'Fiscal cliff': The fiscal bungee jump was just the first skirmish in a long battle

By MARCELLA KREITER, United Press International  |  Jan. 6, 2013 at 4:30 AM
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Even though the fall off the "fiscal cliff" was more like a bungee jump, the U.S. economy has yet to step back from the precipice.

Last week's deal to raise some taxes failed to address the national debt, which hit its limit before the New Year's Eve champagne was served, or the budget deficit that continues to add to that debt.

In fact, the deal adds $4 trillion to the budget deficit problem, the Congressional Budget Office estimated. White House Budget Director Jeff Zients, however, said the CBO estimate was wrong because it used the wrong baseline. Zients said the measure actually reduces the deficit by $737 billion.

Nevertheless, Republicans are smarting over the deal, which represents the first time the GOP has supported an increase in taxes since 1991 (technically, it wasn't a hike on families with income of more than $450,000 and individuals earning more than $400,000; it was a return to previous tax rates). And though President Barack Obama warned lawmakers not to make a spectacle over raising the debt ceiling (the last time the bruhaha resulted in a hit to the U.S. credit rating), Tea Party adherents and other conservative Republicans likely are gearing up for a new confrontation.

"I think we all recognize this law is just one step in the broader effort to strengthen our economy and broaden opportunity for everybody," Obama said after the House finally voted New Year's Day.

Obama, who signed the law by autopen Wednesday, had wanted a grand plan, one that would raise tax rates on the wealthy, reform the tax code, deal with the debt ceiling and cut spending, in part by reforming entitlements -- another touchy subject.

"Unfortunately, there just wasn't enough support or time for that kind of large agreement in a lame-duck session of Congress," he said.

It remains to be seen whether the 113th Congress will be more functional than its predecessor and deal with the issues, but the first salvos already have been fired.

"The president may not want to have a fight about government spending over the next few months, but it's the fight he is going to have, because it's a debate the country needs," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., warned in an op-ed piece for Yahoo! published Thursday.

"For the sake of our future, the president must show up to this debate early and convince his party to do something that neither he nor they have been willing to do until now."

And McConnell warned he will not be a party to future tax increases.

"Predictably, the president is already claiming that his tax hike on the 'rich' isn't enough," McConnell wrote. "I have news for him: The moment that he and virtually every elected Democrat in Washington signed off on the terms of the current arrangement, it was the last word on taxes. That debate is over."

The Tea Party Express also expressed its dissatisfaction with the agreement.

"At some point we're going to have to come together and do what's right for America, but do the Democrats have a mandate to go and just do whatever and just spend into oblivion? No," Tea Party Express head Amy Kremer told CNN. "And that's evident because the Republicans still control the House."

Voters are less than satisfied as well. A Rasmussen Reports poll of 1,000 likely voters conducted Wednesday indicated voters were evenly split at 46 percent on the deal -- although those who were dissatisfied had stronger feelings than those who approved. The margin of error was pegged at 3 percentage points.

And a Gallup poll of 1,026 adults taken Thursday indicated 43 percent approved of the deal, 45 percent disapproved and 12 percent had no opinion. Among Republicans 27 percent approved and 65 percent disapproved while Democrats felt the opposite: 67 percent approved and 23 percent disapproved. Among independents, 39 percent approved and 46 percent disapproved. The margin of error was 4 percentage points.

The problem, of course, is demographics.

Baby boomers, the first generation to have paid into Social Security and Medicare their entire working lives, are hitting their golden years, straining the systems that protected their parents and grandparents. On the other end, the sluggish economy has thrust more people into poverty, straining programs like food stamps and Medicaid.

Former Sen. Alan Simpson and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles -- who together headed a commission that proposed tax and spending reforms rejected by both parties --lamented the New Year's Day deal as a missed opportunity to have done something truly significant in getting the nation's finances in order.

University of Maryland economist Peter Morici warned the agreement will just make sluggish growth last that much longer. He said gross domestic product is likely to grow just 2 percent this year while a growth rate of 4 percent to 5 percent is needed to spur the kind of job growth that would reduce the unemployment rate to 6 percent in three to four years.

Morici said the administration has little interest in "substantially curbing healthcare spending and retirement benefits," and he warned the U.S. credit rating could take another hit.

AARP was quick to praise the deal, saying it protects Medicare and retirement savings but at the same time recognized the respite is temporary.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who heads the House Budget Committee, signaled the fight has just begun. In his annual note to taxpayers, Ryan, Mitt Romney's vice presidential running mate, said "sensible entitlement reforms and pro-growth tax reforms are the solution" to what he sees as out-of-control spending, the result of not having a budget for more than three years.

"Our debt and deficits are growing largely because of poor economic growth and out-of-control spending, which is why I have continued to call for reforms to our tax code and our nation's health and retirement programs," said Ryan, who has proposed turning Medicare into a voucher system that provides seniors with a set amount to use to purchase health insurance privately.

"The federal government doesn't need more tax money from the families and businesses in our local communities. What the federal government needs to do is stop spending too much."

The positions of Ryan and McConnell set up the coming fight over the so-called sequester, the draconian spending cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 and just delayed for two months by last week's deal.

"As I've demonstrated throughout the past several weeks, I am very open to compromise," Obama said after the "fiscal cliff" deal was reached. "I agree with Democrats and Republicans that the aging population and the rising cost of healthcare makes Medicare the biggest contributor to our deficit. I believe we've got to find ways to reform that program without hurting seniors who count on it to survive. And I believe that there's further unnecessary spending in government that we can eliminate.

"But we can't simply cut our way to prosperity. Cutting spending has to go hand-in-hand with further reforms to our tax code so that the wealthiest corporations and individuals can't take advantage of loopholes and deductions that aren't available to most Americans. And we can't keep cutting things like basic research and new technology and still expect to succeed in a 21st century economy. So we're going to have to continue to move forward in deficit reduction, but we have to do it in a balanced way, making sure that we are growing even as we get a handle on our spending."

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