Politicians represent a nation that cannot agree

“Why can’t those idiots in Washington get their act together and solve a problem like the fiscal cliff, when everyone knows what a realistic solution looks like?”That’s pretty much the question I get asked these days when I run into people at the coffee shop or my favorite supermarket.

There is no short answer, but let’s start with the fact that our elected representatives might be a lot of things, but “idiot” is not a word I would use to describe 99 percent of them.I teach a course on Federal Policy at the Duke Law School. The course requires law students to spend a semester in Washington D.C., where they work part time in some department of the federal government. As part of the course, they meet with members of Congress, congressional and executive branch staff, lobbyists, representatives of interest groups, TV and print reporters, and scholars from D.C. think tanks.

Last year the class had back-to-back meetings with Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.). Sen. Kerry is Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and of course was the Democratic Party’s nominee for President in 2004. I have known him for years and admire his intellectual ability and his work ethic. Sen. Barrasso is less well-known but is a rising star in the Republican Party. Elected to the Senate in 2008, he serves on the Republican leadership team as Chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee. He is an orthopedic surgeon. I like him a lot and respect his intellect and dedication to his job as a senator.

The focus of both meetings, and most of the questions asked by students, concerned the budget deficit. Sen. Barrasso gave a comprehensive presentation of his views on the issues and gave numerous examples of why these views were important to and supported by his constituents back in Wyoming. Sen. Kerry did the same thing, again citing support for his views in his home state.After the meetings I asked the students what they thought of the presentations. They came away with two impressions of the speakers. First, they felt that neither senator was just presenting his party’s agenda; each was presenting what he personally felt was in play in the budget debate. Second, the students agreed that each senator’s comments fairly represented the view of the people in the state he represented. I did, too.

Massachusetts gave Obama 61 percent of the vote in the last election and Wyoming gave Romney 69 percent.

Does it really surprise you that these two sincere, intelligent men find it difficult to reach agreement?The budget is not something that is just endlessly debated by politicians in Washington. That debate simply reflects the fact that people in different parts of this country have very different views on what we need to do to avoid the fiscal cliff. It is that divide in the country at large, not just the divisions among our politicians,that make a deal so difficult.All that being said, I think the odds at this point are that we will go over the cliff (or the slope, more accurately) very briefly after Dec. 31. Why? All but 13 Republican members of Congress have signed a pledge to never raise taxes. In recent weeks, a few of them have backed away from that pledge, but not enough for the House of Representatives to pass the tax increase on upper-income households that President Obama is insisting on.

The Bush tax cuts expire on Dec. 31, and everyone’s taxes will automatically increase. Suddenly, everything will look different. Instead of voting to raise taxes on the upper 2 percent on Dec. 30, House members will be able to vote for a tax cut for the other 98 percent on Jan. 2.

Exactly the same outcome, but with symbolically different votes.

For those not in the top tax bracket, I doubt that even your first paycheck of 2013 will reflect any tax increase, because I expect the vote for a tax cut will come before Jan. 10, and we will avoid the immediate fiscal crisis.

On the longer range budget problems, I believe that in 2013 there will be a “grand bargain” between the President and Congress. The people I meet in my grocery store are right: We do know what a realistic solution looks like. The pieces are in place to make it happen, and I’ll be writing about them in future columns.

Originally published 15 December 2012 on delawareonline.com