But other economists say this time the parties will find a way to avoid that harmful scenario.
"I don't believe, despite all the huffing and puffing and all that bluster, that at the end of the day Congress will let us default on the debt," says Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group in Pittsburgh.
The US economy did not get its usual kick from holiday spending, in part because of the cliff debate. With some pundits proclaiming the United States would go into a recession if Congress did nothing, consumers became more cautious about pulling out their wallets.
"We're getting no momentum from holiday spending," says Silvia.
ShopperTrak, a retail research organization, estimates that holiday sales were up 2.5 percent over 2011, the slowest pace in three years.
It did not help that many portions of the Northeast were hammered by superstorm Sandy in late October or that the Midwest had a major snowstorm right before Christmas.
"We were fortunate to get that 2.5 percent increase," says Bill Martin, founder of ShopperTrak, which is based in Chicago.
Almost all working Americans entered the new year paying more taxes because of the expiration of the two-year cut in payroll taxes. On Jan. 1, those taxes, which normally pay for individuals' contributions to Social Security, rose from 4.2 percent of earnings to 6.2 percent.
In terms of the entire economy, it's not that much money – about $120 billion, estimates Roberton Williams, a fellow at the Tax Policy Center in Washington.
"But it is just dead weight on the economy," he says. "It takes $120 billion out of the economy that could have been spent."
Mr. Williams estimates it comes to about $900 to $1,000 per household, or $20 per week.