12/27/2012 08:32 pm ET Updated Feb 26, 2013

A Melodrama of Our Own Making

How can we expect Congress to solve a problem if it can't even describe the problem with an accurate metaphor?

That is the question I've been asking myself these last few days.

I'm talking, of course, about the fiscal cliff. You know, the steep drop-off we are rapidly approaching, and that we might sail over, although no one quite understands why, or what might happen if we do.

The issue has become such a source of national concern that Starbucks has taken out a full-page ad in the Washington Post that quotes Abraham Lincoln's statement, in his December 1861 State of the Union address, that "The struggle for to-day is not altogether for to-day, it is for a vast future also."1

President Obama has called off his vacation and returned to Washington. There is a deadline looming, although no one is quite sure what that deadline is, and what we need to do to meet it, but boy is it looming. See how it looms.

In short, we are approaching New Year's with a collective sense of panic and impending doom, having something to do with the national debt, or the debt ceiling, or government spending in general. To be honest, no one is quite sure.

If the words "fiscal" and "cliff" do not bring any clear image or idea to mind when you hear them in the same sentence, then you are probably just as confused as I am about what is happening and how it can be avoided. Luckily, there is an answer to our confusion. Dear readers! I have spent five minutes on the internet (OK, 10 minutes), and I am here to tell you what it is.

You may recall that way back in the summer of 2011, Republicans in the House refused to raise the debt ceiling unless the Obama Administration and the Democrats agreed to significant cuts in federal spending.

What is the debt ceiling? The debt ceiling is merely Congress's authorization to the Treasury to borrow funds to meet the fiscal obligations of the federal government. Congress must raise the debt ceiling as needed to allow Treasury to take on debt to keep the federal government operating.

In 2011, the Republicans, led by the Tea Party, manufactured a fiscal crisis by vowing to withhold Treasury's borrowing authority unless Congress agreed to drastic spending cuts the Republicans had been unable to pass through ordinary legislative means. In other words, they threatened to make the United States default on its fiscal obligations unless their demands were met. Matt Yglesias has a nice summary of events here.

The Republicans' argument was that their extreme action was required because the United States faced a "debt crisis." But that is not true. We have a debt, but no debt crisis. No one has threatened to stop lending us money. In fact, if interest rates were any lower investors would be paying us to loan us money, and yet investors are still buying up federal debt, even though they can't really hope to get anything meaningful back on their investment. In other words: no debt crisis.

A related point: The federal government does not operate like a household that has to balance its budget every month, or even every year, or even every 50 years.

You may also recall how the Summer 2011 fiscal crisis ended. The Republicans agreed to pass a bill raising the debt limit, but only if the Democrats agreed to pass a law stating that if Congress did not agree on a budget by the end of 2012, there would be drastic, automatic across-the-board cuts in federal spending equally balanced between social programs and defense spending.

In other words, having barely escaped one manufactured fiscal crisis, Congress created a worse fiscal crisis for itself 18 months down the road. Brilliant! The assumption being, I guess, that since the newly-manufactured fiscal crisis would be even worse that the narrowly averted original manufactured fiscal crisis, everyone would make sure the new fake fiscal crisis never came to pass.

You may remember thinking that this was a terrible idea. I know I did. I almost wrote a post here, in my blog, only so I could link back to it now and say, "See? I said this was a terrible idea!"

But we all knew it was a terrible idea. I know that we all thought, "This is not a solution to the problem. This is merely creating a larger problem for another day."

And sure enough, here we are, facing the larger problem.

So the first thing to know about the fiscal cliff is that it's not really a cliff. A cliff is a natural formation that you accidentally start heading toward. Usually this happens in a cartoon, or in an implausible plot twist in a movie. The cliff might be a waterfall, which it usually is in cartoons, in which case the characters are likely to be in a small canoe. Or the cliff might be an actual cliff, in which case the characters are usually in a car, and the crisis is typically caused by an inexplicable malfunction in the steering and brakes.

OK, I'll grant that the steering and brakes have stopped working in Congress, but in no other sense are we approaching any kind of cliff, fiscal or otherwise. There is no natural formation that appeared out of nowhere and that threatens to launch us onto a rocky plain thousands of feet below where we are now standing/driving/canoeing. The fiscal crisis we are barreling toward is entirely of our own making.

The better analogy is to a crazy person who holds a gun to his own head and threatens to shoot himself if certain unreasonable demands are not met, as Clevon Little did in Blazing Saddles. So let's get this straight: We are not heading toward a fiscal cliff. We are, instead, contemplating fiscal suicide.

Magically, once we make the metaphor more accurate, the problem becomes easier to solve.

Can we call off our own fiscal suicide? Yes. Yes we can. We can stop ourselves at any time, and even without the need for President Obama to don a stovepipe hat, tell homely fireside stories, and bribe uncooperative Congressman with promises of postal commissions.

All Congress has to do is repeal the law it passed in July of 2011 requiring massive cuts in the budget if Congress can't agree to a budget deal. That's all that has to happen. Congress could do this at any point, and in about 10 minutes (I'm guessing) if it wanted to (okay, maybe 20).

Of course, the United States is about to reach the debt ceiling, again, on Friday, so the bill would also have to raise the debt ceiling. But I don't think that would be so difficult either.

So, you see, no real crisis. Nothing that Congress can't undo in the short time it took to create this fiscal non-crisis in the first place.

There are a lot of responsible ways Congress can get itself out of the mess it created. Since I am a blogger on the Huffington Post, and I have no power or authority, let me suggest the most radical and also the most ridiculous approach (although I think it just might work).

Here is what I would do if I were the Obama Administration and the Democrats: Announce that we will not negotiate with a gun to our heads, even a gun placed there by ourselves 18 months before.

"We will not negotiate with terrorists," the president could say, "even when the terrorists are us."

Then, draft a bill that repeals the legislation passed in July of 2011 that created this fiscal mess, and that also raises the debt ceiling. Introduce it into Congress, and announce that there will be no negotiations with the Republicans until the completely manufactured and utterly fake fiscal crisis is resolved by the passage of legislation untying the knot in which Congress is presently entangled.

"Once the gun is lowered from our temple," President Obama could say, mixing the metaphor one more time for good measure, we will return to the bargaining table.

Then let what happens happen. If the Republicans insist on making the country suffer for the fake fiscal crisis they instigated, the country will know who to blame for the consequences.

I'm no politician. I have no record of wise stewardship of the ship of state. But I feel strongly that if the administration took this approach, and explained its position clearly to the American people, the so-called debt crisis we are now facing would be over by early Tuesday morning.


1. It's worth noting that Lincoln gave his 1861 State of Union speech to admonish foreign nations not to support "a disloyal portion of the American people [who] have during the whole year been engaged in an attempt to divide and destroy the Union," and to request from Congress measures to shore up the country militarily, to be funded by a large national loan backed by what Lincoln called "citizens of the industrialized classes." The measures Lincoln outlined were to help put down what Lincoln repeatedly referred to as "an insurrection." You can read the entire speech here.