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Claptrap from a Congressional all-nighter

Published January 03. 2013 4:00AM

If there were any doubts that the 112th Congress ranks among the worst in U.S. history, they were removed in the early hours of the New Year when, in a desperate attempt to avoid tumbling off the fiscal cliff, it instead stumbled into a bed of quicksand.

What's more, if and when Congress and President Barack Obama manage to emerge from this morass they will still face that awful precipice.

For months this nation had been warned about the looming debt crisis and the dreadful consequences of failing to meet a Dec. 31 deadline for a new spending agreement - but leaders in Washington behaved just like a procrastinating student who has all semester to write a term paper but does nothing but party until the last night.

In the end Congress passed what you would expect from such a frantic, Red Bull-fueled all-nighter: a piece of garbage.

Instead of cutting the staggering $16 trillion-plus federal deficit the pork-laden bill will heap on another $4 trillion in debt over the next decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

And instead of reaching any thoughtful, long-term financial solutions that could help lead this nation back toward fiscal solvency and growth, Congress has put itself back where it started - poised on the brink of a yawning chasm that could still trigger sequestration, a series of automatic slashes in federal spending.

The New Year "resolution" only serves to delay these non-negotiable, across-the-board cuts, including a 10 percent reduction in military and non-entitlement discretionary spending, for another two months. By then, with the fiscal year further along, it likely will be even more difficult to decide which programs to trim.

We can only imagine Congress, like the slacker student who pleads with his professor for an extension on an overdue assignment, will once again goof off until the last minute.

While the ineffectual, do-nothing Congress deserves much of the discredit for this debacle, President Obama is not blameless. Though this newspaper applauds his determination to impose higher taxes on the wealthy - in the end, the package extends most of the Bush-era tax cuts for individuals making less than $400,000 and married couples making less than $450,000 - by devoting so much attention and political capital on this issue the president neglected to press for more substantive reform.

Mr. Obama even conceded that the bill was not "the grand bargain" he hoped it would be.

That's putting it too charitably.

Politics is supposed to exemplify the art of compromise, but a culture of contentiousness continues to contaminate Congress, aggravated by failed leadership.

This is especially true of House Speaker John Boehner, whose lackluster efforts for a deal that fellow Republicans could endorse eventually led to Tuesday's passage of a bill hastily cobbled together by Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, and the GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Neither Congressional Democrats nor the administration should take pride in this brokered bill any more than Republicans should be ashamed of caving in.

By posturing and dilly-dallying so long - even taking a vacation only days before the deadline - all sides left themselves no wiggle room.

Congress also squandered so much time and energy on this legislation Speaker Boehner delayed voting on a separate $60 billion relief bill for Superstorm Sandy victims in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.

So, get ready for an ugly debate on the relief measure, as well as more name-calling, threats and grandstanding on the budget bill after the 113th Congress gets sworn in on Thursday.

We'd like to think representatives and senators have learned a lesson from their near plunge off the cliff, which many economists feared would have led to tens of thousands of job losses and another recession, but their track record does not inspire confidence.

Rather, it fits Albert Einstein's definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

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