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Caution: Cliff ahead

December 4, 2012 12:10 am

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"YOU CAN'T be serious." That was House Speaker John Boehner's reaction last week when Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner presented to him the White House proposal designed to avoid the looming fiscal cliff. Four weeks out, it's clear that no one's blinking.

The fiscal cliff--automatic spending cuts and tax increases--will, both sides agree, hurt the economy if they go into effect on Jan. 1. "It would be very damaging to the average American," Mr. Geithner told Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. "No one wants to go over the cliff," agreed Mr. Boehner, interviewed for the same show. So what's the hang-up?

Political theater. It's what Washington does best. Unfortunately, it leaves the rest of the nation waiting with baited breath to see if the trapdoor will fall, not under the dueling players on the stage, but the audience.

The White House proposal includes $1.6 trillion in higher taxes over a decade, and $80 billion in new spending next year, and some budget cuts. In addition, the White House wants the exclusive power to raise the national debt limit. (That will never happen, nor should it. It concentrates too much power in the White House, regardless of its occupant.)

The new spending would be in the form of a stimulus package of extended unemployment benefits, infrastructure improvements, and an extension of Social Security payroll tax cuts. Missing from the White House proposal are serious looks at entitlement programs or tax code reform. On the latter, Mr. Geithner drew a line in the sand: "We will negotiate on reforming the tax code only if the [top] tax rate is 39.6 percent."

Mr. Boehner said he was "flabbergasted" when he received the proposal. "On the day after the election," he told Mr. Wallace, "I saw the results . I said that the Republicans are willing to put revenue on the table if there were serious spending cuts and reforms put on the table." With just seven weeks between the election and the fiscal cliff, his hope was to "speed things up."

Republicans believe that the president's request for new stimulus spending is unwise, as is the $1.6 trillion in new revenue without an agreement on specific budget cuts. "We have a debt burden that is crushing us," Mr. Boehner said. Having given in, potentially at least, to new revenue (aka tax increases), the GOP is looking for Democrats to move in their direction, which so far hasn't happened. Mr. Boehner told Mr. Wallace. "We need to find common ground and we need to find it quickly." Otherwise, he said, the fiscal cliff will become a reality.

In fact, as Mr. Wallace adroitly pointed out, Mr. Geithner's offer is virtually the same White House budget proposal the Democrat-controlled Senate voted down (99-0) last spring. And it does nothing to address the biggest driver of federal spending, the entitlement programs. Mr. Boehner, on the other hand, is playing his cards too close to the chest, at least in public. Exactly what cuts is he proposing?

The reality is, avoiding the fiscal cliff will have to be a both-and situation: both tax increases and difficult budget cuts. President Obama campaigned on the idea of increasing taxes on the rich. His re-election can be read as an endorsement of that idea. That's why Mr. Boehner is willing to give on the GOP's strong aversion to raising taxes.

But Mr. Obama also said he believed in a balanced approach to our fiscal woes, and Mr. Boehner's bottom line is the national debt. Vague promises to "look at" possible budget cuts and entitlement program changes sometime in the future won't cut it with the GOP. Mr. Boehner is adamant: "We have a serious debt problem," he told Mr. Wallace, "and we are going to deal with it."

For the sake of our children, we must. And for the sake of the economy, we must also avoid the fiscal cliff. That's two more "musts" for Washington's December to-do list. But, sadly, it looks once again like dueling politicians are determined to make brinksmanship our national sport--or our national heartburn.





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