By The Des Moines Register
The voters sent the same president back to the White House and kept the same parties in control of Congress. They did not vote for the status quo, however: The consensus in this election was that something must be done about the national debt, and those who won on Tuesday must break the gridlock that has prevented anything being done about it sooner.
Leaders of both parties were saying the right things after the election.
“If there is a mandate in yesterday’s results,” House Speaker John Boehner, R, Ohio, said Wednesday, “it is a mandate for us to find a way to work together on solutions to the challenges we face together as a nation.” President Barack Obama said Friday he is “open to compromise” and “new ideas.”
Yet, it didn’t take long for a key difference to emerge: The president called for extending middle-class tax cuts while Boehner ruled out increasing tax rates for wealthy Americans.
Nonetheless, talk of working toward a compromise is encouraging, and the work must begin immediately. Congress faces a deadline on the “fiscal cliff” by the end of December, and the job should not be put off until new members are sworn in next year. A total solution may be too much to expect in the four weeks of the lame-duck session, but there is time to agree on a basic framework.
The fiscal crisis is one of Congress’ own making.
The image of a “cliff” should, instead, be thought of as a gun Congress put to its own head when it couldn’t agree on raising the debt ceiling last year. It created a “super committee” to come up with $1.2 trillion in budget cuts over 10 years in exchange for raising the limit on federal borrowing. As incentive to act, Congress scheduled an equivalent amount of across-the-board cuts to automatically take effect if the committee failed.
Predictably, the committee was unable to reach agreement, and now the automatic cuts are set to kick in at the end of 2012. Meanwhile, the tax cuts passed during the George W. Bush administration and the payroll tax cuts approved as part of the stimulus are set to expire at the end of the year. Those are more cans Congress kicked down the road last year.
This was a terrible excuse for actual leadership, and there is no reason why Congress should be hostage to its own failure to act. There has been an election, and the voters expect action.
The first step would be to take the gun away by crafting a budget compromise that would put the federal government on a path toward a balanced budget over time, and it needs to include both more tax revenue and less spending.
A good model was put forward by the commission co-chaired by former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles. That should be the place to start the discussion.
Both sides have a strong incentive to come to the table: If Congress does nothing, tax rates will go back up to pre-recession levels. At the same time, spending cuts go into effect immediately that will hit every line of the federal budget, including the Pentagon and Medicare.
Republicans will expect that any increase in tax revenue be matched with meaningful cuts in federal spending. Democrats should be prepared to accept cuts, and the biggest single pieces of the budget are health care spending on Medicare and Medicaid, and the Pentagon.
The president won an Electoral College victory of landslide proportions. He has a mandate to lead, and he should use it to forge a deficit-reduction deal. House Republicans and Senate Democrats claim mandates, too. But none of them has a mandate to return to gridlock. Now is the time to go to work.