No urgency, transparency in ‘fiscal cliff’ talks

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The president’s proposal to keep the country from skidding off the “fiscal cliff” was dead on arrival in Congress. The counterproposal from Republicans in Congress was dead on arrival at the White House. The two sides seem no closer to a resolution than they were a couple of weeks ago – a year ago, for that matter – and the American people are largely in the dark regarding the specifics of what the two sides are bickering over.


We’ve heard talk about compromise, but we’ve seen precious little to suggest that either side really believes it when they speak of seeking middle ground.


In general, the president’s proposal seems to hinge on allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for the wealthiest Americans, while Republicans are fighting tooth and nail to make sure no one in the upper income echelons sees any increase in his tax rate. The president is offering spending reductions in government-financed health programs, including Medicare, but he wants hundreds of billions more spent on new stimulus programs. He has expressed a desire to continue the temporary cut in Social Security payroll taxes, but he’s no doubt spitting into the wind when he seeks unilateral power to raise the nation’s debt limit in the future.


House Speaker John Boehner on Monday issued his reponse to the president. The speaker envisions generating $800 billion in fresh revenue through “tax reform,” but he insists the GOP-controlled House will not accept any increases in tax rates for anyone (essentially the top 2 percent targeted by the president). Boehner wants to cut much more than the president in health spending while tamping down increases in federal pensions and Social Security payments. The speaker’s plan also includes a whopping $600 billion in cuts that are unspecified.


What are the American people to make of all this? For one thing, they should be disgusted by the continued posturing and pandering being committed by both sides, and they should demand that both the president and Republicans in Congress spell out, explicitly, exactly how they expect to make their numbers work, which programs will be cut and by how much, and how the proposals, taken in their entirety, would affect the poor, the middle class and the wealthy.


Neither side can realistically believe it will get everything it wants in these negotiations, but they seem committed to their refusal to even begin negotiating.


On one hand, the country cannot simply cut its way to renewed prosperity. The evidence from European austerity programs is clear. There is a need for increased revenue, and removal of the Bush tax cuts – which were supposed to be temporary – for those most able to afford paying a bit more seems very reasonable. Even some of the very wealthy in this country are campaigning to have their own taxes increased.


At the same time, the president must recognize that give and take requires some give. The Republicans want to increase the eligibility age for Medicare to 67. That clearly would have a direct effect on the rest of the nation’s health care system, but people are living considerably longer now than they were when Medicare was enacted, so perhaps the president could see his way clear to give a little and accept an increase to age 66.


There are any number of areas in which reasonable people could see opportunities for compromise. The question is whether there are any reasonable people at the helm in the nation’s capital, and whether they are willing to be transparent with the American people about their visions for the country’s fiscal future.


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