Our divided political system seems incapable of resolving the government's long-term deficit problem.
Sometimes members of Congress sound as if they're still in a political science class, rather than the real world.
"This shouldn't be the model for how we do things around here," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell grumped as the Senate prepared to pass the compromise bill preventing millions of Americans from falling off the over-hyped fiscal cliff.
His criticism seemed a bit odd, since McConnell negotiated the deal with Vice President Joe Biden. But he was far from the only reluctant supporter who blasted both the method and the substance of the latest congressional deadline decisions.
"The measure before us and the process that brought us here has been the source of a great deal of understandable consternation," Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., said in launching the House debate. "Virtually no one believes that what we have before us tonight is a long-term solution to this problem."
True enough. To be sure, the agreement provided substantial protection for middle class families, farmers and the unemployed. But it fell short of the "grand bargain," the long-term, balanced fix for government's fiscal problems that President Barack Obama sought in talks with House Speaker John Boehner.
As a result, this is just the first in what will be a series of pitched battles between Obama and congressional Republicans, each likely to persist to the brink of economic disaster and each likely to produce another negotiated compromise.
The focal points are established:
The requirement by late February or early March of raising the legal limit on the federal debt, the subject of a bitter battle in the summer of 2011, along with the new deadline for the spending cuts that had been scheduled to take effect Jan. 1.
The expiration on March 27 of federal spending authority for the 2013 fiscal year, which runs to Sept. 30.
The need to provide funds for the next fiscal year, starting on Oct. 1.
House GOP leaders also plan to produce a major tax reform measure this year, opening yet another forum for conflict.
Republicans have made it clear they expect to have the political leverage on their side in these battles. GOP lawmakers say they'll shut down the government if necessary unless Obama agrees to significant federal spending reductions, including structural curbs on Medicare and Social Security.
But Obama says he'll press for more revenue increases, noting this bill provided less than he sought, and he said he'll refuse to negotiate on the debt ceiling.
In the end, enactment of the latest measure is more important than how it was done. It provides some of the certainty in tax policy that business leaders have demanded for several years. And it provided an initial spur to the stock market and, we can hope, to business investment.
Still, it does nothing to resolve the government's long-term deficit problem, something that always proves difficult because spending cuts such as the now-delayed $1.2 trillion sequester not only can hurt individual segments of the population, but could provide a drag on growth at a time the economy is still struggling to emerge from the recent recession.
Ideally, these issues could all be tackled and resolved at once. But the Obama-Boehner talks suggest this is simply too much for the gridlocked political system to handle, especially since Boehner has shown he needs Democratic votes to pass any such legislation.
Inevitably, these future battles, and any subsequent agreements, may be derided as this deal has been. But this messy process still holds the only real promise of resolving some long-festering issues, provided both sides ultimately show the willingness to compromise that produced this agreement.
That's what the American people have repeatedly said they want, even though they have greatly complicated the task by electing and re-electing that gridlocked government.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Email him at email@example.com.