APS News

Inside the Beltway

Timing Is Everything


by Michael S. Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs

The modern atomic clock began with a 1945 suggestion by Columbia University physicist and Nobel Laureate I. I. Rabi. It is the product of more than 60 years of discovery and development by scientists and engineers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology–formerly the National Bureau of Standards. And it is the heart of today’s global positioning system (GPS).

But its accuracy of a few parts in 1016 is far greater than any policy wonk requires for predicting when the wheels might come off the federal budgetary train. For that, a simple congressional calendar will do.

During the 21 post-election legislative days labeled “Lame Duck,” Congress will face a series of policy issues that are epic in their reach and consequences. The Bush-era tax cuts will be ending. The national debt will reach the mandated ceiling. And absent an 11th hour deal between the White House and Congress, last year’s Budget Control Act will trigger $1.2 trillion in discretionary spending sequestrations on January 2, 2013.

That’s just for starters. Here are three more from a lengthy list: the “doc fix” to prevent Medicare reimbursement rates from dropping by a third; the alternative minimum tax “patch” to prevent middle class wage earners from being anointed “wealthy” even if they aren’t; and extension of the 2 percent Social Security payroll tax cut to give the average family $1,000 a year more in take home pay.

According to a recent Goldman Sachs report, failure of Congress to resolve these issues could create as much as a 4 percent drag on the gross domestic product, as $600 billion vaporizes from the economy.

With such a dire prediction, you might think Democrats and Republicans would resolve their differences and strike a deal. But you would probably be wrong. Consider just a few indicators.

Last year, hyper-partisanship, especially in the House of Representatives, helped push the federal government to the brink of a shutdown four times. And since Democrats took control of the Senate in 2007, Republicans have employed the filibuster 360 times to tie up legislation–an astonishing rate by any historic measure. Meanwhile, to avoid politically embarrassing votes, Senate Democrats have refused to author a budget resolution for the last three years, contravening the intent of the 1974 Budget Act.

This year’s primary season offers a few more warning signs. In Indiana, GOP voters sent Richard Lugar packing. The six-term Senate icon, known for working across the aisle, couldn’t muster more than 39 percent of the vote.

His victorious opponent, Tea Party favorite Richard Mourdock, made it clear he doesn’t share Lugar’s bipartisan approach to legislating. In a CNN interview, immediately following his ringing primary success, Mourdock had this to say: “I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of successful compromise. I hope to build a conservative majority in the U.S. Senate so bipartisanship becomes Democrats joining Republicans to roll back the size of government.”

And in Utah, Orrin Hatch, also seeking a seventh Senate term, found himself unable to muster enough votes at the Republican state convention to avoid a primary against another aggressively partisan aspirant, Dan Liljenquist. A Tea Party crusader, Liljenquist has vowed to hew to greater ideological purity.

The message Republican voters are sending to their Washington emissaries is simply this: We don’t trust the federal government, and we don’t want you cooperating with big-government Democrats. If you stray from these principles, your stay in Washington will be brief.

That message was not lost on House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH 8th). Bipartisan passage of legislation reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank provided a spark of hope that the two parties might be able to resolve some of their other differences during the remainder of the year. But Boehner, in an appearance at the 2012 Fiscal Summit in Washington, sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, dashed any expectations of compromise.

In his speech, Boehner reiterated his demand that any increase in the debt ceiling later this year be offset with equal or greater spending cuts. Tax increases, he said are off the table. Boehner’s challenge might be election-year posturing. But if it isn’t, and if Senate Democrats and the White House refuse to accede to his demands, as they surely will, a government shutdown or credit default could spoil Washington’s New Year’s party.

What songs politicos will be singing at the party will depend on who wins what in November and what the lame-duck session actually delivers. I have a few suggestions from the gilded era of the 1920s, the last time wealth inequality in our nation was as great as it is today.

For Gov. Romney, the wealthiest White House jobseeker, “Puttin on the Ritz,” words and music by Irving Berlin, seems about right. For President Obama, the latter-day “New Dealer,” who wants to be vindicated by reelection to another four years in office, I think the old FDR favorite, “Happy Days Are Here Again,” words and music by Milton Ager and Jack Yellen, would be appropriate.

And for either Romney or Obama, from the Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby and Herbert Stothart collaboration, “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” would pretty much sum it all up.


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