The ink is still drying on the fiscal cliff compromise and already the focus has shifted from preventing tax hikes to what promises to be a battle royal over spending cuts. At stake could be the future health of the economy.
The mood among lawmakers after the bruising cliff battle is downright sour. Republicans are fuming that no spending cuts were included in the compromise while those who make above $400,000 will see their taxes hiked. Democrats, on the other hand, are unhappy that President Obama didn't stick to his guns on hiking taxes for those making $250,000 or more. What both parties' radicals fail to grasp is that neither side gets all that they want in a compromise. And without compromise nothing gets done in Washington.
Time will tell whether the new Congress, which is still controlled by Republicans, will be more amenable to compromise than the last Congress. Less legislation was passed over the last two years than just about any time in our nation's history. We can't really afford two more years of that kind of inertia.
As part of the cliff compromise, the so-called 10-year plan of sequestered spending cuts in defense and entitlements, agreed upon in August of last year, was delayed for two months. That gives the new Congress time (until March 1) to work out a more focused plan of spending cuts than the across-the board first installment of $88 billion in cuts that no one wants to make.
Adding even more
In addition, the credit rating agencies were disappointed by the cliff compromise. The deal did little to alleviate their concerns over the burgeoning deficit. Moody's, which still maintains a triple A rating on U.S. debt, could join Standard & Poor's in reducing their credit rating on U.S.government debt unless more cuts are made and soon.
Beyond the rhetoric and posturing of this debate that most assuredly will be with us through most of this first quarter, there are some very real consequences for our economy, employment and our nation's future. At long last, the U.S. economy is beginning to grow at a sustained rate, thanks to the efforts by the Federal Reserve Bank. Their QE 1-2-3 appears to be working and the economy is gaining momentum. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, however, has cautioned that without simulative fiscal policy out of Washington lawmakers, there is not much more he can do.
Yet, Republican lawmakers are insisting that the government do the exact opposite -- cut spending, not increase it. They demand austerity now and a reduction of the deficit now. It is similar to the stance of Germany and its Chancellor Angela Merkel two years ago. Their misguided policy drove half of Europe into a recession and unemployment rates, in some countries, as high as 24 percent. Why do they think it won't happen here?
I do not condone this country's out-of-control spending, or the deficit, or our addictive need to borrow and borrow. I think it is despicable, dangerous and has gone on far too long. But there is a time and place for everything. Now is not the time to find fiscal religion.
Let the economy continue to grow, gather strength and then cut spending and even raise taxes again if necessary. Give growth another year to work its magic. That will give the economy enough staying power to weather a bout of austerity. My bet is that if we do, tax revenues will explode, the deficit will flip to a surplus by 2016-2017 and we won't need to hike taxes for anyone. It has happened many times in our nation's history and I believe it could happen again.
In the past, the problem has been that when the good times begin to roll, the notion of austerity and spending cuts are conveniently forgotten in Washington. That's the time we will need the tea party and its devotion to fiscal discipline. Let's hope they are still around and stay true to their economic goals by that time. In the meantime, let us grow.
Bill Schmick is registered as an investment adviser representative and portfolio manager with Berkshire Money Management, managing over $200 million for investors in the Berkshires. His forecasts and opinions are purely his own. None of this commentary is or should be considered investment advice or a promotion of Berkshire Money Management.