Have you noticed in the last year that the legislative bodies that are supposed to be setting policies for governance are mostly setting deadlines? Over the summer there was the big deadline on raising the debt limit before the federal government ran out of money. It was settled at the last minute by creating a Super Committee to solve the deficit problem and setting another deadline - they didn't meet it, resulting in another deadline for the end of 2012. The old saying that “Politics is the art of compromise” has been replaced by Government by Deadline. Under the compromise approach, government policies were set for the longer term even if they didn’t make everyone happy. Under what appears to be the new approach of setting deadlines for resolving difficult policy questions without actually settling policies, uncertainty reigns among those affected. When deadlines are reached, the consequence is rarely expiration. Most often, whatever was set to expire seems to linger on, perhaps with some minor adjustments, while legislators take uncompromising positions and set a new deadline.
As we approach the end of this year, there are several deadlines approaching which we read or hear about daily. On the federal level we have the extension of the Payroll tax cut, also called the payroll tax holiday. This is the amount wage earners pay into social security in each paycheck. If this expires, payroll taxes will return to the 6.2% of wages from its current 4.1%. Another deadline looming is the extension of unemployment benefits to the jobless. Also at the end of this year, Doctors who treat Medicare patients face a 27% reduction in fees as a result of uncompromising differences among policy-makers on health care. On this matter, Congress is apparently looking at another one or two year “fix” – i.e. setting another deadline. On December 16th, the current stop-gap spending bill for this fiscal year will also expire. Additionally, the Bush-era tax cuts are also facing an expiration deadline in another year.
In New York State, the so-called “millionaire’s tax surcharge” due to expire at the end of this year will actually be allowed to do so. Unexpectedly, State legislators have agreed to a long-term substantive tax policy with no expiration dates. This means they might actually turn their attention to needed legislation rather than rehashing the old and setting new deadlines.
Past disagreement among federal and state legislators about all of these issues is what caused the current wave of deadlines. It looks highly probable that most of these issues will not be permanently settled but rather pushed into the future by setting new deadlines.
No matter how each of us feels about the proper resolution of these issues, Government by Deadline creates a constant level of uncertainty. Uncertainty created by having short-term continuation of policies with a threat of expiration likely has more negative effect than a long-term compromise solution that not everyone likes. To use another phrase currently being bandied around in the political world, Government by Deadline is just “kicking the can down the road”.