Jumping off a fiscal cliff isn't an option

Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and has been connected to Iowa’s public schools for 38 years. He taught for eleven years and represented educators as an Iowa State Education Association regional director for 27 years until retiring.

Where I grew up there were multiple sources of news. To hear the news, men gathered at the post office and Standard station, while women preferred the Clover Farm Store or Rebekah Lodge. 

It wasn’t broadcast news. It was secret, local news that an impolite observer might call gossip.

There was typical gossip including who bought a new combine, whose car was parked too long at the lower tavern, and who had the worst dye job in town. 

But there were special categories delivered only in whispers. Things like a cancer diagnosis, a church lady with a fresh shiner, or a recent bankruptcy. These whispers were met with silence, and the few Catholics crossing themselves.

Yes, bankruptcy was deemed whisper worthy.

But as June approaches, and with it the risk that the U.S. will go off a fiscal cliff, politicians are shouting about the potential bankruptcy of one of the world’s most powerful nations.

The U.S. enacted a debt ceiling law in 1939, and Congress has raised the total debt limit 78 times since 1960, mostly without fanfare. After all, it doesn’t authorize more spending, it gives the federal government a way to pay for spending already approved by Congress and signed into law. The money has been spent. It’s time to pay the bills, which is what prevents bankruptcy, a word only whispered in my small town.

When “TV Dad” gives a toothy grin on those annoying Insurance commercials and says, “It’s not a competition,” he’d be wrong about the debt ceiling debate. It is.

One party wants to reclaim the title of “deficit hawk,” lost during the Trump years of wild spending and irresponsible tax cutting. The other party prefers not to negotiate because it sets a precedent for future hostage taking over the debt ceiling. It’s a competition to see who the American public blames more.

But negotiations have finally begun, and a few bargaining tactics may help avoid that deadly fiscal plunge. Here’s how Washington politicians can make a deal.

Find a few points of agreement and build from there.

Politicians know what sells. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be in office. Find common ground and build an agreement. It looks like clawing back unspent COVID-19 relief money is a bipartisan start. Speeding up the permitting process for environmentally sensitive construction could be another. Agree on those things and then tackle the tougher issues.

Compromise strategically.

Even though compromise has become a political dirty word, it’s where most people live. Aside from Donald Trump and a handful of extremists in the U.S. House, most reasonable politicians believe defaulting isn’t an option. Some compromises are painful, but they’re necessary to avoid something far worse.

Kick the can down the road.

Hard compromises take time to digest. Sometimes buying time lets the parties’ stomachs settle enough to agree. Raise the debt ceiling for six months, and assign a bipartisan committee to work out a longer-term deal.

Let both sides spin the win.

Both sides must meet the demands of their constituencies. To keep his job, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy needs to show his base that he negotiated spending concessions for raising the debt ceiling. President Joe Biden needs to have budget negotiations separate from the debt ceiling debate.

After a deal is reached, Biden and McCarthy can spin the outcome however they want. The other side agrees to not loudly contradict the other’s spin.

Remember, no one wins without an agreement. Plunging off a fiscal cliff would be like jumping into filthy water. Even if one person goes completely under and the other is submerged only up to the chest, both will come out stinking.  

Top illustration of person jumping off a cliff into a city is by Creativa Images, available via Shutterstock.

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  • Timely

    Bruce. You show your versatility here. I agree wholeheartedly. Note to peeps. Iowa is represented by five Rs in U.S. Congress (all loyalists) and two Rs in the U.S. Senate. None has shown any willingness to buck the MAGA conservative dogma. The two congressman and three congresswomen will be up for re-election in ‘24. If you, like me are tired of MAGA, vote for Ds and show Bruce’s essay to anyone you can. Share on Facebook 😇

  • Speeding up environmental reviews?

    Sorry, I can’t agree that that should be a point of agreement. The reason environmental reviews take so long is that developers try to finesse their way around environmental laws, and most of the time the agencies let them. So it takes time to challenge those shenanigans. If environmental impacts were properly considered and avoided or minimized in the first place, the process would be much faster.

  • spending like drunken sailors

    Both parties spend like drunken sailors on pork, pork, and more pork. Federal Budget hasn’t been balanced since 2001 and would love to see a balanced budget amendment.

  • Spectacle

    Bruce – you are right on, as usual. It is hard to take anything national politicians say seriously. Defaulting on the debt is simply not a good option, but constantly pandering to your extreme voters is a great option, I guess. Achieving reasonable compromise is always equated with complete failure by both sides now. I hope that we can resolve this and move on.