If the tax bill President Obama signed last week is what bipartisanship is going to be like for the next two years, maybe we should want less of it. Come on – how hard is it to summon the nerve to cross the aisle to make a deal with your mortal enemies to give away $858 billion?
I’m not trashing the agreement. It was about the best outcome anyone could have realistically expected. I usually feel like a Steven Pearlstein “dittohead” when I read his columns in The Washington Post, but Pearlstein’s suggestion that Obama and the Senate Democrats should have fought this all the way to New Year’s Eve wasn’t stirring but silly.
This wasn’t Shakespeare’s King Henry calling his men to arms – “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” – the night before they fought the French at the Battle of Agincourt. This fight was over a few Saturdays ago when Senate Republicans stuck together and defeated a Democratic attempt to take the Bush tax cuts away from people making more than $1 million a year.
The Republicans are simply not easily embarrassed on tax cuts. Raising taxes is always a “job-killer,” even when it’s for zillionaire hedge fund managers. This may be a deeply flawed argument, but for the GOP, it’s like garlic for vampires. It works. Does anyone really think that three more weeks of feckless hectoring by Democrats would have changed that? Or would annoyed voters simply have gotten even angrier at the “nyah-nyah” schoolyard politics they’re already sick of?
Obama was right to cut the deal. He got a badly needed extension of unemployment benefits and a stimulus package that he’d never have won if this had been spending instead of tax breaks. Was it fiscally responsible? Hardly. Was it distasteful but necessary and effective? Economic historians will decide, presuming the economy recovers. Does borrowing almost another $1 trillion make it even more imperative to get serious about deficit reduction? Um, yeah.
But the idea that this is a template that 2011-12 needs sober examination. Giving things away is easy. What Obama and the next Congress are going to have to do is take things away. Let’s see how bipartisan everyone is when it comes to slashing spending and raising tax revenue.
The real test for bipartisanship was the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission. The members of Congress on the commission had been stuck inside rooms talking about this for months, and they understood the realities of deficit reduction as well as anyone. Their colleagues back on the Hill could rant about never raising taxes or cutting entitlements, but commission members understood they’d have to do both. With some notable exceptions, however, partisans on both sides made predictable excuses and voted no on the commission’s final product. Sadly, that’s a more accurate harbinger for what’s ahead.
George Hager is a member of the USA Today editorial board.
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