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Tom Baxter

A bluff, a gulley, a canyon or escarpment, but this is not a cliff

By Tom Baxter

Terminology matters immensely in the framing of a political debate, but sometimes it falls a little short.

The American people were not convinced in the last election that every cutthroat CEO, coldhearted skinflint and profligate heir deserved to be called a “jobs creator.” Nor does it appear, as plasmas move briskly out of box stores and power-intensive holiday decorations brighten the landscape, that they believe they are headed for a “fiscal cliff.” If anything, anticipation of the cliff has contributed to the festive air: close to a hundred companies are paying special dividends this year before tax increases on investment income go into effect.

It’s a major geological formation, that’s for sure, created in the violent interaction between the gas of entitlement spending and the granite intransigence of Washington gamesmanship. It’s just not a cliff.

“Fiscal bluff” would be my personal choice. I don’t know why, but you think of falling off a cliff, but climbing a bluff, which is closer to what the administration and congressional negotiators are faced with over the next couple of weeks.

“Bluff” also serves double duty, since there literally has been so much of it. House Speaker John Boehner may have been “flabbergasted” when the Obama administration brought to the table what it had promised on the campaign trail as a first offer, but he knows Congress stands to shoulder more of the blame than the president if this standoff really does result in an economic disaster.

There will be sharp trading over this deal, but it’s unlikely anyone there won’t be a deal. Boehner’s counterproposal on Monday was essentially what the Bowles-Simpson Commission recommended. That’s a non-starter also, but it’s another few feet up the bluff.

But you can choose your own wadi, bank or escarpment. Those who believe that the standoff really does come down to an irreducible difference between the parties might even think of it as a “fiscal fault line.” That would better describe the position of conservative Daniel Horowitz.

“This imbroglio over the fiscal cliff was never about the budget – spending or revenue.  It is about the fundamental role of government in a Constitutional Republic that inherently restrains the size of government,” Horowitz writes in Red State.  No cliff that, but something much more fundamental.

On the other hand, those who question whether the real impact would be all that serious might want to call it a “fiscal gulley.” Democrats who have grown increasingly enamored of this idea that it won’t be so bad are being described as “cliff diving.”

Amid all the euphemisms, it’s clarifying to recall what this is, literally. It’s the enforcement of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which was passed as a stopgap measure because Republicans would not agree to the raising of the debt ceiling otherwise. The cliff trumped the ceiling, metaphorically, but it didn’t replace it. By March, in all likelihood, federal spending will again hit the debt ceiling, and the way things are going there could conceivably be another cliff on the horizon after that. The problems the politicians are arguing about is real, but their method of framing the solutions is entirely artificial.

If Congress created the fiscal cliff it now stands over, state legislatures, with their constitutional requirements to maintain a balanced budget, face a fiscal cliff every year. Even with an improved economy, they will face tough choices in the coming year, like extending the hospital bed tax in Georgia and deciding whether to accept the ObamaCare Medicaid offer. Some of those choices could have as much to do with how this shaky economy fares in the coming year than Washington’s fiscal cliff, or canyon, or whatever  you want to call it.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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