As far as metaphors go, the concept of the US Government falling over the “fiscal cliff” after the new year is pretty uninspired and ill-fitting. I suppose the idea behind it is that if our elected officials are too brainless, spineless and stubborn to pass a new budget, the automatic spending cuts and tax increases that will occur come January 1st will send us into an economic tailspin, what with the markets crashing and federal funding shriveling up like a so much fruit in a dehydrator. Of course, this is based only on reasoned speculation and the fiscal cliff could very well turn out to be a fiscal molehill. But, regardless of the gravity of the financial sturm und drang that is bound to result from it, the main problem with this bit of creative imagery is that it doesn’t take into account the fact that Congress actually created the cliff in question and gave themselves well over a year to avoid going off of it. For me, the idea of a fiscal cliff doesn’t get across the sheer incompetence and lunacy involved in the catatonic inaction of the 112th Congress in failing to do anything about this budgetary clusterfuck.
The fiscal cliff is more like that scene in the 1st Austin Powers movie where a random evil henchman runs out in front of a steamroller, screaming in helpless agony as his impending death chugs towards him…only he’s screaming for an inordinately long time and, when the camera pans back for a wide shot, you see that the steamroller is about 25 feet away from him and moving at about 1 mile per hour. The henchman has a good 45 seconds to step a few feet to the side and avoid being crushed by a 20-ton piece of construction machinery, but he just stands there, hands outstretched and screaming until he is eventually turned into a human fruit roll-up. For the past year or so, Congress has been that anonymous henchman, screaming in irrational and panicked agony about a self-inflicted wound that could have been avoided a million times over if but a portion of our elected officials possessed the basic capacity to share and play nice as your average 6 year old.
With about 72 hours to go until the Fiscal Steamroller flattens all of the economic progress we’ve made over the past 3.5 years, my hope that a deal be struck to avert our masochistic cutting has dwindled to the same faint orange ember of optimism held by Cubs fans each year after the All-Star Break. I mean, technically, there is still time for an agreement to be reached, but there’s also a chance that I when I go to sleep tonight I don’t wake up. However, since I’ve closed my eyes on 9,000 or so evenings and have woken up each subsequent morning, I have no real reason to expect that it won’t happen the same way tomorrow. Likewise, since this 112th Congress has been by far the least productive Congress recorded in our nation’s history, there’s no cause for me to expect them to have some miraculous come to Jesus moment at the 11th hour.
With 4 days left in its current session, the 112th Congress has passed a paltry 219 bills over the past 2 years, less than 2/3 of the number of bills passed in Congress during their previous low-water mark for productivity back in 1995-96. Hell, most of the House hasn’t even come back from their Christmas vacation yet and even if they were here it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference since they’ve proven themselves incapable of anything like negotiation and compromise. Speaker Boehner couldn’t even get his Plan B legislation passed in the overwhelmingly Republican House when everyone and their mother knew that the bill was too conservative to pass the Senate and escape Presidential veto. That the House GOP could not complete the symbolic gesture of voting for doomed legislation to put pressure on The White House and Senate speaks to the severity of the rot in their skulls. And you would have thought they would have been better at wasting our tax dollars with pointless legislation after fruitlessly to repeal Obamacare over 30 times since 2011.
As was the case with the bank bailout in 2008, there are a fair number of folks on both sides of the political spectrum who are proponents a we might as well jump philosophy to fiscal cliff negotiations. There is a increasingly pervasive and validated idea on the left and the right that the other side will only budge from their stubbornly hard line after they are jolted to life by the draconian spending cuts and tax hikes scheduled to hit with the New Year. A large part of me is inclined to agree with that point of view, but, unlike with the bailout in ’08, I cannot actively cheer for the bottom to fall out on this budgetary mess. When the markets crashed four years ago, we were hurting in a broad and diffused sense. Sure, some were harder hit than others, but they were almost always on the receiving of indirect blows that would heal with the passage of time. It was a chain reaction of fiscal shit that led to plants being shut down and hours being cut while pensions dried up and benefits vanished. But with the fiscal cliff, there is a direct relationship between a single action—not averting the automatic tax hikes/spending cuts associated with the cliff—and fatal results.
If you think I am exaggerating the potential destructive impact of the fiscal cliff, I would point your attention to one small, largely unreported cut in discretionary spending for Federal HIV/AIDS programs. If the estimated 8.2% in across the board Federal spending cuts applies to HIV/AIDS programming, it will mean the loss of $538 million in funding in the coming fiscal year. That’s treatment money and it’s prevention money and it will be cut in 3 days if nothing changes. $77 million of that money will be taken from AIDS Drug Assistance Programs (ADAPs), which translates into life saving HIV medication for around 6,800 HIV+ Americans. That is 6,800 chances to address a manageable chronic illness; 6,800 opportunities to prevent the spread of the disease; 6,800 lives that can be saved. And all 6,800 of them, along with the thousands more who will be denied treatment as the result of these spending cuts, may die because their representatives in Washington couldn’t shove aside their enmity and partisan rage long enough to determine who to tax and how much to tax them. Go through the list of programs that will get slashed come the first of the month and you will see an unceasing litany of needless suffering and loss, none of which will be borne upon the shoulders of the men and women in Congress who willed it into existence through petulance and spite. They’re the ones who are driving the steamroller and we’re the ones who are going to get crushed.