Winter Is Coming: Be a Budget Hero Before the U.S. Reaches a 'Fiscal Cliff'

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The day-to-day presidential campaign coverage of President Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney dominates news from Washington, but a gigantic political fight with serious implications for the economy is brewing for later this year.

Hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of federal spending cuts and tax increases are set to take effect in January if Congress fails to act between now and then. This "fiscal cliff" is about more than simple political winners and losers; many economists fear that it could throw the fragile U.S. economy into another recession.

Among the possible effects of plunging over that cliff: Tax cuts enacted by President George W. Bush would expire, as would some long-term unemployment benefits and a temporary payroll tax cut.

An automatic $1.2 trillion reduction in federal spending would begin to take effect, which would primarily affect military and domestic programs.

On the health care front, Medicare reimbursements to doctors would also be cut significantly and wealthy Americans would have to pay more taxes to help fund health insurance for more Americans.

The stage is set for another potentially nasty battle in Washington, reminiscent of last year’s fight over raising the federal government’s "debt ceiling," with this fight most likely to come during the lame-duck session — after November’s election, but before the new Congress takes office in January.

Now you have a chance to tackle the federal budget on your own — and inform the work of journalists in the process.

The Budget Hero game lets you choose from actual policy proposals to construct a federal budget that reflects your personal values. In the process, you can see the trade-offs of your decisions and their long-term effects on the nation’s fiscal health.

In the coming months, reporters and analysts at the Public Insight Network, Patchwork Nation and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars will dig into the data generated by people — like you — playing Budget Hero in order to report on how people choose to balance short-term needs and long-term debt concerns.

About our Budget Hero collaboration

Since 2008, Budget Hero, which was developed by the Public Insight team at American Public Media (APM) and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has been helping Americans better understand how the massive federal budget works, the various tradeoffs involved, and how fiscal decisions affect Americans and future generations. With debt and deficit concerns dominating political debates in recent years, it’s worth taking another look at how your tax dollars are collected and spent.

In the coming months, thanks to a MacArthur Foundation grant, Patchwork Nation – in collaboration with APM’s Public Insight Network of news sources and the Wilson Center – will be digging into the data generated by people playing Budget Hero to report on how people make difficult choices over balancing short-term needs and long-term debt concerns.

Patchwork Nation has noted repeatedly that there are big differences in the economies and politics of the counties where we live — and has divided them into 12 types. Patchwork Nation is using that data to explore questions like: How different are the spending priorities of the wealthy Monied Burbs and the struggling, rural Service Worker Centers? How much do people in agricultural Tractor Country counties want to lean on spending cuts as opposed to tax increases? And how do the different backgrounds and socio-economic realities of the various communities lead them to different “decision trees” as they balance their priorities.

What you can do:

Go play! See if you can become a Budget Hero, and make sure to sign up for the Public Insight Network, so that Patchwork Nation and other news organizations can understand the personal experiences that shape your views on government spending, but also issues like voter rights, immigration, and economic mobility. That way, we can better report on news stories that matter to you.

Become a Budget Hero now. Also, check out your county's Patchwork Nation community type:

Dave Gustafson joined Patchwork Nation, a project of the Jefferson Institute, and the Budget Hero family in June. Born in an Industrial Metropolis, he grew up in Service Worker Center and Campus and Careers community types. He now lives in a Monied Burb near Washington, D.C. Most recently, Dave was acting managing editor for digital news at the PBS NewsHour.