Opinion: A sad picture | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 02.03.2013
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Opinion: A sad picture

As the US Congress failed to agree on an austerity deal, the country faces automatic broad spending cuts. The confession of failure comes at a time when "compromise" is a dirty word, says DW's Christina Bergmann.

Christina Bergmann (photo: DW)

Christina Bergmann is DW's Washington correspondent

It makes you shake your head in disbelief. US President Barack Obama was touring the country and repeatedly explained that the automatic budget cuts "will jeopardize our military readiness; it will eviscerate job-creating investments in education and energy and medical research" as well as endangering borders and airspace. Criminals would have an easy laugh as FBI staff would be forced to take time off. In short: it would be a national catastrophe.

Then, the crucial day arrives: March 1. The president once more faces the press to warn about the consequences of the cuts. But he seems surprisingly relaxed and in the end even goes as far as saying that, in fact, it's not an apocalypse - but merely stupidity. So it's not the end of the world after all? Fact is that the cuts of around $85 billion (65 billion euros) this year will only be felt gradually and they can be stopped any time - should there be a deal in Congress. Or should elected representatives decide to spread the cuts in a more sensible way.

Showdown after showdown

It is, indeed, silly to cut all national expenses by the same percentage without setting any priorities. Sequestering the money was supposed to be a tool to apply some pressure on Democrats and Republicans to find a compromise in the budget debate when the parties got locked in a struggle back in 2011 over the debt ceiling.

But one thing's become clear since then: Setting an ultimatum doesn't get this Congress to get it to solve the problem, all an ultimatum does is get them to postpone making a decision. The debate on raising the debt ceiling will be back on the agenda in May. And the government will again be unable to pay its bills should Congress fail to agree that the 2012 budget can be transferred to 2013. The reason behind that move? A budget hasn't been passed in year, the president hasn't even proposed one for 2013. The deadline for doing so passed on first Tuesday in February. The explanation was that things were too busy with the debate on the fiscal cliff at the end of 2012; it's not exactly competent leadership skills that the government is showing here.

Republicans play stubborn

And so the country is tumbling from one deadline to the next self-imposed deadline; from one pseudo crisis to the next. But it's not the arbitrarily fixed debt ceiling of the haircut approach to cuts that is the problem, but the inability of elected officials to come up with a constructive solution. The problem is also the mountain of debt which is far beyond $16 trillion and still growing and the social programs, which without reform will be impossible to finance in the future.

Although Obama trying to create a bit of panic wasn't his finest hour, it was still the Republicans who are at fault. They have lost the last presidential vote and again got bogged down with their no-new-taxes policy after they had to make concessions in the fiscal cliff showdown of 2012. They don't have a problem with steering the country into the crisis in order to win some political points. "Compromise" has become a dirty word for the GOP. John Boehner, the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, has no authority within his own party, while in the Senate the Republicans have a large enough minority to block the Democrats - a policy they pursue with disregard for the consequences.

People turn away in resignation

The financial world so far remains unimpressed by the recent theater in Washington. The population, however, believes that the cuts will have massive consequences on the US economy. According to a poll by the Pew Institute, 45 percent of people blame the Republicans in Congress and 32 percent the president. Another 13 percent believe that both sides are to blame. But an increasing number of Americans are simply turning away in frustration. They don't even follow the debate anymore.

Maybe this is the only way to get elected representatives and the government to do their job and get the budget back on track: A proper compromise of raising taxes and cutting spending.

If the actors see that they don't have an audience anymore and that the theater of creating yet another ultimatum has no effect. Currently though, Congress is like a kindergarten where little kids sit in a sandpit and fight over a shovel while the teacher repeatedly threatens sending everyone to detention but eventually gives up.

It's a sad picture of the oldest democracy and last superpower on the globe.

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