5 Questions Still Unanswered by Fiscal Cliff Deal

Yes, we avoided the fiscal cliff, at least for the moment.  But that doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. There are still a number of loose ends to tie up and all sorts of questions remaining. Heck, we’re due to fall off another fiscal cliff in just two months, when we hit the debt ceiling (to mix a metaphor).

There are a number of questions left to be answered — about process, politics and policy. Here’s a list of some of the biggest.

1. Did Boehner Ignore the “Hastert Rule?”

Only 89 Republicans voted to support the fiscal cliff deal, while 151 voted against it. Given one of the key unwritten rules of the Republican House Caucus, that shouldn’t be possible.

Republican speakers since Newt Gingrich have agreed not to bring a bill to the floor unless it has the support of the majority of Republicans. This has prevented coalitions of the type seen on Tuesday — a bloc of most Democrats joining with some of the more liberal Republicans to pass legislation.

Now, it’s possible that a majority of the caucus gave its support to bringing the bill to a vote, but were able to vote no on the bill because it was clear it was going to pass. This opens up the possibility of more coalitions of Democrats and more sensible Republicans... maybe. But that kind of teamwork might destabilize the House itself.

2. Just How Bad is GOP Fractiousness?

Consider just how bad this sequence of events has been for Republicans. From the utter failure of Plan B to Boehner allowing a vote to go through on a bill most of his caucus opposed, to Thursday, when a new Congress barely re-elected Boehner as speaker. Indeed, the fiscal cliff bill was noteworthy in that Boehner broke with his Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, who voted against the bill.

So far, Boehner has been able to hold his caucus together, but there are signs of deep division between the old guard and the younger Tea Party members. That could work to the advantage of Democrats, of course — a divided GOP may prove to make life easier on Democrats. Then again, the machinery of the house is designed to give the majority party strong advantages, and Boehner may be forced to placate his caucus by taking a hard line, and blocking legislation. That could make the next two years even more dysfunctional than the last two.

3. What About the Sequester?

The fiscal cliff deal took care of the tax issues related to the fiscal cliff, but they did nothing to take care of the sequester — the reduction in defense spending and Medicare reimbursements to doctors that Congress passed in 2011. Those were delayed 2 months to give Congress time to figure things out.

Republicans have been resolute in wanting the defense spending cuts reversed, but continue to propose draconian reductions in social safety net programs that Democrats strongly support in order to pay for it. Indeed, it’s worth remembering that the sequester was designed to be so bad that it would force Congress to act — and yet, in the end, it wasn’t.

It seems unlikely that almost two years after the sequester was first passed that Democrats and Republicans would be able to find common ground on these cuts. It seems likely that come March, we’ll be discussing once again some kind of delay in the sequester. Either that, or Fiscal Cliff II: Electric Boogaloo.

4. What About the Debt Ceiling?

Remember the debt ceiling? Sure you do. It caused chaos in markets around the world, as Republicans threatened to force default on U.S. debt unless Obama agreed to spending cuts. A deal was ultimately struck sequestering money to force Congress to deal with the issue. As we’ve seen, that worked perfectly.

The debt ceiling is a statutory limit on the amount of debt the U.S. can carry, and it’s pretty much ridiculous. The debt has already been incurred by Congressional spending; having a debt ceiling is like calling your credit card company and telling them you won’t pay your bill because you feel you owe too much money to people.

President Barack Obama has been resolute in saying he will not debate extending the debt ceiling, and that we won’t include it as part of negotiations. Republicans, meanwhile, are saying they will use the debt ceiling to extract spending concessions they didn’t get in the fiscal cliff. So clearly, we’re hitting the debt ceiling again, right?

Well, there may be a loophole or two. The 14th Amendment says that the U.S. debt “shall not be questioned.” It’s possible, if you squint at those words, to see that as meaning that the debt ceiling itself is unconstitutional. Obama could simply declare that he has no choice but to pay the debt based on the 14th Amendment, and force Congress to sue him to force America into default.

The other option is more whimsical. The Federal Reserve has the authority to mint coinage, so long as it’s not gold or silver.  So you have the Fed mint a trillion-dollar platinum coin (exactly one — no sense getting silly), and deposit it in the treasury account to pay bills. Yes, this was a Simpsons episode, but it also apparently legitimate.

Whether Obama would use one of these loopholes is an open question; whether Congress will blink and raise the debt ceiling is, too.

5. Will Congress Ever Get Its Act Together?

Well, the 112th Congress never did. It adjourned early Wednesday without passing legislation to give aid to victims of Hurricane Sandy, and Republicans in the House let the Violence Against Women Act expire.

The 113th Congress took office today, but the same leaders are in charge. It’s possible Congress will get it together, but maybe not before 2015 at the earliest.


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Boehner Chooses, Loses



Tim C.
Tim C4 years ago


Christine Jones
Christine J5 years ago

The rich get richer...

Holly Lawrence
Holly L5 years ago

Only 5 ?????

Arild Warud
Arild G5 years ago

Point 4 is hanging over you know,if they don't fix that asap it will lead to a collaps globally.

Heidi Aubrey
Heidi A5 years ago

Wow! Alot of good comments. Unfortunately, I am not the most politically savvy or educated person(politically). All I know of the political science majors in college, is that they were(if serious) always looking for internships with a politician already in power. And that I am a converted Republican. I still tend to cling pretty strongly to ideas of personal responsibility, but not to the insane extent of the current Tea Party views, especially since they come to mean, for me, to serve only the best interests of the very wealthy....they are clearly not for all Americans. They do not serve their country well at all.

Robert H.
Robert H5 years ago

There right has been fended by SS ever since it was enacted. The right HATES anything that doesn't allow for the rich to manipulate the poor. To them the poor have no right to anything they don't wish to give them. They all hated that FDR tried to get the poor people some help. They told Him float out, It is not YOUR job to protect the poor from US. If we can grab their homes after they fail completely then I will own their homes. Stop offering them jobs to artificially keep them afloat. It's the same shit going on now. Nothing has changed. The poor are there to be used by the rich. The mindset is still there. SS isn't bankrupting the country. here is a simple fix for it, eliminate the cap. They see this as THEIR best chance to eliminate the program they have been trying to eliminate for many decades. And they will are holding the economy and the country hostage to get what they want.

Tammy Taylor
Tammy T5 years ago


Ron B.
Ron B5 years ago

How about if the corporate controlled main-stream media stops obsessing over the so-called "fiscal cliff"? True to form, the GOP spoon feeds the media it's latest sound bite designed to sound like a harbinger of doom and the talking heads run with it. Most Americans probably don't have a clue what the word "fiscal" means. But a cliff can be potentially dangerous, right?

Trouble is, the cliff is more like a step and we're not going over it anyway. But according to the GOP, if we don't gut that nasty old Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, not to mention virtually every other program that helps the poor and the middle-class, we're headed for economic disaster. Never mind that most Republicans don't want to touch the bloated, wasteful military budget and if anything, according to them the super rich should be paying even fewer taxes, not more.

Yes, there is some risk involved in all of this, but it has been overblown and misdirected. It's the same old GOP scam of creating an artificial crisis in an attempt to continue widening the already massive gap between the rich and the poor even more. Anyone who falls for and supports this doomsday nonsense is getting the government---and the economy---they deserve. Think "Mayan Prophecy".

Wayne W.
Wayne W5 years ago

The SS payroll tax first went to 6.2% under George H. W. Bush. It was 6.2% until 2011 and 2012 when President Obama lowered it to 4.2%. It's now being returned to its long-time rate.
Under Reagan the rate was about 5%, raised to about 6%. On average, the rate has been lower so far under Obama than under Reagan.

In the interest of full disclosure, I did not support the lowering of the rate.

Wayne W.
Wayne W5 years ago

Cost-cutting is not difficult. There are obvious ways to do it. There is no place for Social Security to enter in budget negotiations. It is impossible for SS to add to the debt. Eliminate the income cap on SS contributuions and SS is solvent for at least 75 years.

Here's some examples:

The biggest of course is to pass MediCare for all. Nowhere in the world is private health insurance cheaper than government health insurance. Mitt put his foot in it when he praised the Israelis for their low-cost health care. Healthcare in Israel is all government-run HMOs.

Close multiple loopholes in the capital gains law: (10-year savings: $174.2 billion)
Reduce the budget for US overseas military bases by 20 percent:(savings $200 billion).
Allow MediCare to negotiate prescription prices with drug companies: ($220 billion).
Enact DoD-friendly, already approved by the Pentagon, cuts to military budget: ($519 billion)
Eliminate corporate tax loopholes: ($1.24 trillion)
Create a one-quarter of one percent financial transactions tax for high-volume Wall Street trading: ($1.8 trillion).