Done till December

Members of Congress fled Washington once more last week, eager to get home and explain yet again why spending keeps going up, along with voter outrage, and little else is getting accomplished at the U.S. Capitol.

The extension of the payroll tax cut was a bipartisan occasion, to be sure, but not exactly the kind Republicans will be playing up with their constituents at home this week. For most Republicans, the deal felt more like a trap. 

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Although many of them opposed extending the tax cut on policy grounds — because it continues to skim off the Social Security trust fund — they ended up agreeing that the political price they would pay for allowing Democrats to support a tax cut while they opposed it would hurt more than robbing the poor, old Social Security trust fund. 

What you can expect for the remainder of this year in Congress is nothing. Yep, nothing. 

There will be an attempt by Republicans, and some Democrats, to undo the automatic military spending cuts, often called "sequestration," that we knew all along would never become law. Those cuts are set to take effect in January 2013, and most observers expect them to be overturned this December, after the election and at the very last minute. 

Republicans reasonably claim that these cuts must be reversed right away because Pentagon planners must begin shaving down paychecks and personnel now for any anticipated reductions. Democrats, happy to see Republicans squirm, don't sound ready to find other spending cuts to replace them right now.

So pile the "sequestration" that saved the U.S. government from default last summer on top of the expiration of the Bush tax cuts in December and oh, what a month it will be. 

Wait, don't forget the expiration of the payroll tax cut extension, unemployment benefits, temporary patches for the alternative minimum tax and cuts to Medicare providers that will be on the chopping block at the end of the year as well. The economy is teetering on the brink, at the mercy of Congress once more.

Consider too that because the $100 billion payroll tax extension passed last week wasn't paid for — only the Medicare "doc fix" and unemployment insurance were —the debt ceiling will likely be reached sooner, possibly at the end of this year. 

So after the "most important election of your lifetime" on Nov. 6, the fight isn't over. Not even close. And will the election resolve these questions by producing a mandate for either party? Somehow, I doubt it. 

No matter what, I am starting my Christmas shopping now.

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