Negotiating the Fiscal Cliff

By Beacon Staff

Folk philosopher Will Rogers commented that “We elect our Presidents, be they Republican or Democrat, then start daring ‘em to make good.” Implicit in Rogers’ observation is that either a Republican or a Democrat is capable of making good.

In the modern era when each side assails and demonizes the other we are implored to believe that today’s political differences are unbridgeable. One party will take us to the promised land. The other will lead us to destruction.

This was once illustrated to me by the example of an airplane and an armored car. One is slow and heavy and can power its way to where the country needs to go. The other is light and fast and can fly us there. But we have to choose one or the other. If we combine the armored car with the plane, the result will be something that can neither fly nor drive.

This simplistic example was used to show that there can be no compromise between two greatly different approaches to a problem. To the partisan ideologue, compromise is impossible.

Today, as we near the “fiscal cliff” we hear the Republicans saying that the huge national debt is “a spending problem, not a taxing problem.” They won’t raise tax rates to pay down the debt, they say, even if it means allowing the debt to doom the country.

The Democrats counter that they, too, will ignore the debt and let the country suffer the consequences before they will agree to an approach that focuses on spending cuts that would fall disproportionately on the middle class and the poor.

Most American people, I think, see neither approach as all right or all wrong. But one is shared deeply by a majority in the House of Representatives, and the other by President Barack Obama and the Senate. The “fiscal cliff “ which will confront us on Dec. 31 was deliberately created by both parties when they couldn’t reach an agreement on a debt reduction plan a year ago. Though further delay can only make the problem worse, we now hear talk that they will “kick the can down the road” again, avoiding the politically painful compromise of higher taxes combined with deep spending cuts necessary to save the country. Are our nation’s highest leaders too stubborn and headstrong to join hands and wade into the hot water together?

Our congressional delegation used to boast that it brought home two dollars in federal spending to Montana for every dollar that left the state in taxes. That would suggest that the strategy of spending cuts alone would fall more heavily on us than on the states where the federal spending is less. The trouble is that there is nothing unique about Montana when it comes to getting more for less. That’s the $16 trillion problem.

We are past the time for ideological pigheadedness. What is urgently required is presidential leadership and courage in Congress. Compromise is the traditional American way. As Thomas Jefferson observed, “It is necessary to give as well take in a government like ours.” The story of hard bargaining and painful compromise is the entire political history of this country. Our modern leaders are as capable of summoning the will to find the way as all who have come before them. Patriotism must overcome pride in order for our modern politicians “to make good.”

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