A cliff too near

In its collection of Christmas quotations, the Salt Lake Tribune included this one by former Colorado Gov. Dick Lamm:

"Christmas is a time when kids tell Santa what they want and adults pay for it. Deficits are when adults tell the government what they want and their kids pay for it."

That's one way of looking at the current mess, although it's vastly oversimplified. Americans don't get to vote directly on spending. They don't get to decide who receives benefits and who doesn't. They don't get to decide whether to continue a war against an intractable enemy or to call this country's military personnel home. They don't get to fire contractors who bill thousands of dollars for parts that actually cost tens of dollars. They don't get to approve construction of projects that would benefit them and nix funding for projects that benefit other people far away. They don't even get to decide when the potholes in their federal highways get patched.

No, Americans elect people to handle that for them, or to direct agencies to handle it. While every citizen can contact his congressional representatives and senators about every single issue, the truth is that in this one person-one vote nation, not every constituent wields the same influence. Those who make the most noise - which, most often, means those whose interests are promoted by well-funded organizations that hire persuasive lobbyists and promise votes in the next election - are most likely to be heard.

That's one reason that the "fiscal cliff" still looms despite the fact that Americans want the people they sent to Washington to solve the problem now. Actually, they wanted it solved months ago, but the deadline looms. No one thinks the terms of sequestration will be good for this nation. Everyone wants a more nuanced solution.

Part of the problem is that they can't agree on the details, but that problem exists because they have been presented with few details to analyze. As always, no one wants to give up anything at all, but Americans are sensible people. They know that the bill has come due; they know they have to share in paying it, and they know what they can afford, individually and collectively.

The people we've sent to Congress know all that too. They know what they have the power to do and what they can't do. They also know that the distance between the Republicans' plan and the president's is not really all that large. They know the general shape of the eventual plan. They know quite a lot of what will be in it.

They could go ahead and approve all those provisions today - or they could, if they were in Washington.

The American public deserves better than to be yanked around like this. For all that at least 50 percent of them will squawk about every provision implemented, they deserve to know how much money will be taken out of their paychecks in 2013. They deserve to know what their tax rate will be and whether the Alternative Minimum Tax will affect them. They deserve to know whether their unemployment benefits will be extended. They deserve to know whether their jobs are funded after Monday. They deserve for Congress to do this week what it eventually is going to do.

They deserve both leadership and respect from people who were elected to serve all, not just some.

A stopgap measure isn't ideal, because it just postpones the day when legislators must craft a real plan, but at this point, a stopgap measure may be all that's available to protect ordinary Americans. We all should have to pay the costs of our government, and most are ready to pony up, but paying for our leaders' intransigent refusal to lead is another story entirely.

We don't deserve that.

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