You've probably been hearing a lot about the "fiscal cliff" - the mammoth confluence of tax increases and spending cuts that will take effect after Jan. 1 unless President Obama and Republicans agree on a new deficit-reduction deal. It's complicated stuff, and you might be wondering what it's all about.
Here's a breakdown and a look at some of the ways it could affect you.
- Across-the-board spending cuts, (the so-called sequestration) were mandated by the budget deal struck last year to end the standoff over raising the nation's debt limit.
- The good news is that benefits for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are exempt.
- The administrative sides of those programs, however, aren't exempt. That could mean slower processing times, and for Medicare service providers - doctors, hospitals, skilled nursing, and so forth - it means a 2 percent cut in payments.
- Other programs that you might rely on for delivered meals, food, transportation and housing are subject to cuts
- Medicare payments to doctors will fall 27 percent. By law, when Medicare costs outpace economic growth, Congress has a choice: cut doctors' pay or appropriate additional funds. Since 2003, Congress has passed temporary "doc fixes" to keep reimbursements stable. Failure to do so again means a major cut for doctors on top of the 2 percent cut from sequestration.
- Emergency unemployment benefits, which extend compensation up to 73 weeks after state benefits run out, would end for more than 2 million people.
- Bush-era tax cuts, extended by President Obama in 2010 as part of a broader package meant to protect a still-fragile economy, will expire. In effect, this increases taxes across all income levels, though the biggest increases would be on the highest earners.
- The "payroll tax holiday," a 2-percentage-point cut in Social Security withholding enacted in 2010 to help stimulate consumer spending, will end. An average-income worker will take home about $20 less a week.
- The number of people subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax, an income tax device designed to snare rich people, would rise from 4 million to 30 million, including many middle-income taxpayers.
Some predict a fall from a fiscal cliff, others a softer tumble down a fiscal slope. In any case, if the government is spending less and taxing more, there's less to stimulate the economy. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office warns of a return to recession. Here's the CBO's projected toll for 2013:
- 9.1 percent unemployment rate, up from the current 7.9 percent
- a 0.5 percent drop in the gross domestic product, a rough measure of the economy
Gridlock is by no means unprecedented in Washington. One thing Republicans and Democrats can agree on: If they can't get their act together and find common ground for a better plan to cut the budget deficit, there will be serious consequences for the economy.