As Congress reconvenes this week, the agenda includes such arcana as importing polar bear carcasses. Before adjourning, the House and Senate may tackle postal reform and renewing the farm bill.
But the real challenge is avoiding the fiscal cliff.
Unless Congress acts before Jan. 1, a combination of tax increases and spending cuts totalling $700 billion next year alone will be triggered. That would be powerful medicine for the budget deficit and the debt, but it would come at a steep cost to the economy, with another recession likely by spring.
The trap is set because Congress couldn't agree on a debt-reduction plan in 2010. “It was designed to be a disaster,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said this summer. “Because the hope was, because it's such a disaster, that Congress would respond and do what was right.”
The disaster is upon us, and it can be avoided only by compromise, sacrifice and a display of bipartisanship that has been sorely lacking in Washington.
Fortunately, there have been signs of flexibility in the week since the election, with both President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner committing themselves to finding a solution. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell added his voice Tuesday, saying he's “open to new revenue” in exchange for entitlement reforms.
McConnell's statement echoed the broad outline that has been obvious for a long time. A solution must include spending cuts and revenue increases. It also must promote economic recovery in the short term while guaranteeing deficit and debt reduction over the long haul.
As a matter of both politics and policy, that's a difficult challenge. But the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles and Domenici-Rivlin commissions provided detailed plans that can guide the upcoming negotiations.
Obama won an impressive victory in the election and the leverage that comes with it. But Republicans still control the House, and the country can't afford another stalemate.