Congress again gives us the bare minimum

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We can’t count on members of Congress for much, but we can always count on them to do as little as possible when faced with a critical issue under deadline pressure.


Such was the case with the recent “fiscal cliff” showdown, which was resolved just in the nick of time with votes in the Senate and House of Representatives.


Some lawmakers acted as if what they had just done was a towering achievement, but in reality they simply kicked the can down the road a piece and set up more standoffs – and no doubt more last-minute shenanigans – just a few weeks from now.


For those who haven’t been following the goings-on under the Capitol big top, the term “fiscal cliff” referred to tax increases that were set to befall most Americans and a variety of draconian spending cuts that had been part of a previous stopgap agreement between the White House and Republicans in Congress.


In the end, the Bush tax cuts were extended for all but the wealthiest Americans, and the deal delayed for a couple of months the decision on more than $100 billion in cuts to military and domestic spending.


The agreement also generated some revenue through increases in the estate and capital gains tax rates, permanently fixed the alternative minimum tax issue that had annually threatened millions of taxpayers with major hits, extended a variety of tax credits and kept unemployment benefits in place for another year for the long-term jobless.


Working people will see their taxes increase slightly because the deal allowed a Social Security payroll tax “holiday” to expire, which means the tax will rise from 6 percent to its previous rate of 6.2 percent.


But in the end, it was very little, compared to the magnitude of the issues at hand, and almost too late.


In an analysis by Fred Barbash of Reuters, the American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein summed it up by saying “this fandango was an immense embarrassment.”


“The fact that we are going to have another disastrous confrontation over the debt limit in two months, with the radical wing of the House Republicans determined to send us over the edge if they don’t get their way, is actually frightening,“ Ornstein added. “This House could have done worse by rejecting the plan, but it has done nothing to challenge its record as, at minimum, the worst Congress in our lifetimes.”


In the same piece, former U.S. budget director and Brookings Institute budget expert Alice Rivlin spoke of a “psychological fallout” from the just-completed bickering and bashing by the two parties and predicted it could cloud prospects for any sort of reasonable give and take when discussions on a debt-limit deal begin, while also feeding the belief in other nations that the United States is inept when it comes to handling fiscal matters.


“We don’t look like a country in charge of its own destiny,” she said. “That’s hard to quantify, but it’s bad.”


Her view differed sharply from that of Republican Rep. David Dreier of California, who said before the final House vote, “This is the greatest deliberative body known to man.”


It’s nice to know that Dreier doesn’t suffer from low self-esteem, but he might be surprised to find that many Americans look at him and his colleagues as circus clowns rather than statesmen.


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