WASHINGTON — A year and a half ago, I was lying on the floor of the Capitol Rotunda just outside House Speaker John Boehner’s office, my head propped on a stack of notebooks, running with other reporters through the possible resolutions to a gut-wrenching budget battle gripping Washington, Wall Street, and the American public.
We waited for a negotiator to try to slip past us to the bathroom, and speculated. Boehner could buckle and back off the spending cut he was demanding; President Barack Obama could give; or the Tea Party could really win the debt standoff, force a downgrade of the nation’s credit rating, and perhaps trigger another recession.
The stakes were high and real, and there was a sense of urgency to a battle that represented a broader struggle between the two parties for the right to map out the country’s path.
Eighteen months later comes another alleged fiscal crisis — this one a “cliff,” not a “ceiling.” And we Capitol Hill denizens are officially bored out of our minds. Yes, Washington is again marching through the paces of an epic struggle between Boehner and Obama over spending. Dire warnings of economic collapse are in the air, a deadline looms ahead. But this time, Washington reporters are standing around watching what most of us believe — even if you don’t see it in the headline — is an entirely predictable Kabuki dance.
This time, there’s little energy in the Capitol and even less interest amongst the public. So far, at least, reporters haven’t found themselves camped out on uncomfortable marble hall floors for hours at a time or called back to the Capitol at a moment’s notice. There have been no walkouts, few public recriminations. In fact, aside from the occasional “no progress” statements by either side, there’s been very little of anything at all.
“I keep thinking that the fiscal cliff is the most boring crisis I’ve ever seen, and then I remember ‘Speed 2,’” Slate’s Dave Weigel tweeted Tuesday.
That’s not to say work hasn’t been going on — it has. Despite their periodic pronouncements, both sides have traded proposals, and the White House and Boehner have continued to narrow the likely parameters of a final agreement, people involved in the talks say.
That is probably good news for America. For Hill reporters grown used to edge-of-your-seat fighting, the fiscal cliff is like a bad blues cliché come to life.
“There really isn’t a lot of excitement,” one veteran Capitol Hill reporter said, chalking it up to simple politics fatigue. “People are sick of this after the election.”
Adding to that general election fatigue is the fact that official Washington has very much become the boy who cried wolf. Since the fight over extending the Bush tax cuts during the last lame duck Congress in 2010, the fiscal cliff is the fourth time the White House and Republicans have engaged in a game of political chicken with the fate of the nation’s economy on the line.
“People are sick of it,” one longtime operative said of the various episodes of brinkmanship that have been the hallmark of the 112th Session of Congress.
The insider eye-rolling, though, isn’t matched by total public disengagement. In fact, a review of traffic on the BuzzFeed Network of hundreds of sites — from Huffington Post to Fox News — finds more readers paying attention at this point in the fiscal cliff fight than you were at the same time during the debt ceiling debate.
And if those trends continue, we’re likely to see a huge uptick in the coming days as Christmas and the end of the year approach. And that, in turn, could bring significantly more public pressure.
Still, House and Senate aides on both sides of the Capitol say there simply isn’t the organized interest now that there was in the debt ceiling. “People are tired,” a House aide said recently.
That exhaustion can certainly be felt here on the Hill, where this round has lacked the theatrics that marked the debt-ceiling debate. There have been no walkouts, no chilly meetings at the White House featuring Obama sparring with Majority Leader Eric Cantor. There haven’t even been any particularly long nights or weekends of closed-door negotiations with reporters hovering just outside.
The Washington Post, Politico, BuzzFeed, and other outlets have all reported on the basic outlines of the deal for weeks, and while the final details, as well as timing, are still up in the air, the threat of economic calamity simply isn’t hanging over Washington’s head like it has in the past.
That predictability has led to much eye-rolling in the press corps during press conferences where the standard “there’s no progress” and finger-pointing lines are repeated over and over.
Indeed, the canned lines from Boehner and others involved in the talks underscore an even bigger and more troubling reality of the fiscal cliff — unlike the debt-ceiling fight or government shutdown showdown before it, there’s actually very little new information coming out of either side.
“There’s a distressing amount of agreement between the White House and Speaker Boehner’s office about the need to keep the media — and by extension other lawmakers and the American public — in the dark about what exactly they’re discussing,” a longtime Washington reporter said Tuesday. “How about a little less post-election comity, guys?”
Both sides have been blunt about their decision to simply not tell the public what, exactly, is happening.
“Our interest is in seeing if we can reach an agreement and not trying to negotiate an agreement through the media,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday, adding that “we believe that it’s in the best interest of the prospects of getting an agreement to not read out the details of conversations that the president has with the Speaker, or other conversations that hopefully will make it possible to get an agreement.”
So stop worrying about whether President Obama and Speaker Boehner will be able to agree on a deal that raises your taxes and cuts your access to health when you’re old. And start worrying about another alarming fact: You — and your congressman or congresswoman — will likely have all of about 48 hours to look over it before it’s passed into law.
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