The incoming 113th Congress is likely to face the wrath of an irate electorate in a few days, as the current Congress apparently has dropped the ball on New Year’s Eve fiscal cliff negotiations.
There still might be a smaller budget deal on Monday, as reports from Washington indicate Democrats have eased up on tax demands, and GOP Senate leaders are working toward a compromise.
But two huge issues—forced spending cuts and a new debt ceiling—won’t be part of a quick fix, if somehow Congress can agree on a way to delay some taxes and extend unemployment benefits.
Congress has had since November 2011 to deal with the big issues. Back then, a bipartisan committee couldn’t agree on a compromise to avoid the fiscal cliff scenario, a double whammy of tax hikes and spending cuts that will affect most Americans in 2013.
And it was Congress that created the fiscal cliff to begin with, as part of a bipartisan vote to approve the Budget Control Act of 2011.
The long-term problem is that the federal government spends more money than it takes in, forcing it to borrow massively. At its current pace, the government will have difficulty operating as Baby Boomers retire and tap into federal benefits.
Scenarios from the Congressional Budget Office show big problems starting in seven years if no reform measures are taken.
The failure of the current Congress to reach a deal means two or three equally nasty budget battles will take place in January as the new Congress starts its business year.
While the ongoing soap opera about the fiscal cliff isn’t a full-blown constitutional crisis yet, voters had little faith in Congress heading into December.
In several popularity surveys, Congress was at or near all-time lows when it comes to public approval ratings.
On December 19, Congress has an approval rating of 18 percent of Americans in a Gallup survey, but much of that rating was based on assumptions it would deal with the fiscal cliff in December.
A full two-thirds of Americans wanted Congress to deal with the issue, according to Gallup.
Its all-time low Gallup rating was 10 percent, in February 2012 and August 2012, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see a similar number in early 2013.
Numbers from a recent CBS News poll mirror the Gallup approval number. Its results show that 19 percent of Americans were satisfied with the state of affairs in Washington.
About 11 percent of Americans in the CBS poll approved of the job Congress was doing.
The most recent Fox News poll shows the Congressional approval rating at 17 percent, as of mid-December.
And in the Fox News poll, 68 percent of people were very interested in the fiscal cliff talks in Washington.
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Pew Research’s numbers for Congress show approval at 27 percent, but its low watermark was 25 percent in the summer of 2011, when the fiscal cliff was passed into legislation.
But Pew’s historic numbers that show the potential for a big public backlash in January.
The approval rating for GOP leaders fell from 36 percent to 22 percent in August 2011, when the budget deal was cut to create the cliff. The Democrats took a smaller hit, with a 4 percent drop.
The popularity of the Republican leadership in the Pew survey hasn’t recovered from the August 2011 survey as of December 2012.
This time, both parties will take a big popularity hit, as tax hikes could hit most Americans.
Another factor will be that many Americans don’t realize the extent of the fiscal cliff’s reach.
According to Pew, only 23 percent of people could correctly answer three basic questions about the cliff and 30 percent of Americans didn’t understand their taxes would be going up.
All this bodes for a rocky start for the 113th Congress and a lot of public dissatisfaction with the House and Senate, and likely President Obama at some point.
Scott Bomboy is the the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.