We're all doomed. That was pretty much the reaction from two widely respected former lawmakers today when asked about the prospects for Congress doing anything before the nation goes off the so called "fiscal cliff" at the end of the year.
The inartfully named scenario refers to the economic doomsday expected when the calendar turns over 2013 and the Bush tax cuts expire while the spending cuts—also known as sequestration—mandated by last year's budget deal and the failure of the so called "super committee" go into effect. (I say it's inartfully named because going over a fiscal cliff sounds like the budget deficit will explode; in fact the combination of spending cuts and tax hikes would go a long way toward solving our fiscal problems.)
Former Reps. Martin Frost, a Democrat, and Tom Davis, a Republican, who each used to chair their respective party's House campaign committees, could hardly find colorful enough phrases to describe the how unlikely it is that their former colleagues will come to an agreement to either extend the tax cuts or repeal or modify the spending cuts. "I don't know how they're capable of solving the sequestration problem ahead of time," Davis said. "It is really going to be ugly crash and burn. I'm just telling you, we know where this is going but I just don't see anything in an election context where they can find the offsets to do something else." Frost said, "I don't think Congress is capable of acting," adding that, "Nothing's going to happen between now and the election. I think lame ducks are very unproductive, generally. There are going to be a lot of lame ducks in both parties. I think it's going to be very hard to do much in a lame duck session. I think that whatever happens happens in January or February."
Charlie Cook, the veteran political handicapper who was moderating the discussion with Davis and Frost for
summed up the likelihood of action this year or in "sudden death" overtime in 2013: "We have three votes for going into sudden death, with the emphasis more on death," he said.
What could prompt action from a split Congress? Davis said it would require a "significant market tremor." Added Cook: "It has to be the equivalent of attaching electrodes to sensitive body parts and cranking up the electricity." He continued, "I think that's the only way you're going to change behavior sufficiently to do this before the election. And if that sounds kind of grizzly and stuff? Yeah."
One critical factor affecting the expected lame duck session will be the outcome of the presidential election, Davis said. "Obviously if the Republicans take the presidency, the House, and the Senate, on the Bush tax cuts they'll wait to do something through reconciliation, and do it their way instead of trying to compromise their way through it," he said. "But if you have continued divided government, they may get together and try to get some of this stuff off the table, figuring that they're going to have to live with each other at least another two years."
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