It is difficult to imagine a more dysfunctional body than the U.S. Congress. Unwilling to work across the aisle or even amongst intraparty divisions, the nation's elected representatives and senators have made a habit of waiting until the last minute before agreeing to postpone significant decisions that need to be made.
A year and a half ago, Congress and the president took the unusual step of imposing a penalty on themselves if they couldn't produce a plan to reduce ballooning deficits. The Budget Control Act, signed into law in 2011, created a supercommittee to find $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years. The kicker was the so-called fiscal cliff, designed to impose across-the-board spending cuts and tax increases, would take place Jan. 1, 2013, if no deal was made.
Not surprisingly, the bipartisan supercommittee couldn't find compromise, let alone the entire Congress. A last-minute deal to raise some taxes and postpone the spending cuts was made New Year's Eve. The reductions, which amount to $85 billion this year alone, kick in Friday.
No compromise was found to reduce the deficits, nor to postpone them. President Barack Obama and top leaders from the House and Senate won't even be meeting until Friday, past the deadline for the so-called sequestration to be enacted.
The cuts, labeled as so painful an agreement would have to be found, will take place as scheduled. While Social Security, Medicaid, food stamps, Pell Grants and veterans' programs are exempt, it won't be long before almost every American is affected in some way by the automatic and indiscriminate cuts. Unemployment benefits, preschool programs, border defense, the military, airport security and traffic control, teachers, public safety offices -- basically anything with full or partial federal funding will be slashed.
Economists are nearly unanimous in alarm: These cuts will throw the nation back into recession.
Other potential collateral damage would be the country's credit rating and reputation in the international community. It's one thing to be the world's dominant superpower; quite another to viewed as a country besieged by infighting and indecision.
Fittingly, the general public doesn't care. A mere 27 percent in a Pew Research Center/USA Today poll last week were even paying much attention to the situation. We can't blame them.
As Congress stumbles from one fiscal crisis to the next and the economy doesn't collapse, it's difficult to get excited.
But we would offer a word of caution. While trickle-down economics doesn't happen in reality when considering largesse, it most assuredly does when times are bad. Negative ripples tend to become waves further down the economic ladder.
Lawmakers of both stripes will defend their inaction on principle, no doubt.
But when a single American or the entire U.S. economy is held hostage to a partisan principle or a legislator's desire to fill campaign coffers, we've gone way beyond dysfunction.
Editorial by Patrick Lowry