By Senator Mark Udall and Senator Susan Collins
Congress is entering the fourth quarter again, with the clock ticking down on our chances to do something real to help the economy and stimulate job growth. Congress has been in this situation before and, unfortunately, we aren't doing any better this time around. A lack of political will is preventing Congress from passing a comprehensive, bipartisan deficit-reduction plan that at long last adequately addresses our fiscal woes. The uncertainty and discord of our inaction are threatening to hurt the financial markets and further hobble the American economy's recovery.
After facing this all-too-familiar fiscal crisis last year when our nation was under threat of hitting its debt ceiling, leaders from both parties worked together to pass the Budget Control Act of 2011. Although the bill was deeply flawed, it averted the immediate threat of a national default.
Rapidly, we are again barreling toward another fiscal impasse.
As part of the 2011 deal, Congress agreed to identify $1.2 trillion in debt and deficit reduction by Jan. 15, 2012, or risk steep, automatic and equal cuts to the defense and non-defense budgets alike. These cuts, commonly called "sequestration" on Capitol Hill, would have a devastating impact on our Defense Department and federal investments in research and development, education, trade, infrastructure and other critical programs that create American jobs and safeguard our citizens. Our nation's top military and civilian defense leaders have consistently warned of the dangers of sequestration, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has testified that it would "inflict severe damage to our national defense for generations."
These mindless, meat-axe cuts must be averted, but that does not mean taking no action at all. Yet, almost on cue, some of our colleagues are proposing that we kick the can down the road yet again and delay the fundamental question of dealing with our debt and deficit. They argue that we cannot or should not tackle these challenges in an election year or in a lame-duck session of Congress, as if there won't always be another election on the horizon.
Simply put, this is unacceptable, and the American people know it. Our economy cannot afford to wait until politicians decide the time is right.
Over the past several years, punting our problems to the next year or the next Congress has proved to be a self-perpetuating game. We are stuck between the 40-yard lines unable to put any points on the board. We need fewer punters and more quarterbacks.
The good news is that we do not have to go back to the drawing board to reach a true bipartisan compromise. We already have a starting point: the president's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform -- better known as the "Simpson-Bowles Commission." While not perfect, it laid out a clear, bipartisan framework intended to put our federal budget and the economy on track to in-the-black budgeting and long-term health.
A balanced and bipartisan approach in the spirit of the Simpson-Bowles plan could reduce the deficit by more than enough to satisfy the requirements of the Budget Control Act and allow us to stave off the automatic, painful sequestration cuts to our defense budget and other federal programs. It could also maintain crucial investments in the short and medium terms that will help fuel our economic recovery and job creation.
There should be no higher priority for this Congress than crafting a comprehensive and bipartisan deficit-reduction plan along the lines of Simpson-Bowles. To do anything short of a long-term grand bargain is unacceptable. It is reverting to the same old punt-first politics of Washington.
Short-term "solutions" are merely an affirmation that Congress is broken and incapable of fulfilling our most basic responsibility to make tough decisions for the American people. A failure to act is a failure to lead.
Working together, members of both parties need to set our country on the path to long-term fiscal stability and reaffirm that Congress can and will respond to the real problems our economy, financial markets and businesses face. We can and should renew the public's faith in Washington. And we need to provide the certainty our businesses and job creators require to make long-term investments in the United States by passing a framework modeled on the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles plan.
No football team punts its way to victory. It is time to get the ball over the goal line.
Mark Udall, a Democrat, is the senior senator for Colorado. Susan Collins, a Republican, is the junior senator for Maine.