WASHINGTON The struggle over how to reach a broad congressional tax agreement is the culmination of two years of escalating fiscal confrontations, each building on the other in its gravity and consequences. On Sunday lawmakers could not find one final way out.
From the first fight over a short-term spending agreement to keep the government open in early 2011 to the later tangle over the debt ceiling to the failure of last year’s special budget committee and the resulting automatic spending cuts that now loom along with tax hikes, the so-called fiscal cliff was built, slab by partisan slab, to where it now threatens the nation’s finances.
“Something has gone terribly wrong,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., “when the biggest threat to our American economy is the American Congress.”
Lawmakers in both parties believe fiscal policy is the most pressing domestic concern. But a fundamental ideological chasm has made it more difficult than ever to compromise.
As a result, members of both parties have become increasingly addicted to short-term solutions to long-term problems, cobbling together two- and three-month bills and short-term extensions to fight over again and again.
A change in the way Congress does business – the elimination of home-state earmarks that once greased so many deals – and the escalating use of the Senate filibuster to prevent debate on even routine legislation have further hamstrung lawmakers in their efforts to get anything done.
With less than 48 hours to go before substantial tax hikes and spending cuts affect nearly every aspect of American life, the 112th Congress was lurching toward its operatic end in a state of legislative dysfunction, partisan asymmetry and borderline chaos.
“This is one of the lowest points of the U.S. Senate,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. “This is what we’re doing to ourselves.”