Budget

As fiscal cliff nears, is no news good news?

U.S. Capitol

Insiders say the spotlight could make compromise harder. "I think the fact that you're not hearing any details is good," one senator said.

Debate over measures to avert the so-called fiscal cliff is heating up in Washington, where internal squabbles and fierce politicking threaten an eleventh-hour agreement. Much of the discussions are happening behind closed doors, and with little time left, it is not necessarily clear where negotiations stand -- much less what the outcome could be.

On Nov. 28, top lawmakers as well as President Barack Obama spoke publicly about the ongoing meetings on an agreement that would halt the significant cuts to government programs set to hit beginning Jan. 2, including sequestration and the expiration of tax cuts.

While Obama, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reassured the public that a budget deal would be reached, elsewhere in Washington other insiders offered a glimpse of the political complexities playing out behind the curtain.

"I think the fact that you're not hearing any details is good,” Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said during a Fox News appearance. “You don’t hear people trying to manipulate the negotiations that are ongoing through the press or the media. So look, we’re going to solve this problem one way or the other.”

Despite Coburn’s claim, political lobbying is playing a critical role as legislators try to work out a deal, according to former lawmakers speaking Nov. 28 at a Bipartisan Policy Center event in Washington.

“There are a lot of folks who would like this agreement to happen in a climate where there is no politics. It will never happen ... because politics is the cement that holds the system together, not what divides it,” said John Sununu, former White House chief of staff and former New Hampshire governor.

The BPC event compared today’s fiscal situation to a similarly heated budgetary environment in 1990, and panelists speaking at the event drew a number of historical parallels. The panelists also highlighted key differences that are driving today’s contentious negotiations.

"We have a divided government, and we had it then. In 1990 it was easier ... we had a debt ratio and significant deficit, but the long term looked possible if we could solve the short-term problems. Also, in 1990 the parties were competitive, but they weren’t polarized like they are today," said William Frenzel, former Minnesota representative. "The most important difference, in my judgment, is that there was less outside pressure on the negotiators from radio and TV extremists, lobbyists, core constituencies, users of social media, etc. Mostly, the negotiators labored in blissful anonymity."

Today’s 24-hour news cycle is not necessarily beneficial to the process, former New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici pointed out. In fact, it could actually be detrimental, dulling the true threat the U.S. faces.

“I don’t think the players get it. I think they are so besieged by information ... that they don’t think there’s a chance that anything bad can happen. I think there’s a very real chance that something very bad could happen this time,” Domenici said.

Still, not everyone believes that the Jan. 2 deadline could make or break the U.S., or the world economic system, as some -- including Domenici -- have suggested. But without a doubt, the cuts eventually would have substantial negative impact across the government if they are not reversed.

“Every day that goes by we're getting closer, [but] this is not like a government shutdown, it's not really like a cliff,” Todd Harrison, analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said on Nov. 27. “It's going to be weeks if not months before we see actual implementation ... that will give Congress time to come back and turn it off.”

Harrison spoke at a briefing in Washington outlining the findings of a CSBA “war game” that examined how a group of more than 70 unnamed Defense Department insiders, broken into smaller teams, would implement cuts that are likely to be inevitable, regardless of the fiscal cliff outcome. The exercise, conducted last summer, revealed that most would significantly cut down on active duty forces while investing in defenses and areas such as cyber. It also showed the importance of “picking winners” -- priorities for spending as DOD prepares to institute spending reductions throughout the military.

Back on Capitol Hill, the focus was on the broader government and getting the job done, and the former legislators offered some advice for the budget negotiators.

“Ignore the outsiders ... they’re always going to be mad at you, just get the job done,” Frenzel said. “If you turn down a responsible deal you’ll get a worse one. No deal is perfect ... any kind of a good deal is going to be disliked by everybody.”

That is an idea that has become evident in recent years of increasingly polarized and provocative politics -- and according to Domenici, it has done the U.S. no favors in getting to the current situation.

“It seems like we’ve gotten to this point in history where everybody goes home, everybody splits and there are very few real friends,” Domenici said. “When I was here sponsorship and work on bills can be traced through friendships [across the aisles] … that’s needed more than ever now. But I don’t know if we can build that. It has to come back some way.”

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.

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