The more things change, the more they stay the same.
That’s the easy-to-reach conclusion after a bruising national election in which control of the White House, the Senate and the House stayed the same.
But the nation can’t afford the same stalemate and bickering we’ve seen the past two years. Literally.
The national debt totals $16.2 trillion today — each citizen’s share is $51,674, by the way — and the government borrows 40 cents of every dollar it spends. Then there’s the fast-approaching fiscal cliff, the end-of-year convergence of higher taxes and automatic spending cuts that have some economists fearing a new recession. Not even the most partisan politicians could want that.
So another conclusion might be drawn from Tuesday night’s results:
Americans are insisting that Republicans and Democrats work together, and they made certain that both parties have responsibility for resolving these very serious problems.
Voters didn’t trust either side with a monopoly on power. They left the House in Republican hands, which means President Obama cannot impose more costly big-government programs. They left the Senate in Democratic hands, which means House Republicans can’t insist that spending cuts are the only answer. They left Senate Democrats with a majority that’s too narrow to block Republican filibusters.
All of which leaves one clear road: A genuine, bipartisan effort to fix unsustainable deficit spending and mounting debt.
The last time the federal budget was balanced, in 2001, the federal debt was 33 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. By 2010, it had risen to 62 percent. Unchecked, by 2020, interest on the debt would total nearly $1 trillion; the debt could reach $23 trillion by 2021, and revenue could finance only interest payments, Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security by 2025.
At that point, the bipartisan presidential deficit reduction commission concluded last year, “Every other federal government activity — from national defense and homeland security to transportation and energy — will have to be paid for with borrowed money.”
The leaders of that commission offered some pragmatic guidelines that, while not popular, could point the way out of this swamp:
>> Freezes in discretionary domestic and defense spending. These would help weed out low-priority programs.
>> Structural reforms to rein in rapidly rising costs in health programs, including Medicare.
>> Comprehensive reform of individual and corporate income taxes. Reform cannot mean simply raising taxes. It must produce a fair, more pro-growth system. Simplifying the tax code, broadening the tax base, eliminating or limiting deductions, credits, exemptions and loopholes could lower tax rates and provide money to reduce the deficit. Any reform must incorporate long-term predictability to allow businesses to plan, invest and hire.
Some will look at the results of Tuesday’s voting and conclude that 2012 was a “status quo” election.
While the balance of power did remain the same, no one — not the president, not senators, not congressmen — should see the results as endorsing their continued failure to work together.
Tuesday’s winners will need to level with the public. Contrary to their upbeat election night platitudes, they need to honestly explain that getting the deficit under control won’t be pain-free.
Given the size of the problem, the solution likely will include spending cuts and doing something about revenues. It won’t be politically popular.
But the job can’t wait for another election.