Americans can rarely have held their politicians in greater contempt, and rightly so. The agreement that pulls the country back from the brink of the so-called “fiscal cliff” is no more than a feeble, last-ditch palliative. And even that assumes the House of Representatives will follow the Senate in a bipartisan vote to ratify the deal (which at the time of writing looked less likely than ever.)
Some observers have glibly asserted that the stalemate is precisely what the country's founding fathers envisaged, with the constitution's elaborate system of checks and balances. But Messrs Washington, Jefferson, Madison and the rest could never have imagined so colossal a collective abdication of responsibility by the people's elected representatives.
All parties to the mess must share in the blame: Republican right-wing zealots with their blind resistance to tax increases of any nature, the ineptitude of the House Speaker John Boehner, who lost control of his Republican troops, and the liberal Democrats who will have no truck with changes in the costly entitlement programmes, Medicare and Social Security, that are essential if the country's finances are to be put on a stable long-term footing.
Nor can the President himself escape criticism. Barack Obama, whose failure to establish good personal relationships with key Republicans has contributed to the deadlock, has too often seemed disdainful not only of the recalcitrant House, but of the entire legislative process. In the event, it fell to the unlikely tandem of Vice-President Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell, the waspish leader of the Republican minority in the Senate, to thrash out a bargain. And as was predictable from the outset, the deal merely kicks the can down the road.
Vanished is any prospect of the permanent "grand bargain" of tax increases, spending cuts and entitlement reform that the President, economists, t bipartisan commissions and Congressional supercommittees have urged. Even if it passes the House, the agreement will only raise some $600bn (£370bn) of new revenue, a fraction of what is required. In the meantime, a veritable mountain range of fiscal cliffs looms in the next few weeks.
Unaddressed by the Biden-McConnell bargain are the mandatory $100bn of spending cuts that were supposed to take effect from the start of 2013. Instead these have simply been deferred. And even before that comes a potential clash over raising the federal debt ceiling, that could be even more ruinous than the one that brought the country to the brink of default in summer 2011. Finally, on 27 March a short-term budget funding measure expires – bringing the risk of a federal government shutdown.
And next time Republicans could hold the stronger hand. The argument over tax cuts for the wealthy is now off the table. Their goal will be to make spending cuts and entitlement reforms the price of agreement to raise the debt ceiling, an argument to which Americans are more receptive.
Mr Obama insists he will not yield on the debt ceiling. But he did so 18 months ago, and some Republicans are betting he will fold again, rather than see the country default on its debt. Such brinkmanship not only risks plunging the global financial system into the abyss. It also underlines what has long been obvious: that the greatest enemy of American growth is the dysfunctional American political system.Reuse content