Our View: Do-nothing Congress set to leave early

Leaders risk triggering 'fiscal cliff' by putting off tough talks until election

09/18/2012 8:48 PM

09/18/2012 8:48 PM

The one thing this Congress is good at is putting off hard choices.

Its leaders don't even pretend that they'll get much of anything done before the Nov. 6 election.

They returned last week after a five-week recess. But instead of rolling up their sleeves, they're only making a pit stop before many return to full-time campaigning. If they go home Friday as expected, it would be the earliest Congress has decamped for the fall election for a half-century.

On the campaign trail, voters ought to grill incumbents -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- why they are dawdling on the people's business.

Leaving aside the big issues that arguably should be influenced by the election results, there is plenty to do. There's a massive new farm bill, which is important to California farmers. There's a trade deal with Russia. There are proposals to shore up cybersecurity for the nation's critical infrastructure.

Instead, the only major action of this do-nothing Congress will be to pass another stopgap budget to keep the federal government running past Sept. 30. In a rare moment of bipartisanship, the Republican-majority House voted 329-91 last Thursday to approve the six-month spending bill; the Democratic-controlled Senate is expected to go along this week.

With the complicity of the White House, congressional leaders plan to wait until the "lame duck" session after the election to tackle tough negotiations on tax increases (resulting from the end of the Bush tax cuts and Obama's payroll tax holiday) and the first $110 billion in automatic spending cuts that are set to take effect Jan. 2.

It's being called the "fiscal cliff" because it would almost certainly hurl the economy back into recession. It would be criminal if Congress lets that happen.

There's no guarantee, however, that a deal will be reached. Just as easily, if Mitt Romney wins or Republicans wrest control of the Senate on Nov. 6, they'll try to wait until the new president and Congress take office in January so they'll have the upper hand.

All the uncertainty is already hurting the country. Businesses are delaying expansion plans. One of the big bond rating agencies, Moody's Investors Service, warned last week that if the budget negotiations fail, it would lower its rating on U.S. government bonds. That would increase interest costs for taxpayers -- basically throwing money away.

The main accomplishment of this Congress is heaping more scorn upon itself. Its job approval rating is already at an all-time low of 10 percent. If it plays chicken again with America's financial future, there's no telling how low it will go.

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