Fiscal Cliff

Fiscal Irresponsibility Day

Washington rams through an appropriately hideous deal.

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It's the deficit-reduction package that doesn't reduce the deficit. It's the debt-ceiling deal that doesn't touch the debt ceiling (and doesn't cut debt). It's the long-term entitlement negotiation that—after nearly three years of wheedling—does not delay, let alone stave off, a Baby Boomer retirement bomb currently on pace to swallow half of federal outlays by 2030.

Say this for the fiscal cliff-avoidance bill that passed on New Year's Day—it is a near-perfect expression of Washington's grotesque devolution since Bill Clinton left office. Not only have a succession of Republican and Democratic presidents and congresses combined to jack up spending from $1.8 trillion in Clinton's last year (a bit more than $2.3 trillion in today's dollars) to a baseline level of $3.6 trillion and above, but the process for arriving at these hideous figures has degenerated into a series of endless, man-made, deadline negotiations in lieu of actual budgeting.

If you squint hard enough you can see some comparative upside to this circus freakshow—it could have been worse, and maybe (as my colleague Nick Gillespie suggested this morning) "the government has effectively kicked the can so far down the road that they've run out of road."

But that's the same claim that was being made three years ago…by President Barack Obama.

"What we have done is kicked this can down the road. We are now at the end of the road and are not in a position to kick it any further," Obama told The Washington Post in January 2009, shortly before inauguration. "We have to signal seriousness in this by making sure some of the hard decisions are made under my watch, not someone else's."

It's hard to remember now, but one of the president's biggest and most effective selling propositions in 2008 was that he and the world-weary Democratic majority would finally bring some adult supervision to a Republican-led budgetary process that took to heart then-Vice President Dick Cheney's maxim that "deficits don't matter." "We will maintain fiscal responsibility, so that we do not mortgage our children's future on a mountain of debt," the 2008 Democratic Party Platform promised. The president's first budget was actually titled A New Era of Fiscal Responsibility.

Instead of any of that, Obama's Washington no longer does budgets, period, and can-kicking is on pace to replace baseball as our official National Pastime by the end of FY 2013. Consider these upcoming manufactured deadlines:

* February 28: Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's current estimate for when the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling will run out.

* March 1: When the "sequestration cuts," which disproportionately impact Republican-favored defense spending, will once again theoretically materialize unless negotiators come up with some new dodge.

* September 1: When the dreaded "milk cliff"—i.e., the scheduled but not-seriously-contemplated removal of wasteful government subsidies for milk producers—is back again to haunt us.

* January 1, 2014: What, you think we won't be doing this again next year? Read this summary of the bill: "The legislation would provide for an extension through 2013 of over 50 provisions of tax law known as tax extenders." In plain English, these are year-to-year special tax exemptions and subsidies for various well-connected groups. As the summary points out, "The legislation would allow increased tax rates for many small businesses, while providing some large corporations with tax breaks through the 'extenders' package.  These include tax breaks for wind energy, motorsports racing tracks, film and television productions, and cellulosic biofuels production." 

* January 1, 2018: There are "stimulus extenders" in the bill as well, adding another five years each to various American Opportunity Tax Credits, Earned Income Tax Credits, and so on. Estimated price tag: $134 billion.

So forget those quaint hangovers, televised parades, and college football games: New Year's Day is now and forever going to be Fiscal Irresponsibility Day, where politicians who claim poverty will throw last-minute money at NASCAR and Goldman Sachs in the name of one day thinking about forming a commission to ponder cutting the growth of entitlement programs and military spending.

It's revolting, it's discretionary, and it's our future, unless and until we start electing officials who are serious about cutting the size of government.