Have we the will to do nothing?


That was no news at all last week. The Congressional Budget Office told us what we already knew.

Our government debt will have us strangled within a very few decades, and it is mostly because of uncontrolled health care costs.

The news instead was the CBO explaining that our government's income could keep up with this spiraling spending if our elected representatives would simply stay home and work in the garden or watch rented movies.

If Congress were to do nothing, then this would happen:

1. The Bush tax reductions would expire in 2012 and our rates would return to where they were before they were irresponsibly lowered, especially on the ever-rising highest incomes.

2. The alternative minimum tax, designed to set a tax floor on persons of high-middle incomes who might otherwise chip their tax away altogether with deductions, and which is not indexed to inflation, would evolve over the next few decades into nabbing half the American taxpayers. We all would be figuring our tax and then comparing our bottom line to the arbitrary minimum, and remitting the higher.

3. Long-term reductions in Medicare reimbursements, which get plugged into out-year budget projections and then always get undone with "doctor fixes" when the time actually comes, would automatically occur.

We always talk about how hard deficit-reduction is. Now we discover that all we need is to put our dysfunctional political and governmental engine into idle.

Of course that cannot happen. Our Congress must meet, alas, and do a budget.

So our political dysfunction, our political timidity, our basic incompatibility between modern electoral politics and the design and imposition of effective if unpopular fiscal and health care policy -- it all remains seemingly inevitable.

Congress will meet and continue the Bush tax cuts. Congress will meet and adjust the alternative minimum tax to make sure it does not bother too many people. Congress will meet and oblige the doctors by relieving, as always, any previously and abstractly planned cuts, which is to say pretend cuts, in Medicare reimbursements.

Our system does not work anymore for problem-solving, at least as long as we are beset with our current caliber of political statesmanship, which is to say low, and with our current level of citizen engagement to demand decisive action, which is to say not much at all.

We get a political system rendered futile by its combining direct popular election by weak-kneed voters of weak-kneed representatives with a set of real fiscal and health care crises the solutions to which require politically unpopular actions.

You cannot make the necessarily unpopular political decisions to solve our fiscal and health cost dilemma unless your are brave enough to risk political defeat or unless voters are sufficiently sophisticated, demanding and brave to accept, even invite, the unpopularity of what must be done.

One year it's the Democrats paying a political price for trying to reform health care altogether and, in the process, plugging hollow long-term reductions in Medicare spending into the budget. The next year it's the Republicans paying a political price because a few among them dared to propose remaking Medicare into a private, voucher-like system.

Either way, the message is clear and consistent: Voters are simply not going to put up with any solution-seeking. They're not ideological; they're against everything.

So it is not simply a matter of our problems being eased if Congress does nothing. It is also a matter of our problems being eased if voters do nothing as well.

It will require a voluntary moratorium on American politics as usual, on both the voters and the vote-seekers, to avert the certain fiscal calamity of which the Congressional Budget Office reminded us last week.

Have any of us the will do the nothing that is required?

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His email address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.

 

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