The answer is twofold. First is the matter of America's budget deficit: The federal government is awash in red ink. The national debt stands at a staggering $14.8 trillion. And the tools required to promote growth and create long-term solvency – raising taxes and cutting spending – are driving a wedge between Democrats and Republicans.
"The acute nature of the economic crisis is such that a fair number of people of goodwill and intelligence feel the deficit has to be tackled as a solution to the long-term economic problems," says Steven R. Weisman, editorial director at the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C., and author of "The Great Tax Wars." "Everybody knows that it can't just be done with spending alone, so they're turning to taxes."
The decision to focus on the deficit, it's worth adding, marks a seismic shift in the nation's economic policy. "Since the time of Keynes, it's generally been viewed as destructive to raise taxes or to cut spending at a time of recession. That's what we thought was the lesson of the Great Depression," adds Mr. Weisman. "But there is a feeling that we have to close the deficit, even though that's viewed as completely irrational among the diehard Keynesians."
Twelve legislators on a bipartisan "super committee" have been tasked with creating a plan by Nov. 23 to reduce the deficit by more than $1 trillion over the next 10 years. Failure to reach a compromise will unleash a round of automatic spending cuts, ones that both Democrats and Republicans find odious.