While pundits and partisans keep political score, and politicians plot their 2012 presidential election strategy, the nation and its silent majority who hunger for reasonableness and straight talk, are already losers in the game. Except, of course, it’s not a game.
We will begin 2011 with a disheartening set of facts. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke appeared on “60 Minutes” to remind us all that only 1 million of the 8.5 million jobs lost since the economic implosion of 2008 have been replaced. Bernanke told us that it may take four to five years for the stuttering economy to replace the remaining 7.5 millions jobs and return to a more traditional unemployment rate of 5 percent.
For the nation’s jobless, then, the recent agreement between the president and Senate Republicans to extend unemployment benefits for another 13 months is good news. It’s hard to argue that extending the benefit period is not justified when there are at least 7.5 million fewer jobs than two years ago. The unemployment extensions seem even more justified when economists universally agree they will fuel the economy with spending, and that allowing them to expire would immediately deepen the recession.
The two-year extension of tax rate cuts and credits is welcome news for all. The reduction in payroll tax withholding for those who are working will put a little more money in everyone’s paycheck, ideally to be spent, thus aiding economic recovery. The extension of the tax cuts for the top 2 percent of earners pleases those who never deviate from their mantra of cutting taxes as the solution to all economic ills. So the compromise package negotiated between the president and the GOP was a win for all — everyone claims success for their non-negotiable demands.
And that is precisely the rub. The cost of the tax cut/unemployment benefit package to the nation’s treasury is estimated at $2 trillion, and none of it was paid for with increased revenue or decreased spending. Despite the fact that the looming expiration of tax cuts and unemployment benefits has been staring negotiators in the face for a long time, neither political party mustered the will to find a way to achieve their demands without adding to the annual deficit and to our $13 trillion national debt. (It could be $14 trillion by the time this column appears in print.)
The tradition of kicking the can down the road for difficult decisions has been maintained. The tedious work of finding ways to cut spending, assess priorities and reduce waste will be left to yet another Congress. The divisive decisions on increasing revenues through tax policies are left for another debate, and one that will occur in the hyper partisanship guaranteed in presidential electioneering.
If that’s not discouraging enough, consider two more facts. A recent vote to ban congressional earmarks failed, with a sufficient number of members of both parties believing the earmarks of others are outrageous, but their own are justified. In spite of the unfavorable publicity surrounding the practice of earmarks, Congress requested 40,000 earmarks in the last fiscal year, totaling more than $100 billion. Apparently, our elected officials aren’t willing to give up even this self-serving tradition in the name of decreased spending.
In case you believed that the recently-elected members of Congress are intent and determined to change the status quo, consider this. Within mere days of their election, the new crop of soon-to-be members of Congress embraced another revered beltway tradition — hosting fundraisers to hit up Washington lobbyists and special interests to retire their campaign debts.
“It’s particularly interesting when so many of this year’s freshmen were running against Washington. But as soon as they get elected, they come to Washington and put out their hand,” said a staffer for the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan campaign watchdog group.
New players, same game.