The Strange 46-Year History Of The Term "Fiscal Cliff"

The phrase isn’t new. Here’s how it traveled from speculation about a western movie in 1966 to become shorthand for Washington’s current budget crisis.

1. The “fiscal cliff” was born in 1966, in an article about the classic western, “Mackenna’s Gold.”

In a 1966 Film Daily article discussing where MacKenna’s Gold would be filmed — the United States or Spain — the term “fiscal cliff” first appeared in print, and it had nothing to do with the United States budget.

“To runaway or not to runaway,” read the article. “That was the question yesterday as writer-producer Carl Foreman presented Hollywood with a fiscal cliff-hanger awaiting [a] final decision next week on whether Foreman’s projected $5,000,000 Western epic, ‘Mackenna’s Gold,’ shall be filmed in the United States or in Spain.”

2. A version of the term next appeared a year later in 1967, this time referring to the federal budget.

Richard Spong, a writer for Editorial Research Reports, the periodical now known as CQ Researcher, wrote a piece headlined “The Fiscal Cliff-Hanger” on June 26, 1967. The article, discussing funds to be appropriated by Congress at the close of the fiscal year, appeared in the Ohio daily, the Youngstown Vindicator. Whether Spong or the Vindicator penned the fateful headline remains unknown.

3. It came back in a 1975 headline.

Printed on May 13, 1975 in the Milwaukee Sentinel, the term was used in the way readers are meant to understand it today — to describe an impending financial crisis, in this case, in New York City.

4. In 2003, Senator Kent Conrad said President Bush’s tax cuts would “take this country right over the fiscal cliff.”

In an effort to fight President George W. Bush’s tax cut package, the Democrat from North Dakota took to the Senate floor to tell colleagues he couldn’t “think of anything more irresponsible than enacting this plan,” Conrad said on March 13, 2003. “If Congress were to actually adopt the plan before us, it would plunge the country off a fiscal cliff and threaten the education of our children, the financial security of our seniors, the stability of our economy, and the ultimate strength of our nation.”

Two months later, on July 15, Sen. Conrad was featured in a piece on the “CBS Evening News with Dan Rather” about the deficit. “The fact is, he’s taking us right over the cliff, right over the fiscal cliff,” said Conrad of President Bush.

The line would stick. Conrad — then a ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, which he would go on to chair — would use the “fiscal cliff” term on the Senate Floor in September, arguing that Bush’s economic policies were “taking this country right over the fiscal cliff.”

And in February of 2004, Conrad warned then-director of the Office of Management and Budget, Joshua Bolten, that “the overall budget is increasing, spending is increasing, and we’ve got record deficits now,” said the Senator. “It doesn’t add up. If we’re honest, we know it doesn’t add up. It doesn’t come close to adding up, and he’s got us heading to the fiscal cliff.”

5. Paul Ryan liked the term, too. The GOP budget maven started using it as early as 2010 — to make a different point.

At a White House-hosted bipartisan meeting on health care legislation, Congressman Paul Ryan told President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, “Look, we agree on the problem here, and the problem is [that] health inflation is driving us off a fiscal cliff. Mr. President, you said health care reform is budget reform. You’re right. We agree with that,” said Ryan, at the Feb. 25 meeting.

He used the phrase again that year in a Sept. 13 interview with Charlie Rose, saying, “We are walking off a fiscal cliff in this country. We have a debt that is exploding.”

6. But the “fiscal cliff” we’re hearing so much about today began with Ben Bernanke.

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Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, was the first to use the term “fiscal cliff” to characterize the spending cuts and tax increases that will go into place if Congress does not reach a deal by the end of this year.

“You also have to protect the recovery in the near-term,” Bernanke said, testifying before the House Committee on Financial Services on Feb. 23, 2012. “There’s gonna be a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases. I hope that Congress will look at that and figure out ways to achieve the same long-run fiscal improvement without having it happen all at one date.”

Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a Colorado Democrat, questioned Bernanke on his choice of words at the hearing. “If I’m not mistaken, you called it a fiscal cliff — I’m not sure I’d say that,” said Perlmutter. “It’s the Bush tax cuts expire, so revenue increases, and the sequestration or the budget cuts kick in.”

The idea of a “cliff,” Bernanke suggested, referred to fact that the budgetary measures would happen all at once. “You can get the same pay-down, the same long-term benefits, but just a little more gradually,” he said.

16. But by the end of the year, everyone knew it. “Fiscal cliff” was hitting Twitter at an average of 234,000 tweets per week by December.

The phrase has been tweeted about 1,786,000 times, according to the Twitter analytics site, Topsy.

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