Two months ago, at a fiscal speech in Washington, House Speaker John Boehner decided it was a good idea to play chicken again with the U.S. economy. Boehner told his audience that his fellow Republicans would use the next debt-ceiling debate to force more spending cuts from Democrats or the borrowing limit wouldnt be raised.
The speech did what the speaker surely wanted rev up his base and inflame Democrats. Boehner was rightly criticized for his brinksmanship, which threatened to send the already fragile economy into further convulsions of uncertainty. Perhaps that, too, was the point.
Now its the Democrats turn to put on a stern face then gleefully warn everyone how theyll drive the country off the fiscal cliff if theyre forced to, by golly. In a speech Monday, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington suggested strongly that her fellow Democrats are willing to let about $600 billion of tax hikes and spending cuts take effect in January unless Republicans compromise on eliminating some tax cuts for the wealthy.
Democrats think they have a political winner here, given the publics siding with them in past debates on taxes and debt reduction. Our message to Murray (and Boehner): Youre not helping.
Concerns about the fiscal cliff are choking the countrys already gasping economy, The Washington Post reported this week. Anxiety about January already is causing reductions in business orders and hiring across a wide range of industries, and analysts warn that the impact could further stifle job creation at a time we need it most. Flexing your political biceps and saying Dont mess with us, as Murray did this week and Boehner in May, does nothing to calm matters.
Murray and Boehner do share some good similarities. Both show a genuine concern over the danger of our ever-rising federal debt, and both acknowledge that few will do anything about it unless forced to. We agree on both counts.
The two sides also are closer than they might want voters to believe on the topic of Murrays speech the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts. Democrats are pushing legislation on the cuts that carries an important concession instead of letting dividends be taxed again at ordinary income rates as high as 44.7 percent, as the Obama administration has proposed, Democrats would increase tax rates on dividends and capital gains only from 15 percent to 20 percent.
Thats likely to get nowhere, unfortunately, because most Republicans are rigidly opposed to any tax increase on the wealthy, even if its accompanied by significant spending cuts. That stubbornness runs contrary to the blueprint for debt reduction that most Americans favor, a combination of revenue increases and spending cuts similar to the approach recommended by the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission.
Murrays speech this week, and Boehners two months ago, are reminders of the incredible gulf that exists about solving such a shared and deep concern. But bravado and ultimatums only serve to rattle the economy, and that gets us no closer to avoiding that January cliff some experts believe could shove us back into a recession.
We prefer the words of Republican Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska, who offered a novel alternative to the New York Times this week: We should be working on this now.