If all you wanted to do was to reduce the deficit as quickly as possible, here's one very simple way to get it done: Go off the fiscal cliff.
Do so would result in about $720 billion in total austerity in 2013, and it would bring down the deficit that year in some of major ways, including $180 billion from income tax hikes, $120 billion in revenue from the payroll tax, $110 billion from the sequester's automatic spending cuts, and $160 billion from expiring tax breaks and other programs, according to Bank of America's estimates.
So when businesses and politicians fret about the economic fallout from the fiscal cliff, they're reacting to the consequences of dramatic deficit-reduction in the short-term. It would save the government hundreds of billions of dollars next year, but would also take away the equivalent 4.6 percent of GDP through tax hikes and spending cuts—a sharp fiscal contraction that economists say would be a drag on growth in a still-tepid economy.
Why, then, do so many in Washington believe that the only way to avoid to the dreadful consequences of deficit reduction is…deficit reduction?
It's partly because there are some aspects of the fiscal cliff that Democrats and Republicans want to hang onto, albeit in a different form. Nobody wants the big, dumb cuts in the sequester to take effect. But, in theory at least, Republicans do want the $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction contained in the sequester: That's what they demanded last year, at least, in exchange for raising the debt ceiling in August. And the expectation is that they'll be pushing for an alternative to the across-the-board sequester that tries to avert the defense cuts while hanging onto the others.
Democrats prefer an alternative that would try to preserve other aspects of the fiscal cliff—namely, the Bush tax cuts expiring on high-income Americans. And leaders like Sen. Chuck Schumer are already trying to frame the looming fight in terms of a trade-off on the deficit: Why not not pay down the deficit instead of giving big tax cuts to wealthy Americans?
Finally, centrist deficit hawks want to use the fiscal cliff as an opportunity to push through their own plan for tax, spending and entitlement overhaul. It would entail much bigger overall deficit reduction, but phased in gradually instead of all at once. Even a "grand bargain" would have about $400 billion in 2013 austerity, as opposed to the $720 billion in the entire fiscal cliff, according to the Bank of America's estimates. And they're anticipating that the only way for either side to get what it wants is to sit down and agree to their kind of bargain.
So all of these schools of thought would take Congress in the direction of doing less immediate deficit-reduction, not more.