Congress returns to work today, and we’ll once again be treated to a nearly endless series of “lame duck” proclamations. They have 16 days to accomplish something, or do nothing, or waddle somewhere in between. And despite what you’ve heard, it isn’t all about the fiscal cliff (a term I already hate with something approaching a passion). Somewhere out there is a farm bill, which is only important if you grow food for money, or pay money to buy food. The debt ceiling is out there once again. And there could be bills about disaster funding, the Law Of The Sea Treaty, and dead polar bears (seriously, and no, this isn’t about the ice floes melting). But what we’ll hear most about is the looming fiscal cliff. And if you aren’t already frightened into your survivalist cave by this, there are plenty of people on airwaves all around you who will do their best to make you think that civilization as we know it will end come January 1, and if that’s the case, then the only thing standing between us and the abyss is a bunch of lame ducks.
I’m not making light of the situation, but I’m thinking that as the days and weeks go by, if Congress and the President don’t come to a compromise solution, the hysteria will grow until we’re all scared to death. Despite all the statistics and numbers, the economy is driven by attitude much more than we’d like to admit, and the endless fear-mongering is going to make sequestration worse than it has to be. FDR would say “fear of sequestration is worse than sequestration itself”. Come January 1, the government is not going to show up at your door demanding you turn over, in cash, an amount equal to the higher taxes you might owe. They aren’t going to start pulling fighter jets off the runway for storage. No army platoons will be demobilized and sent home from Afghanistan. And they won’t start cancelling aid to the poor. What will happen is that a non-lame-duck Congress will have to start negotiating on an entirely different set of propositions – cutting taxes instead of raising them, which would make Republicans especially happy – but also playing one set of cuts off against another, which won’t make so many people happy. So it wouldn’t be something to trifle with, but it would be a scenario open to many sorts of compromise that aren’t there right now. Maybe Congress should set the budget mess aside and use the next 16 working days to deal with some of the other issues, like what to do with those dead polar bears.
The real question is whether Congress will do anything. While the Democrats appear to have gained maybe 8 seats in the House, there hasn’t been any significant shift in either people or positions. It’s still the same old Congress. If Republicans feel chastened by the election results, they may be willing to give a bit on taxes. If John Boehner feels sufficiently chastened, he may lean on some of his less-chastened members to take a few steps back towards the center. Or the Republicans may stand fast to their Norquistian Pledges, and hoping their interpretation of the election results is correct, that it was a combination of a bad storm and a worse candidate, with some voter shenanigans thrown in. If that turns out to be the case, they need to get their spinmeisters involved quickly. Thanks to the Pew Center, Boehner now knows who’ll get the blame if no compromise is found and we dive off that cliff. I don’t think they asked any questions about polar bears.