2013 and the Fiscal Cliff


The White House/ flickr

2013 and the fiscal cliff will arrive in a few hours, though today's most popular Google search is about Kim Kardashian's pregnancy. After all, we can only take so much news about something called the "fiscal cliff." But it actually makes a difference whether we're paying attention to Kim Kardashian or to what's happening in Washington.

The 112th Congress, which will disband in a few days, has been one of the least productive in recent memory. This Congress struggled even to pass routine legislation. For instance, you might remember that lawmakers brought the U.S. economy to the brink last August over legislation to raise the debt ceiling; that almost caused a government shutdown and did result in a downgrade of the U.S. government's credit rating. Then lawmakers failed to pass an actual budget for our current fiscal year, so the government is operating on a continuing resolution – just a temporary spending bill.

And currently, with a few hours remaining before across-the-board spending cuts and tax increases are scheduled to take effect, lawmakers are trying to patch together a deal. It's not as though this deadline snuck up on them. They've known about it for months – even years. But lawmakers did almost nothing in 2012, because it was an election year. Then, after the election came and went, they didn't move quickly. Every leader in Washington has taken turns blaming the opposing party. Now the deadline is hours away.

What's really to blame for all the disfunction?

All of us, actually. Our representatives in the House and Senate have surely failed us in many ways, and many lawmakers say so themselves. They haven't only failed to meet deadlines – they've often failed to act as responsible stewards of our national priorities. (Why, for instance, have negotiations ground to a halt over which wealthy Americans will avoid tax hikes? Public opinion suggests that we want lawmakers to focus on issues that affect middle-class families.)

But accountability doesn't end in Washington, because Congress works for us. You and I vote to send representatives to our nation's capital to give voice to our own priorities. If they fail that task, it's our job to hold them accountable. Right now most Americans say Congress as a whole is doing a bad job, but what does each of us know about what our own legislators are doing? It can seem like a daunting task to follow Washington so closely. But new tools are making that easier all the time.

So here's a good New Year's resolution for 2013: Let's do better. Let's make sure folks of all walks of life have basic information about how Washington is supposed to work. Let's pay attention to what our lawmakers are doing. Let's reward media outlets that serve up quality reporting. And when you're unhappy with how things are going, take action. One woman in New York started a petition on Change.org that asked lawmakers to deal with the fiscal cliff instead of taking a holiday vacation. In addition to Change.org, try PopVox to follow legislation, OpenCongress to see what your representatives are doing, TurboVote to make voting easy and remember every election, and Build a Better Budget to build your own federal budget and to tell Congress about it.

Here's to a brighter 2013!