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Updated Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 11:01 PM

A Congress that dodges the issue

By Danny Westneat
Seattle Times staff columnist

If you start backsliding on your resolutions in just the first two hours of the New Year, it may be a sign you have serious willpower issues.

Then again, this is Congress we're talking about.

Like you, I was on the edge of my sofa as the president and congressional leaders spent the holidays working on a budget deal that seemed mostly fueled by hyperbole. Cliff! Slash! Furious late-night negotiating! It had as much fake drama as any reality TV show.

What it didn't do, in the end, was much to change the nation's finances or politics.

Remember during the election, when they said they were going to get serious this time about putting America's finances in order?

Well, they didn't. Within two hours into Jan. 1, the Senate had voted to "sidestep the prickliest issues and set up more severe showdowns in the months ahead," as The Washington Post put it.

Republicans in the House were right to Bronx cheer this tepid deal. I say this even though I blame the Republicans' anti-tax fervor for much of the dysfunction in D.C.

This deal claims to start tackling the federal government's deficit problems. But the GOP is right: It really doesn't.

It produces only $60 billion a year in new revenue. The deficit this year alone is $1.1 trillion. Which means after all the wailing about impending apocalypse, it looks like Congress ended up stanching the annual flow of red ink by about only 5 percent.

Put another way: By itself this plan will reduce the typical yearly deficit of late from $1.1 trillion to ... $1.04 trillion. Drinks all around!

The deal has almost no cuts to spending. It doesn't address at all the real issues, such as the rising costs of Medicare and Social Security and how, or whether, we might pay for them.

Most of the higher taxes fall on the top 0.7 percent of the wealth scale. That's fine with me because I'm not one of them. But the problem for the rest of us is that this doesn't raise anywhere near enough money to even pretend to start balancing the books.

Congress' big compromise on spending cuts? It was to set yet another future date when they will get down to making those hard decisions. Honest this time.

I get why economists say we didn't want to go off the fiscal cliff. Too much shock to the system. But maybe shock is what it's going to take.

Because this Congress is incorrigible. Members, ostensibly scrambling on the brink of a fiscal abyss, somehow found the fortitude, and the time, to lard this bill up with pork. Of its 157 pages, only 30 related to the primary budget issues. The rest were special-favor tax exemptions, hung like ornaments on a tree, for the owners of car-racing tracks, coal companies, rum makers and on and on.

But they couldn't find the will to cut anything from, say, the military. Even though the nation's defense budgets are at historic highs, up more than double from a decade ago. Remember what a big topic defense cuts were in the presidential election? Oh well. Next time maybe.

I know, there is some good news here. At least they reversed some of the Bush tax cuts (though most were enshrined permanently, only compounding the mistake made when they were passed in the first place.) At least they didn't add to the deficit this time — for the first time since the 1990s.

But what's frustrating is that much of the nation long ago began the tortuous slog out of the economic crash of 2007 and 2008. People cut back or saved a bit. Others got out of underwater mortgages. In business and in state and local governments, jobs were cut, benefits pared, programs downsized.

It hurt. But for the most part it has been done gradually, sensibly. It was necessary pain, to reset after a decade of reckless, put-it-all-on-credit binging.

About the best that's being said of Congress and the White House's bumbling response to all that, five years on, is that at least they didn't crater the economy. Success!

The old quote from Will Rogers has rarely rung more true:

"This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer."

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.


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