The Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) latest 10 year budget and economic projections set off yet another firestorm of dire headlines warning of a “deep recession” if Congress does nothing to address the so-called “fiscal cliff.” While such headlines create a sense of crisis, the real danger is not that Congress will do nothing, but rather that cynical members of Congress will use our struggling economy as an excuse to extend the reckless policies of the last 12 years.
One of the key points missing from the fiscal cliff debate is the fact that doing nothing would be rather beneficial over the long run. As Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) pointed out earlier this year, if Congress were to just sit on its hands and do nothing, this would solve the entirety of our long term fiscal gap and would even allow the US government to start paying down the national debt by 2015.
For better or worse, however, there’s good reason to believe that Congress will do something. As CTJ’s Director Bob McIntyre pointed out in a recent op-ed, the gap between Republicans and Democrats on how to deal with the fiscal cliff is actually relatively small considering that it’s over whether or not to extend 78% of the Bush tax cuts (as President Obama is proposing) or all of the Bush tax cuts (as congressional Republicans are proposing). Under either scenario (or somewhere in between) this would wipe out most of the fiscal cliff and prevent the country from slipping back into recession.
The critical problem, however, is that both approaches would dramatically increase the deficit over the coming years. According to CTJ estimates, President Obama’s proposal to extend most of the Bush tax cuts would increase the deficit by $4.2 trillion, while the Republican proposal to extend all of the Bush tax cuts would add $5.4 trillion to the deficit over the next 10 years. In other words, while both approaches would help the economy in the short term, they would put the US on the path to fiscal ruin.
What, then, is the best way to deal with the fiscal cliff? Lawmakers should focus on extending a responsible portion of the tax cuts that go to low and middle income families, while at the same time enacting temporary stimulus programs, such as infrastructure investments, putting teachers back to work and other programs that directly create jobs. (which are far more stimulative than extending the Bush tax cuts). This approach would have the double benefit of helping the struggling economy in the short term, while setting the US on the path of deficit reduction over the long term.