Tom Dolan: Fiscal cliffs and locked doors

dolan_thomas@columbusstate.eduDecember 27, 2012 

The U.S. House of Representatives, which under Article I, Section 7 of the U.S. Constitution must initiate any bills which will raise revenue, has left Washington without coming to an agreement to prevent very large automatic cuts in government spending and very large tax increases. This so-called "fiscal cliff" is the result of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which created a "supercommittee" of six Senators and six members of the House. Their task was to come up with a compromise recommendation which would cut at least $1.5 trillion in federal government spending over a ten-year period. This recommendation was to have been voted on by late last December, at about this time of year, so that Congress could go home for the holidays.

Failure to come to an agreeable compromise would set the stage for the situation we are now facing, one in which budget sequestration, an across-the board reduction in spending authority for all federal agencies, would occur beginning January 1 of 2013. In addition, several tax reduction measures which have been in place for years would expire.

The gamesmanship exhibited by Republicans and Democrats is nothing unusual; Republicans want to protect the financial interests of their well-heeled "base," while Democrats seek to protect the programs which benefit theirs. Republicans accuse the Democratically controlled Senate of not passing a federal budget in three years; Democrats counter that the Budget Control Act passed in 2011 actually is a budget, despite the fact that it doesn't look like one.

What makes this situation different from the usual partisan head-butting in Congress is that the stakes are so high. Instead of the usual procedure which occurs when no appropriations legislation is passed, where Congress passes a Continuing Resolution, which the President signs, allowing the federal government to keep spending money at the previous year's rate, the Budget Control Act of 2011 involves big cuts in operating expenses, and will hurt every wage-earning person in America; hence the term "fiscal cliff." Perhaps our members of Congress would like to hear about this from their constituents while they are home for the holidays. Loudly, and often.

Another thing they should hear about is a lesson from history. For a three-year period in the 13th century, the Roman Catholic Church went without a Pope because partisan interests among the church's leaders, the cardinals, prevented the selection of a successor after the death of Pope Clement VI. The situation was resolved when the civil authorities of Viterbo, Italy, where the cardinals were meeting in the Papal palace, locked the cardinals in the main meeting room, cut back their meals eventually to bread and water, and eventually removed the roof of the building. This practice of locking cardinals in "with a key" (cum clave, in Latin, is the root of the modern term conclave) is the basis for the practice of sequestering the College of Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel when a new Pope must be elected.

There really are a lot of similarities here. Once the cardinals were locked in, a committee of six was to come to an agreement, which would be then voted on by all the cardinals. This group of six was the "supercommittee" of its time. Although it still took another year for the cardinals to agree on the selection of an Italian as the new Pope, the deadlock which had prevented a choice was sped up by the less-than-kind treatment of the cardinals by the civil authorities.

Fortunately for our Congress, there is no chance that the city leaders of Washington will lock them in the Capitol building, feed them bread and water, and tear down the roof. Most of our members of Congress have just been re-elected, so they have some breathing space before they have to start actively campaigning again.

But if we find ourselves looking down this fiscal cliff in a few days, even if the two sides do come to the compromise that most of us hope to see, then maybe when our Senators and Representatives come to us to provide them with the all-important political contributions they will need in the next election, we should tell them that we need to protect our own base and they'll have to wait until the election is a lot closer before we can make a decision. We should tell them this loudly, and often.

Dr. Thomas Dolan, chairman of the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at Columbus State University; dolan_thomas@columbusstate.edu

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