Op-Eds


Congress: Jump off that cliff!

By Jennifer Granholm, POLITICO

My family and I stood atop a mountain cliff. Below, many feet down: cool, blue water. It was a couple years ago on a Hawaiian vacation.

“Jump!” some nearby teens yelled. “Just do it!”

I stared down. What if large rocks were beneath the surface? What if it was too shallow? I stood at the edge for a long time. A young redheaded man jumped ahead of me, piercing the surface like a knife, then submerging completely. He was underwater for just a few seconds, but it seemed much longer.

“Going over a cliff” sounds deadly. Free fall. Air below. The landing could spell disaster.

Or it could bring a cool blast of sweet relief.

The Congress is staring over a fiscal cliff. One that we’re warned will pull down our nation on Dec. 31 if there’s no agreement to extend the Bush tax cuts or avert automatic spending cuts that Congress agreed to in the debt ceiling debate in the summer of 2011 — cuts weirdly named, like the title monster in a B horror film, “The Sequester.” The Sequester will kidnap a helpless victim, with the initials D.C., and threaten to push her over the cliff. Bwaahahahaha!

The fiscal cliff is exciting to both actuaries and Democrats. The Congressional Budget Office and many progressives, including Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), see the cliff as an opportunity: If Grover Norquist-induced pledge intransigence prevents House Speaker John Boehner’s tea party caucus from compromising, the rational solution is to allow the tax cuts to expire and the sequester cuts to take place — then resolve the problem immediately after the new Congress begins on Jan. 3, 2013.

To be sure, the risks of going over that cliff are great. It means potentially pushing the nation into recession; contraction of gross domestic product by 1.3 percent; unemployment above 9 percent.

But the rewards are also great. Since everyone — Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate — acknowledges that those risks are unacceptable, jumping off the cliff allows both sides to wipe the slate clean and find a solution that blends cuts and revenues equitably, in a way that stimulates growth. All without requiring the tea partiers to break their vow of fealty to Norquist.

Once the tax cuts expire and automatic increases kick in, pledge signers should be eager to reduce the tax rates again on whomever they can. Even if it’s not everyone, right?

Unless this Congress acts, nothing that happens in the election will stop our inexorable march toward the cliff. If doomsday warnings of a recession in 2013 force House Republicans to compromise now, obviously that’s preferable. If warnings of the loss of defense jobs in their districts cause them to compromise on revenues now, great. But if the tax-pledge signers won’t stand up to Norquist, then Democrats and Republicans go off the cliff together on Dec. 31, like it or not.

As any negotiator knows, when parties are locked, cemented into position, a crisis may be the only way to break open a solution. President Bill Clinton’s closure of government in 1995-96 demonstrated that crisis can precipitate compromise.

 A crisis enables members to return to their districts and say, “I had to compromise or the entire government was going to shut down,” or “I had to vote or the entire economy would be thrown into recession.” Look at it this way — the crisis is a gift, the fig leaf necessary to provide political cover to do the right thing.

Last week, a survey of leading economists by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business showed, yet again, that the stimulus worked; trickle-down economics doesn’t; and we need new revenue. But such objective data has not budged the stubborn trickle-downers off of their position.

“Angry Republicans, “ economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers wrote in a Bloomberg article, “have pushed their representatives to adopt positions that are at odds with the best of modern economic thinking.”

If nonpartisan economists, empirical evidence and public opinion don’t sway the tea party, then the only recourse is to go off the cliff. When reason doesn’t hold sway, when evidence matters not a whit, then a crisis will force a solution.

Experts figure that we have until early February to reach resolution before the economy starts to feel the impact from our plummet. The intense pressure and blame for pushing the nation into recession will be unacceptable to Congress. At that point, lawmakers will have no choice but to act.

I watched the redheaded young man bob to the surface, grinning.

“Just do it,” I said to myself. I closed my eyes, held my breath and stepped forward, listening to my children’s screams of encouragement. I hurtled downward for seconds and plunged into the cool water.

I didn’t touch bottom. There were no rocks underneath, just refreshing, clean water. As I bounced back to the surface, I gave a grinning thumbs-up to my family and gently floated to shore.

I’d do it all over again. Funny how sometimes one’s fear and dread are far worse than the act itself. True, jumping is not for the faint of heart. But the water is more refreshing, more liberating than you imagine.

To lawmakers at the precipice: Just do it.

7/31/2012