The fiscal cliff is just the beginning.
Regardless of whether Democrats and Republicans reach some kind of last-minute bargain to avoid the worst effects of tax hikes and spending cuts, the disaster that has been the fiscal cliff negotiations has broad implications for the Washington agenda in 2013 and beyond.
The tone has been set for the new year, and possibly for the rest of President Obama’s time in office: Washington’s divisions are the only point that matters anymore. Call it dysfunction or call it just plain broken, just don’t call it capable of even small legislative moves that involve compromise.
Hopes of a grand bargain on fiscal policy, involving entitlement spending, tax rates, and the debt ceiling, disappeared weeks ago. All that’s left are fading possibilities involving the delaying portions of tax increases and restoring some planned cuts.
Those are moves that actually make the deficit outlook worse. More saliently, they should be the politically easy things to get done, yet Congress is paralyzed and the president appears powerless to do anything meaningful to prod action.
The other items Obama ticked through this weekend as part of his second-term agenda – immigration reform, energy and environmental policy, infrastructure investments, gun control – look like dreams in this environment.
The causes are manifold, and the blame doesn’t have to be equally distributed for the ramifications to be real. The fact is that Republicans – who will control at least one house of Congress for at least half of the president’s second term – do not now and may not ever see sufficient political benefit to offer the types of concessions Democrats are insisting on.
If an election couldn’t change that, there’s precious little left that can. Name the issue and it’s all too easy to see similar dynamics derailing meaningful reform.
Washington is now broken beyond the point where bold individual leadership can even fix it. The forces at play are bigger than the ability of the president, House Speaker John Boehner, or any other person or persons to turn them around without the certain promise of a revolt in the party ranks that would leave them out of effective power.
The cliff metaphor suggests a jump into a void, but at least one that has a bottom. Yet as the nation watches this slow-motion wreck, the depths of dysfunction have yet to be fully explored.