While presidential candidates spar over who did what in high school, many voters may be unaware of what awaits just after November's election, and how the outcome might affect it. A potential "budget train wreck" is what Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., calls it, and that could be close to the truth.
The Bush-era tax cuts are set to expire at the end of the year. Jan. 1 also marks the beginning of across-the-board budget cuts set to take effect because Congress was unable to decide on a budget plan as part of a deal Republicans agreed to in order to lift the nation's debt ceiling. Also, the payroll tax cut is set to expire at year's end.
To add even more pressure, House Speaker John Boehner promised this week he once again will insist that Congress make cuts equal to or greater than any future increase in the debt before he would favor the next increase in the ceiling. That also is expected to become necessary by the end of the year in order for the United States to meet its obligations.
New Year's Eve is shaping up as a deadline to the perfect political storm. Without compromises and agreements, taxes could rise dramatically.
Each position and each talking point in the budget battle is meant to stake a claim to the votes of Americans in November, no matter how cliche-filled or simplistic. The truth, however, is that a lame duck Congress isn't likely to come up with a solid long-term budget solution during the frantic last month of the year, nor are Americans likely to give one or the other side in this debate a decisive victory in the election. Even Ryan, one of the few in Congress to have written a realistic budget proposal, was quoted by The Wall Street Journal as saying, "I don't think you will see a permanent resolution to our problems in a lame-duck session."
Meanwhile, neither President Barack Obama nor GOP challenger Mitt Romney has a serious budget plan, although Romney comes the closest with his plan to cut marginal rates by 20 percent across the board, repeal "Obamacare," cut subsidies to arts programs, privatize Amtrak and cut discretionary spending by 5 percent (except for defense). But this doesn't come close the systemic changes needed to erase the budget deficit and set the nation on a sustainable path.
Real solutions will require real compromises and cooperation. They will require tinkering with entitlements. If one side insists on cuts without revenue enhancements and the other side insists on mostly raising taxes on the wealthy, little good will come. Voters aren't likely to give one side or the other the kind of majority it needs to ram something through, nor would that likely make for good public policy.
Perhaps at the moment December seems a long way off. Maybe it's easier now to focus on character issues or whether one was sufficiently mature in high school. The more prudent course, however, would be for voters to insist on candidates — all candidates for federal office — to articulate how they would pursue a realistic solution to the fiscal crisis in Washington.
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