majority owner of ZP Enterprises.
Congress's job approval rating has slowly ticked up over the past six months—reaching a whopping 16 percent in the first half of July, with 78 percent disapproving. However, even these dismal numbers may be giving Congress too much credit, especially if legislators don't act soon to avoid the looming fiscal cliff.
The scenario is eerily reminiscent of last spring, when political deadlock over the federal budget threatened a government shutdown before an 11th-hour deal was struck. Such political wrangling risked the loss of 800,000 jobs and the curtailment of crucial public services such as mortgage, passport, and loan processing—not to mention a massive disruption of a fragile economic recovery.
And another similar scenario just a few months later was the battle over the federal debt ceiling, gambling the possibility of another government shutdown. The haphazard deal reached during that policy fight, which failed to produce long-term practical solutions, laid the groundwork for what the country faces today.
The risks of the impending fiscal cliff are similar, if not graver. If current fiscal policy is allowed to take effect, the United States economy will simultaneously experience across-the-board income tax hikes and deep, automatic spending cuts of billions of dollars at the end of this year. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, these policies combined will contribute to lower incomes and higher unemployment numbers, slowing economic growth in 2013 to a mere 0.5 percent—and sending America into a double-dip recession.
The general assumption is that lawmakers will not let it get to that point; spending measures will be passed and tax cuts will be extended—though how much and for whom remains undecided. We all need to be asking when this is going to happen.
The 112th Congress has been called the most polarized, inefficient, and unproductive Congress in the 236-year history of the United States; and if they're trying to fight that image, it sure is hard to tell. Legislators have shown little political will to act before the November presidential elections, dangerously close to the December 31 deadline when the first of a series of tax cuts will expire.
Such political brinkmanship is detrimental to the business environment and to a weak economic recovery. Small businesses are particularly hard hit by the uncertain climate created by Washington, and the threat of substantial tax increases has done nothing to ease fears. According to a Chamber of Commerce poll in July, over half of small business owners cite economic uncertainty as their top concern. Only 20 percent of those surveyed expected to hire in 2013.
This is bad news—with real implications for American prosperity. Small businesses are the key to economic recovery, spurring the majority of job creation. But to hire, business owners need the assurance of a stable investment environment in which they can secure returns. Regardless of whether America falls off the fiscal cliff, Congress's behavior is already having detrimental effects on business and employment expectations. Amid discouraging jobs and industry reports, this political game is not something we can afford.
Lawmakers must realize that their gridlocked partisanship is hurting a nation already struggling. The 112th Congress has five months left in its term. Is it too naïve to hope things might change?