Gail Collins: Goldilocks goes to the fiscal cliff(s)

By GAIL COLLINSJanuary 26, 2013 

When I was a kid, my parents would occasionally go out together for dinner at a restaurant. To make sure the other patrons thought they were engaged in lively conversation, my mother would quietly tell my father stories like "Goldilocks and the Three Bears." He'd nod and ask questions like "What happened next?" It actually worked out very well.

The other day, when I was listening to the House of Representatives debate the debt ceiling, I tried to imagine ways to make Congress as easy to tackle over the dinner table as the Three Bears.

The debt ceiling is the first of several fiscal cliffs the country is facing in the near future and the scenario is certainly riveting: The Treasury is due to run out of money to pay our bills in late February, at which time the national credit rating could crater, sending financial markets around the world into a free fall.

But, in practice, we're just talking about rearranging deadlines. This week, the House voted to push the debt-ceiling crisis back to the end of the line. And the obvious topic of conversation, if you were sitting over pasta with your husband, would be: Which fiscal cliff would you rather fall off first?

Imagine Goldilocks finding the first cliff too steep, and the next one too bumpy. But can you have a cliff that's just right? Maybe we need a poem:

(begin ital) A sequester cuts a big chunk from the spending

For guns, butter and schools -- but not lending

It kicks in March One,

Unless something is done

Toward this one the GOP's tending. (end ital)

The sequester can sound sort of seductive. If you made the Pentagon really hack away at its budget you know they could find some big, useless projects to get rid of. But as it stands now, the law requires a nasty nibbling away at almost every domestic and defense program in existence rather than a couple of big constructive gulps.

(begin ital) There's a thing called Continuing Resolution

A kicking-the-can institution

In March it will end,

And the government can't spend

Unless they can find resolution (end ital)

The last time Congress failed to fund the government, the results included, over the long run, the destruction of Newt Gingrich's political career. So something to think about.

(begin ital) The debt ceiling cliff is in sight

But Congress thinks falling off wouldn't be right

They're postponing that day

Till the 18th of May

When we'll all be too tired to fight (end ital)

"No one really knows what will happen. But I'm not quite sure I want to look over the edge of the cliff when it comes to the debt limit," Speaker John Boehner said in a speech this week. So, there's one vote.

This was the speech in which Boehner claimed that the Obama administration was attempting to "annihilate" the Republicans and "just shove us into the dustbin of history." He was peeved about the inauguration speech, which actually didn't so much attack the Republicans as ignore them completely, as if they had all the significance of the Modern Whig Party. Nothing more painful than not being noticed.

Boehner's speech, to the Ripon Society, included repeated references to the fact that the Senate has not passed a budget for several years. ("There's nothing that irritates our members more.") Here's another topic for dinner: Why are the Republicans so obsessed with this issue? The congressional budget isn't all that critical; it's more of a theory than a law. But Boehner and his members behave as if the Senate's failure to come up with one is a threat to the national well-being that makes global warming look like a week of bad weather.

To lure the party's right wing into voting for the debt ceiling postponement, Boehner tacked on a section that would defer lawmakers' pay if their chamber doesn't come up with a budget this year. That would presumably be the senators, since the House passes a budget every year, in the form of a plan so improbable that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan couldn't even drag it through the presidential campaign.

"When I grew up in Wisconsin, if you had a job ... and didn't do the work, you didn't get paid," Ryan declaimed in the House debate. Have you ever noticed how much Ryan talks about jobs he had in high school and college? Do you think he just likes talking about the brief period when he wasn't employed as a professional politician? Or is it just that he wants us to remember that he once drove the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile?

Nevertheless, the Senate should obviously do a budget. When the House passed its bill this week, Senate Democrats said they would. In fact, their leaders were practically wearing party hats. They can't wait.

Once they do, we'll talk about it over dinner. I hope there are bears in the plot.

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.

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