Shortly after House Republican leader/medium-market weatherman John Boehner signaled his willingness to consider an extension of the Bush tax cuts that excludes the wealthiest 2% of Americans, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he’ll block any such package. Speaking on the floor Monday, he opined that “only in Washington could someone propose a tax hike as an antidote to a recession.” Like much of what the senator from Kentucky says, that statement is technically honest. Under current law, the Bush tax cuts will expire in 2010. Letting them lapse—either by not voting to extend them, voting to extend them for everyone but households making over $250,000 a year or, say, filibustering the vote to extend them—would therefore constitute a tax hike, in that some or all taxes would become higher than they are now. Of course, by that reasoning, McConnell is proposing a tax hike as an antidote to the possibility that his party might compromise with a Democratic President. Only in Washington, indeed.
As an alternative, McConnell unveiled his own proposed tax package, which would make the Bush cuts permanent, raise the threshold for the estate tax from $1 million to $10 million, and cost an estimated $4 trillion over the next decade.* It’s called the Tax Hike Prevention Act, if you’re wondering about the tenor of this debate.
McConnell’s declaration officially convenes a complex and insanely expensive game of chicken that will likely run from now until the second Tuesday in November. Putting aside the possibility that both sides will reach a fiscally responsible compromise balancing short-term growth and long-term deficit management, or that my dick will go to Harvard and become President, three possibilities seem likely.
1) Republicans cave, and Democrats extend tax cuts for everybody except the top 2%.
2) Democrats cave and pass tax cuts for everybody including the top 2%.
3) Nobody caves, and Senate Republicans filibuster extension of all the tax cuts on C-SPAN.
4) Realizing that something bad could happen, Congress does nothing about taxes until after the midterm elections.
Item (3) is the both-cars-crash-into each other outcome, and as in any game of chicken it might be what both sides secretly want, just so they don’t have to go to work anymore. Exactly which party would look cool in front of its girlfriend and which would be confined to a wheelchair for the rest of its life* seems to be a question of public relations. The GOP already threatened to filibuster health care and financial reform, and in both cases it seemed a prospect not entirely damaging to Democrats. A month before a tough election, I’m sure a lot of Dems would like to see a parade of Republican senators reading out of the phone book to stop a middle-class tax cut on behalf of the rich.
That may not be what the American people see, though. If McConnell and company spin it right, people might see Republicans putting their collective foot down in defense of the Tax Hike Prevention Act. When that foot-downery results in everyone’s taxes going up, they’ll blame their Ivy League Muslim President.
That seems like a farfetched idea—surely the American people can understand a fairly simple legislative standoff better than that—but we are talking about the Democratic Party. Their ability to mismanage a message seems matched only by their ability to overestimate a Republican threat. Both parties probably believe they’re on shaky ground, which makes outcome (4) increasingly likely.
It’s interesting to note that situations (3) and (4), which cover what both sides say they’ll do and what will happen if they do nothing, respectively, result in the one outcome that both sides don’t want.
The plan to extend the Bush tax cuts for the middle class constitutes perhaps the first major initiative that the Democratic and Republican parties have agreed upon since January 15, 2009. One would think that deciding what to do about the top 2% would become an occasion for compromise, or at least that they’d put it to a vote.
Unfortunately, one would be making an unfounded assumption in doing so: that both parties regard government as more important than politics. Taken separately, they might. Together, though, the Democratic and Republican Parties see the question of tax policy not as an opportunity to help the American people, but as an opportunity to make the other side look bad.
That’s a terrible accusation, but it comes after two years of degraded rhetoric, legislative brinksmanship and ideological all-or-nothingism. It’s disgusting that Senate Republicans would block tax cuts for everyone in the name of tax cuts for the wealthy. It’s disgusting that Democrats might charge the American people billions of dollars to watch Republicans make good on their threats. It’s disgusting that both parties would do so in order to curry favor with the same electorate they’re screwing. Most disgusting of all is that it might work.