Fiscal-cliff deal could have been better, reached sooner

The Constitution requires that all members of Congress be at least 25 years old and that the president be at least 35 years old, And still, it seems at times that there are no adults in charge in Washington, D.C.

Maturity is supposed to impart the wisdom for someone to know that important tasks should not be put off until the last moment, and yet, time and again, the nation watches helplessly as the boys in Congress (and, yes, they are still predominantly male) procrastinate in a manner that they ought to find embarrassing.

In the recent matter of the fiscal cliff, members of Congress and the president not only kept the nation on tenterhooks and played havoc with the stock market, they ended up interrupting their own vacations in order to finally reach a deal. Most Americans wouldn’t be bothered by that, since most are of the impression that Congress doesn’t spend enough time governing, but in this case it was the taxpayers who ended up paying the additional travel expense. And the saddest part of it all is that the final product is not only flawed, it is nothing that the Republican House, the Democratic Senate and the White House shouldn’t have been able to hammer out in half the time and with a fraction of the histrionics.

Neither side is hailing what is officially known as the American Taxpayer Relief Act as a great piece of legislation. And with good reason.

For all the talk about sparing the middle class from any tax increases, virtually everyone will see more being taken out of their paychecks because the temporary 2 percent cut in the Social Security payroll deduction was allowed to expire. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because as much as the cut put money into circulation and helped the economy, it couldn’t be extended indefinitely without eventually undercutting the Social Security trust fund.

Special interests score

But worse — and even more emblematic of what’s wrong in Washington — while Republicans and Democrats were pitched in what was billed as an existential battle over this piece of legislation, members of Congress still managed to salt it with a wide array of special interest provisions.

Little did the nation know that while we worried about approaching the fiscal cliff, congressmen worried about pleasing lobbyists for multinational corporations that wanted a new Cayman Island tax shelter or NASCAR, which worried about protecting a long-standing carve-out for its racetracks, or the financial services industry, which feared losing its tax advantages. In Washington, it’s all about priorities.

It’s only fitting that the woefully unproductive 112th Congress ended with the passage of a flawed piece of legislation that only partially addressed the problems facing the nation. The best that can be hoped for is that members of Congress recognize that they are starting with a clean slate and have the opportunity to do better in the 113th Congress.

If they were to resolve to go to work without delay to address the taxing and spending problems that still exist and to show more concern for their constituents than the lobbyists, the nation might be spared another trauma as the deadline approaches for an inevitable increase in the debt ceiling. But that would require them to behave as the responsible adults that they are supposed to be.

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