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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: What the fiscal cliff tells us about America, its problems

Published: Friday, July 31 2015 11:57 p.m. MDT

In this Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, file photo, the dome of the Capitol is reflected in a skylight of the Capitol Visitor's Center in Washington. (Associated Press) In this Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, file photo, the dome of the Capitol is reflected in a skylight of the Capitol Visitor's Center in Washington. (Associated Press)

After months of stalemate, Congress managed to stave off the immediate "fiscal-cliff" crisis but didn't solve anything long term. That raises some important questions.

Why is it so hard for Congress to forthrightly solve America's fiscal problems?

Pignanelli: "This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer." — Will Rogers. The recent actions by Congress to resolve the "fiscal cliff" remind me of the dilemma many of us face when confronted by late night urge for munchies. Usually, our only quick options are high-fat snacks (Cheetos) or "mystery meat" meals (convenience store hot dogs) — for we are too weary to develop a low-carb nutritious alternative. Like the "fiscal cliff," this is not a great choice: hunger satiated by crappy food or an unsatisfied feeling in the gut, in a situation created by another bad pick — staying up too late.

The Healthcare Economist details that 54 percent of the taxes Washington, D.C., collects are used for health care expenses incurred in Medicare, Medicaid, veteran coverage, federal employee and military health benefits, etc. A major revamp of the medical services delivery system must occur to resolve our fiscal condition. Studies indicate that more-efficient care also results in greater quality. We also have to wrestle with tax reform, overregulation, etc.

But all major changes in government guarantees winners and losers, and politicians only want to make winners. In our history, few leaders have asked all Americans to personally sacrifice for the greater good — which must happen again to solve this complex problem.

Webb: We are in a very dangerous cycle. Over many generations, foolish politicians at the federal level have given citizens and businesses far more in benefits and services than they are paying in taxes. So many citizens and businesses have become so dependent on a wide variety of federal services that politicians can't shrink them without facing an uprising and almost certain defeat at the polls. Politically, it is much more popular to give more and more than to cut services. That's the main reason Mitt Romney lost the election. That's why Republicans were unable to win spending cuts in the fiscal cliff negotiations.

Because the federal government has the ability to print money, borrow and run up unlimited deficits, little incentive has existed to reduce spending or exercise discipline. President Barack Obama has been the most reckless president in history, adding $1 trillion a year to the federal deficit.

Unfortunately, such careless spending can't last forever. Interest payments alone will eat up a huge share of the federal budget. The nation's credit rating will collapse and credit markets will dry up. At that point, the nation will be in danger of financial ruin. Instead of minor benefit reductions that Republicans have proposed to save Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, student loans, unemployment benefits, etc., those programs will collapse entirely. Our children and grandchildren face a bleak future.

What does dysfunction in Congress say about America's system of governance?

Webb: It clearly demonstrates that straying from our nation's founding principles is foolhardy and dangerous. Congress is a mess and deficits are spiraling out of control for a simple reason: The federal government is trying to do too much, more than it was ever intended to do. Highly centralized government in a nation as big and diverse as America simply doesn't work. If the federal government was limited to the duties intended by the founders, perhaps some irresponsible states would be in trouble, but the nation as a whole would be prosperous and solvent.

Pignanelli: Well, LaVarr's unfortunate responses in this column (partisan finger-pointing, revisionist history, etc.) are indicative of the strangulation in our system. Every American — Republican, Democrat and Independent — has benefited from federal largess. Our elected officials are only responding to their constituents to protect what they are receiving-a natural instinct. Democracies — especially ours — were built to be dysfunctional to defend against government overreach. When a majority of our society agrees to the necessary structural changes in the federal government as articulated by thoughtful leaders, Congress will respond. (Also, Romney lost because he was a flawed candidate who was just as vague as Obama on resolving fiscal issues.)

What does the "fiscal cliff" agreement mean for Utah?

Pignanelli: Our state budget will continue to receive portions of the federal bounty — staving off tough decisions. Because the last-minute compromise prevented potential damage to the economy, the attacks from the far-right will dissipate against Sen. Orrin Hatch. His "yes" vote will provide even greater opportunities for him to be a real player in the tougher discussions to reduce federal expenditures. Thus, the Utah approach to health care reform and efficient government services will be on the national stage.

Webb: Expected federal funding will continue to flow to Utah. However, given the nation's fiscal mess, the federal money can't continue forever, so Utah must prepare for less federal money. The state is positioned to do so if we can get control of our vast energy resources and develop them.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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