There is a precious gift hidden in the event we now call Ben S. Bernanke’s “fiscal cliff.” On Jan. 1, without — or more precisely, because of the lack of — any action by Congress, the fiscal integrity of the government of the United States will be given back to the people. For the first time in the history of this administration, the government will have a budget baseline for the next decade that is sustainable and responsible. That baseline will provide for a national debt that stabilizes at slightly more than 50 percent of gross domestic product. That may be more than some might prefer, but it is in the general vicinity of the promised lands of the Simpson-Bowles debt-reduction commission and Rep. Paul Ryan’s proposed budget. It is, by most accounts, manageable.
Eureka. The nation’s children will bless us. It is the best Christmas present they could ever receive. That is not all. More Americans will share in the responsibility of paying for their government, and they may come to realize that the nation’s capital is not another North Pole where presents come from. Americans may acquire more of an aversion to reckless government spending once they realize that it is not always someone else who has to pay for it. As our children could tell us if we listened, having something left in Santa’s workshop to pay for future Christmases is a wonderful thing.
Sure, the Grand Old Party will be blamed for bringing sobriety to the festivities, but this is a whole lot better than getting arrested for driving away under the influence of trillions of gallons of red ink. It is pretty clear that President Obama, coming off his re-election, was a bit too high to be behind the wheel.
The nation still has to get home, and Bill Clinton’s tax house is not home. The leaders in the people’s House will want to turn their attention in the coming year to finding their way home in a manner that both they and their children can afford. They will have a rational and sustainable baseline to be their guiding star, one that leaves their children with some hope for their future as well. The House might insist that the tax cuts be “paid for” with spending cuts and pass a multiyear debt-ceiling bill that reflects the baseline. Once everyone sobers up, they will realize that they only need as much red ink as they can consume safely without drowning their children.
Of course, none of this would have been necessary if Washington had followed the laws it passed and adopted sober-minded budgets in years past. For a town that wants to make everyone happy, it set a reckless example. Imagine Christmas in a household where no money is left for gifts at the end of the year because the adults had no budget and ran out of money. Imagine further that the adults then borrow from their children just so they could put presents for themselves under the tree. Then ponder the sight of those adults enjoying themselves so much that they propose to do the same thing year after year, with no end in sight. That’s what today’s politicians are doing.
So when the story of Christmas 2012 is told, it might be said that this was the year when selfish politicians of the entitlement generation finally saw the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and asked the question whether the vision of their own children in debtors’ prison was the specter of things that would be or that might be. They might realize what Charles Dickens meant when he wrote, “Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if preserved in, they must lead. But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.” It may not be too late, even now, to change the ends foreshadowed by the fiscal irresponsibility of our nation’s capital.
Warren L. Dean Jr. practices law in Washington and is an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center.