MEMBERS OF Congress will have little time to relish today's victories or mourn election losses because a "fiscal cliff" is close at hand and the U.S. economy is approaching the edge.
Unless the House and Senate can agree on a plan soon, there will be $109 billion in cuts to discretionary and military spending during 2013 and income tax rates will revert to levels collected before the administration of President George W. Bush. Economists say those twin blows will further slow a sluggish U.S. economy and could tumble the nation back into recession.
Congress has itself to blame for this predicament. In early 2011, the Democratic-led Senate and Republican-led House could not agree on how to come up with $1.2 trillion in savings or higher revenues over the next nine years. In order to give themselves an incentive to reach an agreement, the "sequestration" program was put together.
Strategists said Republicans would rebel against the end of the Bush era tax cuts and 9 percent cuts in military spending. Democrats would fight against the 8 percent cuts in nondefense discretionary programs and 2 percent cuts in Medicare. Neither side would risk allowing such painful actions -- or so the theory held.
A bipartisan committee was supposed to agree on more measured cuts in spending and tax increases by the end of 2011. Neither side would give an inch and the deadline passed without an agreement.
January represents another deadline. If no agreement is reached, taxes will ratchet upward, spending for programs including air-traffic control will be cut and the military will lose one dollar in every 11 it has in the current budget.
There have been efforts to head off sequestration. Four Democratic and four Republican members of the Senate, known as the Gang of Eight, have worked to find a compromise. They have kept most details secret, waiting for voters to select a president and determine the makeup of the 113th Congress.
Last week it was rumored that White House staff was considering whether the president could invoke executive powers and suspend sequestration's most onerous features. That debate is best left to courts of law.
Congress should assure that executive orders are not needed.
Lawmakers must tackle the sequestration crisis in a spirit of compromise. It will take the efforts of both chambers of Congress to steer the nation away from the cliff.