Fiscal cliff looms, but don’t expect much

No rest for the weary – or the wicked – as the sayings go. But there will be rest aplenty for Congress this fall, as members return from summer recess spent working at home, traveling abroad, and taking in the sights and sounds of the conventions. Despite the buzz of politics, or more precisely because of it, the next few weeks are unlikely to produce anything more than hours of speeches about the urgent need to do something.

In fact, there is plenty to do. It may be the most overused phrase in Washington since “Y2K,” but the approaching “fiscal cliff” is as real as any budget bogeyman. On Dec. 31, expiring laws will result in higher taxes on income, dividends, and capital gains. That’s also the trigger date for billions in automatic spending cuts that were approved as an “incentive” for the so-called “super committee” to negotiate a budget deal last year. It didn’t.

The combination of $355 billion in higher taxes and $100 billion in lower spending could seize up an already sputtering economy. Unfortunately, Democrats don’t want to extend the Bush tax cuts, Republicans refuse to raise taxes, and Majority Leader Harry Reid doesn’t want to make his senators vote on anything, especially a budget.

Ever worried about tyranny, the Framers conspicuously designed a system – and a Senate – in which passing legislation would take time and effort. One wonders whether they would be proud or appalled at Reid’s failure to pass a Senate budget for three years running. The majority leader points the finger at Republicans, but a budget resolution requires only 50 votes to pass, with Vice President Biden breaking the tie. With 53 Democrats, Reid has no excuses.

Compared with predecessors like George Mitchell or Tom Daschle, Reid’s approach has been heavy on politics and short on courage. His stonewalling now is all about protection. Democratic senators like Jon Tester in Montana, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, and Sherrod Brown in Ohio don’t want the headache of tough votes right now. What they do want is to be home.

So for the world’s greatest deliberative body, the next few weeks will look like this: Monday or Tuesday – come to Washington for an afternoon vote to start the session. Typically, it will be a non-controversial appointment or some other routine matter. Wednesday – hold committee hearings, and then start asking the cloakroom staff when they think the week’s last vote will occur. Thursday morning – receive word that the week’s last vote will occur at 4 p.m. Repeat as necessary.

Come Monday, Sept. 24, Reid will have an important decision to make: whether to bring vulnerable Democrats back for votes in October. He will decide not to. That week’s last vote will be for some type of spending resolution that keeps the government operating through the elections. For the 23 incumbent senators up for re-election, five weeks of campaigning await. For the other 77, not so much.

No one actually likes sitting around. It just happens to be the least risky strategy for Reid. And while Senate Republicans have a list of things they would like to happen – like extending the tax cuts – the stalemate serves their political needs as well, by giving them something to beat the Democratic leadership with day in and day out.

And what about that fiscal cliff? The “heavy lifting” (people in Washington love that phrase) will be done after the election, when temperatures have returned to normal. The tax side of the fiscal cliff should be easiest to resolve. Most members of Congress have little appetite for raising taxes. A deal to extend the current rates – all of them – would likely occur in a “lame duck” session in late November. But until then, the political issue is simply too valuable to both sides.

The spending side, however, is a different story. Approving a change to the automatic sequester will take a bipartisan deal, be shaped by the election outcome, and anger ideologues on both sides. Doing nothing may well be the path of least resistance.

In a most memorable scene from “A Christmas Story” a first-grader hobbled by layers of winter clothing gets knocked to the ground as a bully chases his brother. “Randy lay there like a slug,” the line goes. “It was his only defense.” Sometimes doing nothing is the best defense. It’s not pretty; it’s not productive; but it’s one thing that Harry Reid’s Senate does well.

Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe.