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Fiscal Cliffs: Congress Falls To New Normal

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This "fiscal cliff" thing? Get used to it. We now operate in a continuous "crisis" of pending governmental collapse.

The cliff we rushed to avoid New Year's Eve is just the first of many that we will face.

It's how we roll now. It's not how the framers envisioned it; not how the old textbooks described it in the chapter on "How a Bill Becomes a Law"; not how Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann wish it would be.

On one level, GBC, or "Government By Crisis," is just -- well, different. In that sense, it is not a big deal, just more neurotic, dramatic and exhausting than the way we've conducted business in the past.

But in a deeper sense, it is a gathering disaster that is sapping our economic energy, undermining our leadership role in the world, and disproportionately putting the screws to -- you guessed it -- the poor, the working stiff and the average American taxpayer.

Money has always ruled Washington and always will. But that tends to be especially true when decisions are made in a hurry and behind closed doors in the name of paying the nation's creditors.

Take for example the decision to let the payroll tax cut expire, a big blow to the pocketbooks of most Americans. In all the hurly-burly of the fiscal cliff "crisis," that colossal decision got lost in the discussion. Deliberate discussion? Rounds of contentious hearings? None of that happened. No time. We were in a crisis.

That's where we are now. And where we will be for the foreseeable future.

Even when we get past this fiscal cliff, others are close at hand. We will soon have to deal with the spending side of the cliff equation, and a "debt limit crisis" is set for the spring.

"Government" has a solid, unchangeable sound to American ears. But we are headed in the direction of Italy, where the idea of government is so operatic and laughably crisis-filled that more than 40 "governments" have fallen since the end of World War II.

Why GBC?

One reason is that The Global Big Money and its minions have decided that the nation can't afford the welfare state it began building almost exactly 80 years ago.

It's true that the U.S. is headed in the direction of Japan and Europe, in terms of the crushing burden of debt we owe to foreign creditors and our own kids and grandkids. (Bulletin: Ayn Rand is now a popular author on the once-liberal campus of the University of Wisconsin.)

And it is true that, even if they were willing, China alone can't be expected to lend every one of us all of the money we need to keep the merry-go-round going forever, or even beyond this decade.

So we are facing a revolution of diminishing governmental expectations. But nobody wants to tell voters that the benefits they considered "entitlements" -- for that is what Congress called them -- are not guaranteed by the Constitution, or God or the Franklin Mint.

Which means that no one has the guts to discuss this calmly and rationally and in the open. Or let's just say that they are not eager to do so. So we are doing it in secret, in a hurry, and with a sense of urgency that is, in one sense, justified but in another, entirely trumped up.

Another reason for GBC is the Tea Party GOP. No politician likes to raise taxes (or at least they don't want to be seen as liking to raise taxes). And it is true that tax cuts can stimulate the economy -- until they crush it with government borrowing. But the Tea Party has turned this fundamental truism into a fanatical, nihilistic dogma. Which means that the harder they are pressed, the harder they resist, because they think they are channeling Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams (the revolutionary, but perhaps also the beer), Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp all at the same time.

The Tea Partiers are giving checks and balances a bad name, but they can effectively use the Constitution and the rules of the House and Senate to gum up the works, which is another reason why we are now in a permanent state of "crisis" in D.C.

The third reason is the decay of our political parties. They are big but they are no longer tents. They no longer force conflicting ideas and constituencies to get together on a diverse agenda. Controlled by donors, cult-style social media techniques and gerrymandered congressional districts, they focus on purity, not diversity of ideas. They have obliterated the committee system in Congress, which used to allow -- indeed, to encourage -- powerful committee chairs to moderate and mediate things in the middle.

The committees used to decide spending; now it's a few people in a room who try to do it: the president and a few key "gang of" would-be leaders.

When today's parties operate in Congress, they have no idea what language the other party is speaking. And a lack of common language creates ... crisis.

Happy New Year.

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