WASHINGTON — Going over the “fiscal cliff” may seem irresponsible and self-destructive for the nation as a whole, but it’s a politically logical, self-preserving step for many individual lawmakers.
They come from districts where ideological voters abhor tax hikes, or spending cuts, that any bipartisan compromise must include. Many of these voters detest compromise itself, telling elected officials to stick to partisan ideals or be gone.
That’s why the fiscal cliff is just one in a continuing string of wrenching, demoralizing impasses on tax-and-spending showdowns, which threaten the nation’s economic recovery.
A breach of the fiscal cliff’s midnight deadline became inevitable late Monday when House leaders said they couldn’t keep waiting for the Senate to send a bill their way. The House may reconvene in a day or two to vote on a White House-blessed deal to curtail the new package of tax hikes and spending cuts, which technically start with the new year. But it’s painfully apparent that partisan warfare sent the government past a line that could alarm financial markets and further undermine faith in America’s leaders, at home and abroad.
Meanwhile, the political realities that made a bigger solution impossible will not change any time soon. That raises red flags for upcoming fiscal clashes, especially the need to raise the government’s borrowing limit in a few months to avoid defaulting on federal debt.
Congress’ repeated struggles are less bewildering when viewed not from a national perspective but through the local lens of typical lawmakers, especially in the House.
For the scores of representatives from solidly conservative districts — or solidly liberal ones — the only realistic way to lose the next election is by losing a primary contest to a harder-core partisan from the same party. The notion of “being primaried” strikes more fear in many lawmakers’ hearts than does the prospect of falling stock markets, pundits’ outrage or a smudge on their national party’s reputation.
“A lot of this is the consequence of reapportionment,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., explaining the difficulty in getting Republicans and Democrats to compromise. “The only vulnerability the majority of our members have now is being primaried.”
The typical voter from a firmly conservative or firmly liberal district, Kingston said, “sends a strong message to their incumbent: Hold the line, on one side or the other.”
That’s the message GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn heard when she held a recent “telephone town hall” with voters from her mostly-rural Tennessee district. She said 86 percent of them signaled they believe the nation’s deficit should be addressed entirely by spending cuts, not tax hikes, even on the richest.
Blackburn was among the roughly four dozen House Republicans who forced Speaker John Boehner to withdraw his earlier bid to let tax rates rise only on incomes above $1 million, which would have been a better deal than Boehner, R-Ohio, can get now. She knows a thing or two about the clout of ideologically pure political groups, having won her first election to the House 10 years ago with help from the conservative Club for Growth.
The vast majority of congressional Republicans have vowed never to approve higher tax rates. It’s no idle promise. Many of them preferred to let the fiscal cliff deadline pass, causing tax rates to rise on nearly all American workers, at least for a time. Then, presumably this week, they can vote to cut taxes for around 98 percent of Americans, rather than vote in December to raise rates on the richest 2 percent and avoid the cliff.
The impact on taxpayers may be about the same either way. But the technical difference matters to lawmakers who have delivered anti-tax speeches for years.
The cliff “is really a slope,” said Kingston, one of many lawmakers who started playing down the long-term consequences of breaching the Dec. 31 deadline even before Monday’s anticlimax.
“Most of us from conservative areas are hearing from back home. Our folks are saying if you can’t do something about spending, then go over the cliff,” Kingston said, because these voters want much deeper cuts in federal programs.
Republicans might pay a price for letting the fiscal cliff deadline pass, even for a day or two. It could embolden liberal Democrats to use their newly enhanced leverage to fend off spending cuts they oppose.
In a speech Monday afternoon, President Barack Obama seemed eager to reassure liberals that he wouldn’t yield too much ground on social programs they value. “If Republicans think I will finish the job of deficit reduction through spending cuts alone,” he said, “they’ve got another think coming.”
Whatever the House and Senate agree to in the coming days, nothing is likely to change the underlying political motivations that have thwarted effort after effort to tame the government’s deficit spending.
“The district I represent became a lot more conservative after redistricting,” Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, said in an interview Sunday. It would be hard for him to vote to raise tax rates on anyone, no matter how rich, he said.
In a CNN interview Monday, Burgess said the dynamics that made the fiscal cliff so difficult will reappear in the debt ceiling debate and other approaching showdowns.
“I know people are tired of this story,” he said, “but it’s not really going away any time soon. There will be other reiterations that will play out literally through the first half of this year.”