The art of the deal; this ain’t it

Washington goes rhetorically to the cliff

By The Mercury

Here is how you reach a compromise. One side says, “If I give this much on this point, will you give this much on this point?” And you keep doing that until the deal is cut or until it’s clear no deal is possible.

Question: Has anybody heard anything even faintly resembling that sort of dialogue out of Washington as negotiations proceed over averting the “fiscal cliff?”

Of course not. Instead, negotiations proceed along the following line. One side says, “we’re not giving on this point,” and the other side says “we’re not giving on this point,” and everybody decries the lack of progress. Double-duh.

The “fiscal cliff” is Capitol shorthand for an interlinked series of steps including an end to tax cuts, tax breaks, the onset of taxes related to Obamacare, and spending cuts agreed upon as part of the debt ceiling deal of 2011. There is general agreement that more than 1,000 government programs - including the defense budget and Medicare are in line for “deep, automatic cuts” if the cliff goes into effect.

The idea behind the cliff was to make it so draconian that lawmakers would do anything – including make a deal – in order to avoid it. That may yet happen since the White House and Congressional leaders have until Jan 1. The present rhetoric is mixed, and some of it is helpful. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner presented congressional leaders Thursday with what was termed an “opening bid” calling for $1.6 trillion in higher taxes over 10 years and immediate spending to help the unemployed and struggling homeowners. It’s not clear what part of that represents a concession on President Obama’s part, but at least it’s a plan.

At the same time, White House spokesman Jay Carney continued to lay down markers regarding what the president will NOT do as opposed to what he is willing to do. Carney said there could be “no deal without rates on top earners going up.”

Republicans are approximately as culpable, although since they have less of a bully pulpit at the moment the burden of movement falls more heavily on the Democrats. Still, House Speaker John Boehner’s lament that “many Democrats continue to rule out sensible spending cuts” says nothing about where Republicans may compromise.

In contentious discussions, there is often a period of largely non-productive bluster, and that’s where we are now. Sometimes that bluster gives way to serious, productive discussion. One hopes that will be the case prior to Jan. 1.

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