Only in Washington, D.C., do people raise taxes and fail to cut spending from what they were just a day earlier and call it the “American Taxpayer Relief Act.”
That more or less summarizes what I think about the itsy bitsy deal struck in the Senate earlier this week to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff.
I’m not going to rehash all the details of the deal. Nor do I plan to argue about whether we should consider the deal a) a tax cut for most people, because income tax rates were scheduled to go up this year and now will not, possibly resulting in a lower tax bill than many Americans were set to face in 2013 even after payroll taxes rise by 2 percentage points; or b) a tax increase, because the deal does not mean anyone will actually pay less in taxes in 2013 than they did in 2012, and many people will pay more.
It’s a rather stupid debate to have — not least because some of the same people who argue it’s a tax cut because taxes would have gone up anyway are also trying somehow to claim it’s a spending cut, even though the far-larger automatic sequester cuts have been put on hold for at least two months. Either what was going to happen by law on Jan. 1 counts when we evaluate this deal, or it doesn’t.
We have the spectacle of Republicans’ voting to raise taxes for some people and calling it a “tax cut,” as well as President Obama’s spending weeks insisting on keeping taxes the same on the middle class and striking a “balance” between tax hikes and spending cuts, and then accepting the deal even though neither goal was actually accomplished.
In fact, this “deal” is emblematic of everything that’s wrong with Washington:
1. Congress and the president created the fiscal cliff in the first place. First, they passed laws (especially pertaining to taxes) that are temporary. Second, their other “solutions,” in this case the sequester, don’t kick in for months — before which time everyone will be re-elected and then scramble to undo what they previously did. All of this sets up arbitrary future “deadlines” to resolve “crises.” Washington is forever spending the present trying to turn future actions into history before they ever even happen.
2. Congress and the president spend more time worrying about the political fallout of their policies than anything else, crafting their policies with arbitrary inflection points designed to sound good rather than to accomplish good. After all, does Obama now think someone has “made enough money” or doesn’t need a tax break at $400,000 of income rather than $200,000 (for individuals)? Is anyone in America naive enough to believe that the $400,000 threshold was chosen because there’s some evidence-based reason to believe it maximizes revenue or minimizes economic damage? (Does anyone in America even care about such things anymore?)
3. After weeks or even months of haggling, the final legislation was passed in one chamber mere hours after the deal was reached in principle and in the other only a day later — meaning, as with such hasty monstrosities as Dodd-Frank and Obamacare, congressional aides and industry lobbyists probably know more about what’s in the legislation than do the elected officials who voted for (or against) it. All, of course, because of the arbitrary deadlines mentioned above.
4. After all the focus on individual taxes, which by definition affect the most people personally, the final legislation preserved numerous carve-outs for industry (banks, Hollywood, even NASCAR) that never made the headlines during the weeks and months of haggling. Meanwhile, big elements that were discussed at length — particularly regarding entitlements — remain untouched.
5. Worst of all, the “solution” is so far removed from actually solving the original problem at hand — in this case, reducing the deficit — and pushes so much of the action into the future that we will be treated to this whole charade again within months, if not weeks or even days. Until then, however, we will hear about “bipartisanship” and “compromise” in tones suggesting that incorporating the worst ideas and hypocrisies of each side is somehow a good thing for the country.
And, due to the results of last year’s election, the very same cast of characters will be “leading” us through the next series of crises they create in the name of putting out the fire in front of them. Wonderful.
– By Kyle Wingfield