I spoke too soon. The House has passed a Senate bill to make permanent the Bush-era tax cuts for individuals making less than $400,000 a year and prevent large cuts to defense and military spending. It was ugly. Congress has not voted on a bill on New Year’s Day since 1951, when it approved spending for the Korean War. That adventure was a resounding success compared to what happened yesterday, when 151 House Republicans voted against a bill that required hail-Mary negotiations even to reach the floor. To give you an idea of what John Boehner had to contend with, here’s Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina:
I have read the bill and can’t find the spending cuts—even with an electron magnifying glass. It’s part medicinal, part placebo, and part treating the symptoms but not the underlying pathology.
Daniel Webster he is not.
You would think that a man who has invested the money and bicep exercises necessary to operate an electron magnifying glass would appreciate the value of a placebo that treats symptoms. Gowdy, however, belongs to that portion of his caucus for whom the perfect is the enemy of the good. As Jonathan Weisman points out, yesterday’s deal would have been a dream for Congressional Republicans ten years ago. It makes permanent the cuts to taxes on estates, dividends and capital gains that the GOP struggled to pass as temporary measures under Bush. Only five Senate Republicans voted against it, but the majority of their counterparts in the House seemed determined, as Weisman put it, “to be blamed for sending the nation’s economy into a potential tailspin.”
That is the triumph of ideology, right there. The problem with the McConnell-Biden plan is that it did not abolish welfare, eliminate taxes on all households, detonate the UN and restore mandatory marksmanship training in public schools, which would be replaced by charter schools. I jest—lazily—but much of the most recent class of House Republicans was elected on the issue of spending and spending alone.
For many of those congresspeople, debt is symptomatic of the underlying pathology that is Big Government. The fiscal cliff—which thankfully we have now passed to sail safely through the sky—was not such a fearsome outcome for them, as it would strike at the Big Government that is obviously the source of all other problems, including economic recession. Such thinking exemplifies the triumph of theory over practice that is possible only in the mind of a legislator with very little experience, and it sucks. Still, the ideological wing of the Republican Party has a point.
The important thing in these negotiations—the thing that spurred Congress to action, the thing whose particulars everyone argued over in determining whether good was good enough—was to keep from forcing people to pay off the federal debt. Everyone agreed that we must not tax the vast majority of Americans; the controversy was over whether to raise taxes a few points on a small number of people or on none at all. Amid a national discourse that agrees federal debt is a huge problem, these are not the deliberations of a responsible people.
Sequestration was not the answer. It’s a bad idea to massively reduce federal spending during a semi-recession, and it was probably a bad idea to raise taxes across the board. Keeping revenues low forever is not going to work, either, though. Even after we balance the budget—which we must do, someday, eventually—we will still have to pay off the debt.
Much as in the proposition “we have to reach a fiscal deal,” the question of who “we” will be is temptingly prone to dilatoriness. If we can stave off Chinese repossession long enough, no one who voted in the last election will be alive to pay the bill. Sooner or later, though, people will have to kick in. The longer we wait, the more those sad future people will have to pay.
I am glad that Congress agreed on a deal. As far as the ability to look out for future people, though, our lawmakers have demonstrated only the barest level of competence. The Americans of 2113 may make what happened yesterday a bullet point in the Fiscal Collapse unit of their history classes. Of course, it may also be the opening hologram in their Crisis Averted presentations. We can make that happen, if we want to. It would be really hard, though, and the really hard appears to be something our elected representatives will do only under great duress.