After the fiscal cliff, a mountain range

We have a deal. But please hold your applause, indefinitely. We momentarily went over the fiscal cliff but clawed our way back up the rock face. Unfortunately, we are most likely in store for a never-ending series of cliffs for our economy, our government and indeed our country. Soon we'll have to deal with the sequester, a debt-ceiling extension and possibly a budget, all of which hold the spectre of revisiting the unresolvable conflicts and intransigence of the fiscal cliff. Imagine an M.C. Escher drawing of cliffs.

Be clear: there is no reason to celebrate. This is a mournful moment. We and by we I mean Congress, and by Congress I mean the Republicans in Congress have again demonstrated just how broken and paralysed our government has become, how beholden to hostage-takers, how vulnerable to extremism. A fiscal cliff deal was cut at the last possible minute, covering a minimal number of issues. It was far from perfect and barely palatable. It was a compromise, and compromises are inherently imperfect.

As the fiscal cliff votes came down to the wire, many repeated the aphorism: don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. But sadly, we are beyond even that. Now the perfunctory has become the victim of the gruelling. The American people suffered through another moment of manufactured suspense brought on by political malpractice. There was no grand bargain. There was only a begrudging acquiescence.

Not only is the era of grand bargains "over," as Jennifer Steinhauer wrote in The Times on Tuesday, I believe that the era of basic governance is screeching to a halt. As Steinhauer pointed out in September: "The 112th Congress is set to enter the Congressional record books as the least productive body in a generation, passing a mere 173 public laws as of last month. That was well below the 906 enacted from January 1947 through December 1948 by the body President Harry S. Truman referred to as the 'do-nothing' Congress, and far fewer than even a single session of many prior Congresses."

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