The Fiscal Cliff Explained
“Fiscal cliff” is the popular shorthand term used to describe the conundrum that the U.S. government will face at the end of 2012, when the terms of the Budget Control Act of 2011 are scheduled to go into effect.
Among the laws set to change at midnight on December 31, 2012, are the end of last year’s temporary payroll tax cuts (resulting in a 2% tax increase for workers), the end of certain tax breaks for businesses, shifts in the alternative minimum tax that would take a larger bite, the end of the tax cuts from 2001-2003, and the beginning of taxes related to President Obama’s health care law. At the same time, the spending cuts agreed upon as part of the debt ceiling deal of 2011 will begin to go into effect. According to Barron's, over 1,000 government programs - including the defense budget and Medicare are in line for "deep, automatic cuts."
In dealing with the fiscal cliff, U.S. lawmakers have a choice among three options, none of which are particularly attractive:
•They can let the current policy scheduled for the beginning of 2013 – which features a number of tax increases and spending cuts that are expected to weigh heavily on growth and possibly drive the economy back into a recession – go into effect. The plus side: the deficit, as a percentage of GDP, would be cut in half.
•They can cancel some or all of the scheduled tax increases and spending cuts, which would add to the deficit and increase the odds that the United States could face a crisis similar to that which is occurring in Europe. The flip side of this, of course, is that the United States' debt will continue to grow.
•They could take a middle course, opting for an approach that would address the budget issues to a limited extent, but that would have a more modest impact on growth.
Can a Compromise be Reached?
election year. There's a strong possibility that Congress won't act until the eleventh hour. Another potential obstacle is that the next Congress won't be sworn in until January 3, after the deadline.
The most likely outcome is another set of stop-gap measures that would delay a more permanent policy change until 2013 or later. Still, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that if Congress takes the middle ground – extending the Bush-era tax cuts but cancelling the automatic spending cuts – the result, in the short term, would be modest growth but no major economic hit.
Possible Effects of the Fiscal Cliff
The cost of indecision is likely to have an effect on the economy before 2013 even begins. The CBO anticipates that a lack of resolution will cause households and businesses to begin changing their spending in anticipation of the changes, possible reducing GDP before 2012 is even over.
Having said this, it's important to keep in mind that while the term “cliff” indicates an immediate disaster at the beginning of 2013, the impact of the changes - while destructive over a full year - will be gradual at first. What's more, Congress can act to change laws retroactively after the deadline. As a result, the fiscal cliff won't necessarily be an impediment to growth even if Congress doesn't address the issue until after 2013 has already begun.
Will the Congress and the White House come to an agreement?
Are ultimatum situations a good way of forcing Congress to do business?
If we go off the "cliff" who deserves my blame, Republicans or Democrats?
What are your thoughts in general on this issue?