Ben Bernanke Warns Congress in Its Own Language

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Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke takes his seat to testify about monetary policy before the House Financial Services on Capitol Hill in Washington, Feb. 29, 2012.

There’s “a massive fiscal cliff” in our future, Ben Bernanke told the House Financial Services Committee on Wednesday. To anyone accustomed to breathless congressional debate, this metaphorical escarpment must sound familiar. Someone once tried to push Granny off it. The nation has teetered on its edge countless times, one pork-laden bill away from taking the plunge to European Socialism. But for the usually reserved Fed Chairman, this was no empty exaggeration. Bernanke is scared. And it’s Congress that’s scaring him.

For most of his testimony, Bernanke was his usual subdued self. “The recovery of the U.S. economy continues, but the pace of expansion has been uneven and modest by historical standards,” was about as dark as he got. The housing market and European crisis remain reasons for caution, he said, but they weren’t the cause of his precipice panic. Nor were spiraling deficits and debt. Quite the opposite: Bernanke is worried that spending cuts and tax hikes could strangle the recovery in its crib.

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“Under current law, on January 1, 2013, there’s going to be a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases,” he said in reference to the expiring Bush tax cuts and $1.2 trillion in spending reduction, set in motion by last year’s debt ceiling deal. “I hope that Congress will look at that and figure out ways to achieve the same long-run fiscal improvement without having it all happen at one date.”

It’s not news that Bernanke is a fiscal scold, encouraging lawmakers to juice the economy with tax cuts and spending in combination with the Fed’s limited monetary tweaking, while warning against short-term austerity. But his drastic warning about the “cliff” was something different.

In Washington, a reference to “current law” typically doesn’t take into account what Congress almost always does: act on stuff on which everyone agrees. Republicans obviously aren’t keen on letting the Bush tax cuts expire and Obama’s central campaign promise was not to raise taxes on families making less than $250,000 a year, so while they will certainly fight over cuts for top-tier earners, there’s actually consensus on a huge majority of the package. The $1.2 trillion in spending cuts, which would affect the Pentagon and entitlements, enjoys a similar consensus–few actually want these cuts to go through. The measure was designed as a trigger to motivate both parties in Congress to strike a much smaller deal on spending cuts, and Congress will likely try to disarm or delay it later this year.

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But Bernanke may have reason to worry that Democrats and Republicans won’t be able to agree enough to do these things. It’s an election year. Political fevers are running hot. The debt ceiling negotiations, which set up half of the looming events Bernanke is sweating, were a national embarrassment that came very close to doing permanent damage to the U.S. and global economy. And that was before the 2012 election even really started. So in addition to reminding Congress on Wednesday that the recovery is tepid and caution is advisable, Bernanke broke character to speak to the Hill in its own hyperbolic tongue. His message: Don’t screw this up, guys.

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