To say that Congress looked like a clown show this week is an insult to self-respecting clowns.
Painful though it may be, let's review what just happened. Our august legislators -- aided and abetted by President Obama -- manufactured a fake crisis. They then proceeded to handle it so incompetently that they turned it into a real one.
The bogus "fiscal cliff" -- and please, let's never, ever use those words again -- was designed as a doomsday mechanism to force Congress and the president to make tough decisions. But resistance to the very concept of decision-making was so fierce that our leaders could only manage to avoid hurtling to their doom, and ours, by deciding not to decide much of anything.
Obama "won" this bloody and unnecessary battle, but what did he really gain, aside from bragging rights for the next few weeks? More important, what, if anything, did the nation gain? Practically zilch, except a reprieve from hardships that its elected leaders were bizarrely threatening to impose on the citizens who elected them.
There is widespread agreement that the federal government faces two huge tasks. I would rank them in this order: First, encourage the sluggish economic recovery to gather steam, on the proven theory that solid growth makes our other problems much easier to solve. Second, take prudent steps to begin addressing our long-term debt problem and put entitlement programs on a sustainable course.
Some people would reverse those priorities and put debt reduction first. I think that would be a mistake. Let's have that argument. But we should all be able to agree that "one of the above"is not the right answer.
It's the answer our leaders gave us, though. The bill that Congress passed and the president signed contains no significant new stimulus to boost the recovery. And while it raises some new revenue by increasing tax rates for households earning more than $450,000 a year, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the bill actually adds $4 trillion to the debt over the next decade, mostly by keeping the George W. Bush middle-class tax cuts in place.
This is not laboring long and hard to produce a mouse. This is laboring long and hard to produce a piece of paper on which is scribbled: "IOU a mouse."
Adding injury to insult, the pathetically unproductive 112th Congress slunk out of existence without even holding a House vote on $60 billion in emergency relief funds for communities ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. If our government cannot even provide aid and comfort to citizens whose lives have been devastated by natural disaster, what can it do?
We are a nation of optimists, so our reflexive tendency is to believe that the 113th Congress, which convened Thursday, must be better. I suppose it might. I fear it might not.
One can hope that by forcing House Republicans to abandon their insistence that income-tax rates must never be raised, even for the wealthiest taxpayers, Obama has made a breakthrough. One can hope the method employed this week -- have Vice President Biden work out a deal with his old colleagues in the Senate, then challenge the House to take it or leave it -- will prove useful in future negotiations that might actually accomplish something, rather than just avert a trumped-up disaster.
But the first big task for the new Congress will be to avert yet another trumped-up disaster.
The slash-and-burn budget cuts that would have taken effect Jan. 1 were delayed by only two months. This means we will soon be going back into sky-is-falling crisis mode -- at the same time we're bumping up against the federal debt ceiling, which must be raised in order to avoid default. So before winter ends, our leaders will be at it again.
Almost everyone, liberal and conservative, agrees that some spending cuts are needed but that they should never be imposed in such a ham-fisted, indiscriminate way; doing so would unnecessarily curtail needed programs, cause great hardship and gratuitously harm the economy. Almost everyone, liberal and conservative, agrees that failing to raise the debt ceiling -- which would mean refusing to pay for spending that Congress has already approved -- is unthinkable; such a move would throw the world's financial system into chaos and potentially cause a global recession.
Everyone knows these things. Everyone knows it's time to stop the foolishness and get serious. Would somebody please tell the clowns?
-- Eugene Robinson's email address is email@example.com.