CullmanTimes.com - Cullman, Alabama

National News

December 6, 2012

How far over the 'fiscal cliff' could they go?

WASHINGTON — The dealmakers who warn that a year-end plunge off the "fiscal cliff" would be disastrous don't seem to be rushing to stop it. Why aren't they panicking?

For one thing, the Dec. 31 deadline is more flexible than it sounds. Like all skilled procrastinators, from kids putting off homework to taxpayers who file late, Washington negotiators know they can finagle more time if they need it.

That doesn't mean delay would be cost-free. Stock markets might tank if 2013 dawns without a deal. But Americans could be temporarily spared many of the other ill effects if Congress and President Barack Obama blow past their deadline.

The Obama administration would have power to delay some of the tax increases and spending cuts that would officially take effect as January begins. Then, if an agreement is reached early in the year, it could be applied retroactively to wipe them out.

Some lawmakers even argue that briefly going over the cliff is the best way to force a compromise. The Obama administration on Wednesday indicated it would take the plunge if necessary to ensure that the wealthy end up paying higher tax rates.

Pushing the deadline too far is a risky strategy, however. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that the fiscal cliff policies, if left unchecked, would spark a recession later in 2013 and send the unemployment rate above 9 percent by fall.

How long could negotiators balk and bicker before putting the U.S. economy in jeopardy? The calendar becomes less and less forgiving as the weeks pass.

A procrastinator's guide to pushing the deadline:

___

DECEMBER

Democrats led by Obama and Republicans led by House Speaker John Boehner say it's critical to reach a deal this month. Yet both sides appear dug in over taxes. And their two plans are far apart on how much to cut spending while the economy is still recovering from the last recession.

So far, Boehner said, "we're nowhere."

If compromise were easy for this bunch, they wouldn't be in this jam. A good chunk of the fiscal cliff — the automatic spending cuts known as the "sequester" — is an artificial deadline created by Congress in hopes of forcing itself to come up with a deficit-cutting plan. It arrives at the same time as the expiration of the George W. Bush-era income tax cuts and other temporary tax breaks scheduled to end unless Congress extends them. Together the taxes and cuts would equal close to $700 billion in deficit reduction over 2013.

Congress could vote to override all this and essentially freeze taxes and spending where they are now while the economy heals. But Obama and lawmakers, especially Republicans bent on budget-cutting, see the fiscal cliff as the critical moment to overcome inertia on the nation's long-term debt crisis.

___

JANUARY

If there's no deal in December, the economy won't fall off a cliff on New Year's Day. But it probably will begin a bumpy downhill ride.

The new Congress that convenes Jan. 3 won't look much different from the one that's deadlocked now, divided between a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-dominated Senate. The lawmakers would feel more heat, however.

Higher taxes for nearly everyone and across-the-board spending cuts would already be law.

"People will get more nervous day by day," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics. Still, he thinks the economy could weather a few more weeks of uncertainty as long as negotiators appeared to be working toward an agreement.

If the Bush-era tax cuts expired, that would raise income taxes for the average middle-class family by $2,200 over the course of 2013, the White House says. That's about $42 per week, probably not enough to curtail spending right away and deal an immediate blow to the economy, economists say.

Plus, taxpayers might never have to ante up. The Treasury Department sets withholding tables that determine how much tax comes out of Americans' paychecks. It could hold off raising the withholding if a deal seems to be in the works, said Roberton Williams, a senior fellow of the private Tax Policy Center.

Both Republicans and Democrats say they don't want middle-class taxpayers to pay higher tax rates. They disagree over whether to let tax rates rise on individual income above $200,000, as Obama wants.

Other far-reaching tax changes are more likely to go ahead in January. For example, although Obama proposes extending the temporary Social Security payroll tax reduction, support for that has been weak. So more money might start coming out of workers' pay, whether or not a fiscal cliff deal is reached. That's another $1,000 over the year, or a little more than $19 per week, from a worker making $50,000.

As for the sequester, the White House can direct the Pentagon and federal agencies to husband their resources for a while and hold off on some spending cuts while negotiations continue.

"The more there's an anticipation that there's actually an agreement in the works, the less of an impact any of this should have," said Chad Stone, chief economist for the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He argues that it's OK to miss the fiscal cliff deadline if necessary to achieve a well-designed agreement.

___

FEBRUARY

What might finally get procrastinators moving if nothing else has? Fear of the United States defaulting on its debts for the first time ever.

Unless Congress acts, the government is expected to hit its legal borrowing limit of $16.39 trillion by the end of December. Treasury Department maneuvers should hold off a default for a couple more months, until late February or early March, private economists say.

Congress could raise the debt limit anytime now, if lawmakers agreed, before resolving the fiscal cliff. But it's being discussed as part of the bigger tax-and-spending package. The White House says raising the debt limit must be included in the deal; Boehner says the Republicans want any increase in the government's borrowing to be matched by spending cuts.

Remember the last debt limit showdown? The government came within a whisker of default in August 2011 before a compromise was reached. The financial markets reeled. Standard & Poor's downgraded the nation's credit rating.

Again coming to the edge of default — an economic crisis that scares investors more than the fiscal cliff — would probably send markets plummeting and finally shake up lawmakers, too.

"That's a pretty scary thing to watch," Zandi said. "For a policymaker that's real motivation."

Follow Connie Cass on Twitter.

 

1
Text Only
National News
  • Fort Hood (UPDATED) Officials: 4 dead, including gunman, at Fort Hood

    A gunman opened fire Wednesday at Fort Hood in an attack that left four dead, including the shooter, law enforcement officials said.
    One of the officials, citing official internal U.S. Justice Department updates, said 14 others were hurt. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release information by name.

    April 2, 2014 1 Photo

  • mfp file Hoffner Fired coach unjustly accused of visiting porn sites

    The president of Minnesota State University-Mankato accused a football coach of looking at Internet porn on a work computer before firing him, an arbitrator has revealed. The official said the claim could not be supported, and the coach shouldn't have been fired.

    April 11, 2014 1 Photo

  • High School Stabbings 4 students seriously hurt in Pa. school stabbings

    A student armed with a knife went on a stabbing and slashing spree at a high school near Pittsburgh on Wednesday morning, leaving as many as 20 people injured, including four students who suffered serious wounds, authorities said.

    April 9, 2014 2 Photos

  • Obit Ultimate Warrior Former pro wrestler Ultimate Warrior dies at 54

    James Hellwig, better known as former pro wrestler The Ultimate Warrior, has died, the WWE said. He was 54.

    April 9, 2014 1 Photo

  • news_amazonfiretv.jpg Amazon introduces Fire TV to challenge Apple in living rooms

    Amazon.com Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos is stepping up efforts to win over customers in their living rooms with a $99 TV box for watching digitally delivered shows and movies, challenging Apple's TV device.

    April 3, 2014 1 Photo

  • Washington Mudslide Death toll in Washington mudslide rises to 30

    As medical examiners painstakingly piece together the identities and lives of the 30 people known killed when a mudslide wiped out a small Washington community, one mystery troubles them.

    April 3, 2014 1 Photo

  • APTOPIX Fort Hood Fort Hood gunman sought mental health treatment

    An Iraq War veteran being treated for mental illness was the gunman who opened fire at Fort Hood, killing three people and wounding 16 others before committing suicide, in an attack on the same Texas military base where more than a dozen people were slain in 2009, authorities said.

    April 3, 2014 1 Photo

  • Supreme Court Campaign Big donors may give even more under court’s ruling

    The Supreme Court ruling Wednesday erasing a long-standing limit on campaign donations will allow a small number of very wealthy donors to give even more than is currently the case, according to students of the complex campaign finance system, and could strengthen the establishment in both parties.

    April 2, 2014 1 Photo

  • Former McDonald's store managers say they withheld employees' wages

    Two former McDonald's store managers, assisting with a campaign to raise pay for fast-food workers, said they helped withhold employees' wages at the restaurant chain after facing pressure to keep labor costs down.

    April 2, 2014

  • Fact Checker: 'Birth control' for something other than family planning?

    "When 99 percent of women used birth control in their lifetime and 60 percent use it for something other than family planning, it's outrageous and I think the Supreme Court will suggest that their case is ridiculous."

    April 1, 2014

Facebook
AP Video