Our divided, gridlocked political system seems incapable of resolving the government’s long-term deficit problem.

Sometimes members of Congress sound like they’re still in a political science class, rather than the real political world.

“This shouldn’t be the model for how we do things around here,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell grumped as the Senate prepared to pass the compromise bill preventing millions of Americans from falling off the overhyped “fiscal cliff.”

His criticism seemed a bit odd, since McConnell largely negotiated the measure with Vice President Joe Biden. But he was not the only reluctant supporter who blasted both the method and the substance of the latest congressional deadline decision.

To be sure, the agreement provides substantial protection for middle-class families, farmers and the unemployed. But unfortunately, it fell short of the “grand bargain,” the long-term, balanced fix for the government’s fiscal problems that President Barack Obama sought in talks with House Speaker John Boehner.

As a result, this is just the first in what will be a series of pitched battles between Obama and congressional Republicans, each likely to persist to the brink of economic disaster, or beyond, and each likely to ultimately produce another negotiated compromise.

The focal points are already established for each:

>> The requirement by late February or early March for raising the legal limit on the federal debt, the subject of a bitter battle in the summer of 2011, along with the new deadline for the spending cuts that had been scheduled to take effect Jan. 1.

>> The expiration on March 27 of federal spending authority for the 2013 fiscal year, which runs until next Sept. 30.

>> The need to provide funds for the next fiscal year, which starts on Oct. 1.

House GOP leaders also plan to produce a major tax reform measure this year, opening yet another forum for conflict between Republicans seeking to limit additional revenues and Democrats hoping to extract some.

GOP lawmakers say they’ll shut down the government if necessary unless Obama agrees to significant federal spending reductions, including structural curbs on Medicare and Social Security.

But the president made clear again after this week’s action that he’ll press for more revenue increases, noting this bill provided less than he sought, and said he’ll refuse to negotiate on the debt ceiling. But he may find an uphill fight in the face of solid GOP opposition to further tax increases.

In the end, enactment of the latest measure is more important than how it was done. It provides some of the certainty in tax policy that business leaders have demanded for several years and, as such, provided an initial spur to the stock market and, hopefully, to business investment.

Still, it does nothing to resolve the government’s long-term deficit problem, something that always proves difficult. Spending cuts such as the now-delayed $1.2 trillion sequester not only could hurt individual segments of the population but also could drag growth at a time the economy is still struggling to emerge from the recent recession.

Ideally, these issues could all be tackled and resolved at once. Inevitably, the course of these future battles, and any subsequent agreements, may be derided as many have done in recent days.

Contact the writer: carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com

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