Congress plays Wile E. Coyote with fiscal cliff

A metaphor now so popular in Washington, D.C., that it has become a cliché is “fiscal cliff.”

The cliff is one of Congress’ self-introduced pitfalls that would be the stuff of low comedy if the consequences weren’t so severe for the country.

The Bush tax cuts are set to expire Jan. 1 and across-the-board budget cuts of $110 billion are set to go into effect automatically Jan. 2 if Congress can’t agree on a long-term spending-reduction plan.

The combination of large-scale tax increases and meat-ax cuts in federal spending could easily send the country back into recession, just as the economy is picking up steam and world confidence in our fiscal house is returning.

Congress passed the automatic cuts last year as a way of getting itself out of another self-applied bind.

Last year, Congress needed to increase the country’s borrowing power by raising the statutory debt ceiling, usually a routine congressional chore. But a Tea Party-led faction in the House said it was willing to wreck America’s credit worthiness unless its members got massive spending cuts beyond those already agreed to.

The deal Congress inflicted on itself was that harsh automatic spending cuts, technically called a “sequester,” would go into effect if a select congressional panel could not agree on long-term spending cuts.

Few believed that the panel would come up with an acceptable plan or that Congress would approve the plan if it did. The plan did buy time, but it’s running out. In any event, everything is on hold for the duration of the campaign.

For the general public, these possible cuts, especially in domestic programs, are still an abstraction.

But when they take effect, to name a few examples, there will be massive tie-ups at the borders as customs and immigration personnel are furloughed. Expect similar delays at airports, as flights are canceled because of a lack of air-traffic controllers and Transportation Security Administration inspectors. Meat prices will rise without enough officials to do the required inspections. Federal parks will close for a lack of rangers, and the federal court system will slow to a crawl. If an irate citizen calls to complain about a missing check or a delayed permit, nobody will be there to take the call.

Washington is counting on the lawmakers to come back and make this right in a lame-duck session after the elections. But lame-duck sessions are notoriously erratic and, in effect, the parties may find that they have joined hands and jumped over that fiscal cliff. 

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