The Sliding Scale of Fiscal Cliff Panic

Why is the fiscal cliff so boring? It's not because it's about math. But whether or not you freak out over tax hikes depends on what you think about how many details Republicans have made public. A guide.

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Why is the fiscal cliff so boring? It's not because it's about math. People like math! People loved Nate Silver's very wordy dissections of the accuracy of historical polling averages — he accounted for 20 percent of The New York Times's web traffic the week before the election. People loved Bill Clinton's 50-minute speech to the Democratic National Convention, which was all about policy and budget numbers and math. The fiscal cliff is boring because we don't know what's going on. This is by design. "There's a distressing amount of agreement between the White House and Speaker Boehner's office about the need to keep the media — and by extension other lawmakers and the American public — in the dark about what exactly they're discussing," according to "a longtime Washington reporter" who is pretty bummed about the bipartisan comity in shutting the press out, BuzzFeed's John Stanton reports. Even White House press secretary Jay Carney told his daily briefing Tuesday that "I don't think it's helpful to give hourly or daily readouts on progress."

While the offers on the negotiating table may seem murky, the major sticking point reamins clear: Republican leaders are not ready to say (at least, not publicly) that they will raise tax rates on Americans making more than $250,000 a year. They have until about Tuesday to agree to some increase, or else the Bush tax cuts will expire and rates will go up automatically January 1, for all Americans. Which would seem good enough reason to freak out about something so boring. But whether or not you panic depends on whether you think it's a good sign or a bad sign that Republicans aren't offering many revenue details in public. A guide:

Total panic 

Panicker: "Cliff chaos: Hundreds of billions apart," Politico's Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan report.

Facts Reported: The White House offered a plan with $1.4 trillion in new revenue, down from it's $1.6 trillion initial offer. Republicans are still offering $800 billion in new revenue.

Panic Analysis: "The two sides are still hundreds of billions of dollars apart on revenue and entitlement cuts... That’s why there’s increasing skepticism in Washington that a deal actually can be reached before Jan. 1... The reality is the two sides are swapping proposals that do little but reaffirm the positions they’ve long held."

Moderate Panic

Panicker:  "Obama, Boehner trade 'fiscal cliff' proposals but appear no closer to a deal," The Washington Post's Lori Montgomery and Paul Kane report.

Facts Reported: After Boehner and Obama's meeting Sunday, "senior GOP aides said they were left with the impression that the president was willing to reduce his demand for $1.6 trillion in new taxes over the next decade to $1.2 trillion," but he offered $1.4 trillion instead. "A person close to the talks said the White House also offered to undertake an overhaul of the corporate tax code." No one would say what was in the GOP's latest counteroffer, "but Republican sources close to the talks said the offer made no concessions on the central issue of higher tax rates for the wealthy."

Panic Analysis: "President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner were struggling late Tuesday to prevent negotiations from breaking down after they traded dueling proposals for averting the year-end “fiscal cliff” that made no progress toward an agreement."

Lite Panic

Panicker:  "As Fiscal Talks Heat Up, Questions on Whether Boehner Can Get the Votes," The New York Times' Jackie Calmes and Jonathan Weisman report.

Facts Reported: Boehner and Obama had their first one-on-one meeting since July 2011. Obama offered $1.4 trillion in new revenues. "And another [source] said the president also proposed that the two sides commit to working on overhauling the corporate tax code next year."

Panic Analysis: "The direct discussions followed a week in which preliminary negotiations among top-level staff advisers had not gone well, according to people in both parties, with time running out before a year-end deadline for action. The president has no choice but to rely on Mr. Boehner, who leads Republicans’ only center of power... But Democrats in the White House and Congress also say that they believe Mr. Boehner does hold greater sway among Republican colleagues than he did in the summer of 2011..."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.