On the one hand, the last minute December 2012 fiscal cliff deal was in no respects a policy breakthrough, but on the other hand, it didn't solve any process issues either. There will be no grand resolution, which pleases the ideologues on both sides. God forbid that we come to any workable compromises. And there is no framework. So the 2013 stage is set for a series of useless little budget/deficit/debt wars.
We face, in turn, (1) the sequestration battles starting in March (over irresponsible cuts we agreed to 15 months ago as a way of avoiding doing anything then), (2) continuing resolution battles starting in April (a series of confrontations over spending this year because Congress couldn't pass spending bills), (3) 2014 budget battles starting in May (but then we haven't actually agreed on a budget for years), and (4) the return of the debt limit debacle sometime around August. (You thought this was over because Congress has declared that the debt limit has been suspended, but it's coming back.)
These little battles will not -- either singly or together -- lead to a resolution of the deficit/debt/budget debacle. No actual problems will be solved. Everything will be kicked down the proverbial road. My bet is that each of the impending possible battles will wind up the same. There will be high drama moving toward farce, forecasts of doom, tense last-minute negotiations in which various congressional and executive leaders will try to act as though something important is happening. Each time the Republican House will back down, because if your approval rating is lower than cockroaches, you have surprisingly little political leverage.
We are seeing this whole drama playing out now in the run up to the sequester. To remind everyone, these are cuts (roughly $85 billion in 2013 divided between domestic and defense programs) Congress and the president agreed to because they were thought to be so awful that the same two parties would agree to solving the whole budget problem to keep these cuts from happening. So now they are likely to happen and we've decided we hate them.
I hated them a year ago and said so at the time, but predicted that we would in the end make the domestic cuts and finesse the defense cuts. To be clear, I believe we must, over a 10 year period, slow down the growth of public debt, and this has to mean budget cuts. But these reductions will occur at the wrong time, they are done in the wrong way, they hit the wrong part of the budget, and they do nothing whatsoever to alter the 10 year picture of debt growth that impends. They are a wholly symbolic and harmful ritual dance.
We should not make these cuts now. We should, if necessary, make smaller cuts so Congress can say it got a "down payment." Then Congress and the president should agree there will be no debt ceiling fight this year and should publicly and together commit to a process that might work.
In my dreams.
We seem intent on having these useless little battles. They will not actually lead to disasters. On the other hand, they won't make anything better. But they will take up time, consume political capital, raise the level of distrust in government, maintain a high level of economic uncertainty, lower our economy's growth rate, and impede the administration's and the Congress's focus on the real issues of our future. Both parties will look worse after all of this.