In the summer of 2011, as President Obama tried to get a reluctant House to raise the debt limit, he argued for a permanent compromise.
"Eat our peas," he urged. "This is the United States of America. We don't manage our affairs in three-month increments."
His leadership during those stormy weeks sets no high standard for statesmanship, but he was right about the peas. And none were eaten. They're all still there, and the pain of an automatic compromise everyone hates will hit with fury in January.
The scheduled spending cuts and tax increases are sharp enough to throw the fragile economy back into recession, it is widely agreed. But that's not the worst part. The Congressional Budget Office warns that to continue current policies will only bring temporary relief. Continuing to run up debt at the present rate will cause even greater economic pain a few years from now, if not sooner.
Some of the fiscal challenges are the makings of the present generation, and some were inherited from the New Deal of the 1930s. What America needs now is a Renewed Deal that brings economic stability and a measure of political peace over the basic principles of tax and social policy.
The uncertainty of recent years is bad for business. Investors are spooked. Allowing the debt to grow at such an irresponsible rate is sure to hurt the nation's credit rating and cause interest rates to increase, forcing budget cuts in other areas.
Europe already is back in recession, its second since 2009. Unless the U.S. Congress acts soon, America will follow.
There is no shortage of sensible plans for avoiding recession, preserving social programs, and maintaining a strong national defense. But no plan is painless. Obama campaigned on his promise to pull a little more revenue from the rich, but it won't be anywhere near enough to balance the federal budget.
The so-called fiscal cliff includes tax increases across the board, as well as spending cuts. If Congress does nothing, here are some of the bad things that will happen on Jan. 1:
Extended unemployment benefits will end. About 2 million people looking for work will lose their benefits as the New Year rings in. Florida would be among the states hardest hit. The estate tax would reset to confiscatory levels in its 10th change in 10 years. Doctors treating Medicare patients would see the reimbursement rate fall 27 percent.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is right when he says that "the only answer to this dilemma is rapid and healthy economic growth."
How to get there from here is less clear. Obama beat Mitt Romney. Democrats gained in the Senate. Rubio and other advocates of low-tax, pro-growth reforms must be willing to accept a reasonable compromise.
You can believe national defense is the top federal priority and also believe it's prudent to shovel a little less tax money to the defense industry.
You can accept a capital gains tax rate of a little more than the present 15 percent and still believe in capitalism.
You can support U.S. agriculture and still expect farmers to accept a little less federal welfare.
You won't be throwing the elderly under the bus to expect high-income seniors in the future to forfeit some of their federal benefits. The entitlement programs simply can't continue growing much faster than the economy that supports them, no matter which party wins elections. Peas must be eaten.
Democrats want no benefit cuts, and Republicans want no tax-rate increases. An agreement will require both to break their own rules. It is not a radical concept to violate guidelines when it makes good sense.
This is true in politics and in grammar. You may be uncompromising in your faith that a singular noun, such as "none," must take a singular verb, but you would be wrong. Singular nouns sometimes take plural verbs, and vice-versa. Language expert Erin Brenner calls the quirk notional agreement.
We could say, "None of the peas are left on the president's plate," but that would only be grammatically correct.