Filibuster CartoonsTitle: Negotiating til the end
(click to view)Date:
December 29, 2012
With only a couple dozen hours remaining until Fiscal Cliff Doomsday
, it's obviously very difficult to write anything definitive about the state of the negotiations — other than that they're in their extraordinarily frantic, last-minute phase.
Yesterday, President Obama and the four party heads of Congress — the two minority leaders, Speaker Boehner and Senate boss Harry Reid — had yet one more unsuccessful meeting at the White House. There were lots of big smiles but still "no concrete proposal" for a deal, in the words of Senator Reid
It's all a little surprising. Last time we checked in on the cliff talks
, I was largely of the belief — encouraged by certain cocksure inside-the-beltway reporters, I will note — that much of the Washington intransigence over how to prevent the scheduled January 1 expiration of the George W. Bush-era tax cuts and so-called automatic "sequestration" spending cuts
was just a lot of partisan theatrics masking a growing behind-the-scenes consensus.
We now that the theatrics weren't really masking much of anything. After the bilateral Boehner-Obama talks broke down last Wednesday
following a prolonged impasse over how rich someone had to be to deserve a tax hike, Boehner moved ahead with a so-called "Plan B" unilateral scheme of his own.
A million dollars, that's the answer said the Speaker; we will raise taxes on millionaires but everyone else gets to keep their Bush-cuts. Also I'll just ratchet up the cuts to Medicaid and food stamps so we can avoid all those nasty sequestration cuts to defense
But while you can bring a Republican House to a tax hike, you can't make him vote for it. After airing plan B with his caucus, Boehner was forced to grimly concede on Thursday
that he simply "didn't have the votes" to get it passed. Though they only comprise a minority faction, there are apparently still enough no-taxes-hikes-for-anyone-under-any-circumstances Tea Party types in the House GOP to make even a literal millionaires' tax a non-starter.
Sure, theoretically, Boehner could have just turned around and said, fine, so we'll get a couple Democrats to pick up the slack, but a) Democrats obviously wouldn't support
a plan that's so weak on tax hikes and so vicious on social spending, and b) Boehner is up for re-election as Speaker in a couple days and the last thing he needs is a reputation as a sell-out. I mean, merely proposing
Plan B was risky enough with so many humorless tax purists in his midst.
So, lacking a bipartisan deal to rush through a divided government America must be doomed, right?
Perhaps not. As D-Day (FC-Day?) edges closer, it's actually becoming increasingly popular to recast the whole Fiscal Cliff thing as a bit of a non-event. Basically the Y2K of 2012
, said David Frum — at least in hype-to-effect ratio.
Precious little in the world of government ever happens literally overnight
, after all. Even if we say that a massive federal tax hike will "take effect" on January 1, we all know in reality that this will affect almost no one in the short term, as it's not like Americans pay all of their income tax in one giant lump sum promptly on January 2. Federal budget cuts to defense or Medicare or whatever that immediately "take effect" likewise require many months (or years) of percolating through many layers of affected bureaucracy, and it could be years before the public feels the full brunt of observably weakened federal programs.
In other words, once we get over our hysterical obsession with arbitrary deadlines, it becomes fairly clear that the commonsense realities of 21st century governance afford the politicians plenty of time to work out a deal even after New Year's. With the public largely protected from immediate hurt, the most dramatic consequences — from the market or whatever — will be mostly a reaction to optics, not results, just the current mad drive for "a deal" is more about appearance than action.
The Y2K thesis is getting so popular, in fact, that many Democrats have started to openly contemplate the possibility that they might actually be in a strategically stronger position post
Jan. 1 than pre, with their legislative goals far easier to achieve once the nation is completely over the cliff, as opposed to tottering uselessly on the brink.
Think about it: the scheduled expiration of the Bush tax cuts will generate automatic tax hikes for everyone, and spending cuts for everything else. Since America seems unanimous that these are objectively Bad Things and since acts of Congress are not etched in steel, the obvious response is for the Dems to immediately sweep in with corrective action
, and swiftly fix both problems on their own terms. It's sort of a variation on that old trope about how it's easier to "ask for forgiveness than seek permission;" from a Democratic perspective it may be vastly easier to modify bad legislation than prevent it from arriving in the first place.
After January 1, Democrats could quickly cut taxes for middle class families but not those for incomes over $400,000, or whatever their current standard of "wealthy" is. In functional terms, this is exactly the same as preserving the Bush tax rates for the majority and eliminating them for the wealthy, but through the magic of post-cliff semantics, it suddenly comes off as much less socialistically vindictive. Heck, Republicans might even be cool with it.
The sequestration spending cuts
, likewise, can be easily compromised in a similar pick-and-choose manner. Perhaps the defense cuts will stay, but Medicare funding will be hiked back up. If the Dems are smart, they could probably even maintain sequestration's $1.2 trillion figure as the total sum of all cuts, while also readjusting budgetary priorities towards things they care about, and away from things they don't. The GOP might not be down for giving formal assent to pruning the Pentagon, but their thinking might change if the debate is framed around some take-or-leave-it proposal to "restore Medicare" — which, as we all know, is inexplicably popular even in Tea Party circles.
Lo, what difference a couple days can make. Suddenly a debate over tax hikes becomes a discussion over tax cuts; threats to cut social programs become proposals to protect them.
'Course, with a couple hours still to go, this is all quite premature. Perhaps Speaker Boehner will revive and water down Plan B at the eleventh hour, grab a few Democrats, and ram something through Congress that the President can sign a few seconds before the big ball drops on Times Square.
Sure, he might lose his speakership in the aftermath, but if the Fiscal Cliff is a true harbinger of fiscal Armageddon, surly that's a small price to pay for the survival of the national economy. But if it's just an arbitrary, overrated, meaningless line of tape on the great stage of Washington theatrics — well, why bother?
Well get our answer shortly.