Yes, the politics is pretty simple. There is disagreement among Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, so Speaker of the House John Boehner has a shaky hand in talks with President Obama about avoiding the federal tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect Tuesday.

Yes, the politics is pretty simple. There is disagreement among Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives, so Speaker of the House John Boehner has a shaky hand in talks with President Obama about avoiding the federal tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect Tuesday.

Put another way, Obama has no one to negotiate with. So here we are, four days from the end of the year and five days from the “fiscal cliff.” Just today the Senate comes back into session to see what can be done. The House is still in recess.

The business community – at least the stock market – continues to react as if a deal is expected soon enough, if not by the stroke of midnight Monday then at least before higher taxes start showing up in paychecks and other effects kick in. But more broadly there is a good deal of evidence that businesses – to some extent, even consumers – are holding back, waiting for resolution and certainty.

OK, at least relative resolution and certainty. A degree of clarity and predictability out of Washington is what’s needed for a stable business environment. No one reasonably expects the federal government’s skyrocketing deficits, which have built over many years, to be reined in overnight, but business leaders have stepped forward, and they have been clear enough: Get on it. Start turning this situation around, and give us a sign that we might hope for sustained effort on this issue.

And don’t look now, but another of these needless squabbles is coming up in a few weeks over raising the nation’s debt ceiling. (Recall that the last debt-ceiling crisis 18 months ago is what Congress used to concoct the current “fiscal cliff.”) Unless our elected leaders are ready to embrace the idea of Social Security checks not being sent out and soldiers, sailors and airmen going without pay – just to cite two among almost endless examples – the debt ceiling will be raised. The rest is political grandstanding and a matter of who can pin the blame on whom.

The real discussion is when and how we get serious about paying for the level of services we demand. Government spending is about 22 percent of the gross domestic product. Taxes are about 17 percent. In between is a gap that can be sustained for only so long, but even a crisis of Washington’s own making – the “fiscal cliff” – so far hasn’t been enough to spur a serious, sustained discussion.

Some like to lazily compare the U.S. with the dysfunctional politics and economics of Greece. We’re a long way from that – thankfully – but more half-measures out of Washington nudge us a little closer to insolvency. Every elected official likes to be seen as on the side of business. Well, business leaders often reluctant to discuss politics have raised their voices.

How much will it take before Washington gets serious?