America’s politicians and the ‘fiscal cliff’

Al Jazeera’s correspondent looks into what Washington has not been doing to alleviate the situation.

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I am frankly quite sick of telling the story of the impending ‘fiscal cliff’.

I’ve been thinking about starting an office pool, a dollar for each guess at how many more stories I’ll do on this until it’s over I do not mean to sound snarky or make it sound less serious than it is.  I realise we are talking about the fate of social programs, family budgets and the real possibility of a recession.

Recession. It’s become an everyday word bandied about, but remember what it means people lose their jobs, more children go hungry and parents panic about the future they can no longer give their children.  I know all that, but I’m wondering if the politicians do.

 Since 2010, I have been talking about this subject of how to shrink the US deficit and the debate in Washington.  I have covered countless commissions, panels, gangs of six or eight, super committees and small group meetings at the White House.  None of them have come up with an answer that the leaders can agree on.  (By the way, those stories aren’t counted in the pool it’s just too many to remember.)

Each time the sides get together the arguments are the same.  Republicans say the answer is less government spending.  The Democrats say taxes need to be raised on the wealthiest Americans.  They talk numbers, they make public pronouncements and nothing changes.  Each time they’ve come to a deadline, they’ve decided on a short term compromise.

This brings us to today and the latest round of stories.  The ‘fiscal cliff’ that I’m sure you are sick of hearing about means on January 1st, taxes go up, government spending goes down and those people who understand math say that equals a recession.  I want to point out this deadline was not ordained by some deity. Congress passed these laws, and now they are fighting over how to change them.

I’ve been asked a lot if they will avoid the ‘cliff’ or ‘slope’ or ‘slide’ or whatever silly metaphor you choose.  I have no idea.  What I am wondering right now, is how the politicians can keep saying the “people want us to work together”, and yet they continue to do the opposite.

I know they have seen their approval ratings, they are abysmal.  Americans do not like Congress.  They really won’t like seeing their taxes go up as the Christmas bills come due.  Why then are the politicians not afraid?

It might be because they have very little to be afraid of.  Once you become a member of Congress it is very hard to lose your seat.  According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 85 per cent of incumbent Congressmen and 84 per cent of Senators were reelected in 2010.  The number is usually higher.  The way the system is set up and the way districts are drawn, most are more afraid of losing a primary than a general election.

This means they are more worried about the true believers of their party.  Americans don’t turn out in droves to vote in Primary elections.  According to the US elections project the number of eligible voters ranges from one per cent to about 31 per cent.

That could be the reason or they could just like fighting.  I’m not sure which. What I do know is the American people have given these exact leaders plenty of chances and time to come to an agreement.  They say they want to see proof the government can still work.  I suppose we will know in about a month.

If you are wondering what I’m putting into the pool 16.  Feel free to send me other ways to describe this rather than the ‘fiscal cliff’.  I’ll need a lot of help by then.

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