The phrase must go on – and on

Political news junkies are surely growing tired of the phrase “looming fiscal cliff.” So, too, are the media members who are covering the biggest topic on Capitol Hill as the year winds down. (“viagra without a prescription

20tears%20fiscal%20cliff”>Bored to tears” is how Fox News’ Shepard Smith described his feelings about the entire issue in his “Studio B” broadcast Dec. 12.)

Mackenzie Weinger, a breaking news reporter at Politico, notes in a story titled “Media finds fiscal cliff a steep climb” that “the phrase ‘looming fiscal cliff’ has been uttered more than 175 times on cable TV and appeared more than 300 times in newspapers since the start of December.” Weinger’s story was posted on Politico’s website Dec. 23.

So what, exactly, does the phrase mean? And is it accurate?

The term “fiscal cliff” owes its existence to Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, who uttered the phrase in an address to the House Financial Services Committee in February. The term itself is something of a misnomer; since all the cuts won’t happen at once. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit think tank, calls the nation’s looming austerity crisis a “slope,” not a cliff, while the nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute has used the phrase “obstacle course” to describe what’s on the fiscal horizon.

The phrase has attracted attention from all manner of media members. Some, like Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor, publisher and part owner of The Nation magazine, have called it “a manufactured media drama.” But others see a serious problem looming: Should no deal be reached, the federal government will “run out of room to finance its large running deficits,” reports Annie Lowrey for the New York Times.

Democrats and Republicans alike have turned to social media outlets to communicate with the American people about the issue, and both President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have been using Twitter to boost support for their respective sides. (President Obama also has a personal quote on his Facebook page that reads, “When the American people speak loudly enough, lo and behold, Congress listens.”)

Because “looming fiscal cliff” is a sound bite that invokes all sorts of Wyle E. Coyote mental images, media members have incorporated the term into the narrative surrounding the attempts by Congress and President Obama to implement austerity measures to deal with the nation’s increasing debt and federal spending.

The cartoon analogy may be apt in more ways than one, as Boehner suffered an embarrassing setback Dec. 20 at the hands of his own party. Boehner was attempting to pass a GOP measure, called “Plan B,” that would let tax rates rise for millionaires – and would have allowed Republicans to claim they were the only ones on Capitol Hill who had passed something designed to keep the economy from lurching off the cliff. But he couldn’t muster enough Republican votes to pass the bill, so he was forced to withdraw it before offering it up to the entire House. That fiasco decimated any bargaining power he had with the president on the issue.

The Washington Post’s Wonkblog website notes in a post titled “The Fiscal Cliff: Absolutely everything that you could possibly need to know, in one FAQ,” that there are five tax measures that have provisions that are set to expire at the end of the year: the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts; the 2009 stimulus; the payroll tax “holiday”; the alternative minimum tax; and a catch-all category of corporate tax break “extenders.” As of Jan. 1, should no deal be reached, $500 billion in tax increases and another $200 billion in spending cuts are scheduled to take effect. (These measures were included in the Budget Control Act, which was a package of automatic spending cuts Congress passed in August 2011.) The Congressional Budget Office predicts that the combination of these two actions, which is equal to about 4 percent of our nation’s gross domestic product, will be enough to send our country into a recession – a result of too much austerity too soon for a fragile economy to absorb.

Members of Congress returned to Washington Dec. 27, but as long as no deal appears imminent, the phrase “looming fiscal cliff” isn’t going away anytime soon.


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