The looming fiscal cliff

The fiscal cliff is no abstraction, cliff deniers notwithstanding. “There would be a normal, relatively short-term increase in the deficit resulting from a deep recession and the drop in government revenues that it produces,” writes economist Robert Kuttner, a skeptic of sky-is-falling prognosticators. “When the economy recovered, the deficit would return to sustainable levels. In the meantime, these deficits are necessary and useful to maintain public spending as a tonic to the economy.”

Political game playing not only compounds the threat, but tests the patience of a politicked-out public. Washingtonians are fortunate that Sen. Patty Murray, the soon-to-be chair of the Senate Budget Committee, is a central figure in the budget noodling. Murray understands the fallout of sequestration, the automatic spending cuts triggered by a cliff dive. From national defense, to health-care services, to federal education funding, the consequences will be severe.

In a Washington Post profile last week, Murray appeared to embrace a brinksmanship strategy, squeezing Republicans to yield on taxes. As reporter Rosalind Helderman writes, “In a town consumed by talk of the apocalyptic consequences of failing to resolve the budgeting crisis, Murray has been arguing that missing the deadline for a deal — going over the cliff — could actually make getting a deal easier.”

We hope the senator’s strategy, however unnerving to contemplate, creates the desired outcome. For outsiders, the process feels like going over Snoqualmie Falls in a barrel. We’ll probably be fine. Unless, well, the barrel splinters apart.

As The Herald’s Jerry Cornfield reported yesterday, the Marysville School District could lose $482,000 from sequestration. National defense and local bases such as Naval Station Everett and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island could be devastated. Or take the National Park Service, the consummate federal agency for many Northwest families.

The proposed 8-10 percent cut to park operations through sequestration is so massive that it would be equivalent to closing nearly 200 park sites with the smallest budgets or close to 150 parks with the least visitation, or to slashing the entire budget for an estimated 9,200 seasonal rangers and other staff, and still having to identify more than $30 million in cuts.

Olympic National Park alone generates more than $100 million for Washington’s economy, and Lake Roosevelt brought in nearly $40 million, according to the National Park Service. Polling by the National Parks Conservation Association and the National Park Hospitality Association found that 95 percent of voters want the federal government to ensure that gems like the North Cascades and Mount Rainier are protected for the future and available for their enjoyment.

We hope that an equally high percentage of lawmakers (we’d settle for a majority) recognize what’s at stake.