BIRNBAUM: The coming brick wall

Legislative smashup is likely as parties wrestle for control

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Get ready for the great collapse. Congress will return soon from its summer slumber and begin to work again. Sort of. Actually, its rushed, pre-election session will look like a giant game of gotcha. Among other things, Democrats will accuse Republicans of trying to protect the rich, and Republicans will say Democrats are trying to raise taxes.

Both accusations will fly about the same issue: whether - and how much - to roll back the so-called George W. Bush tax cuts. In the end, nothing much will get done before the November elections, which would be, potentially, a massive calamity.

Usually, when Congress fails to act, that’s a good thing. The nation has reason to celebrate.

But in this case, gridlock - or what we can call the great collapse - will mean that millions of taxpayers could well begin 2011 not knowing what their tax rates will be or where their tax liabilities will end up.

That’s a serious problem and one that, as a nation, we haven’t faced before.

The problem lies in the U.S. Senate. As everyone knows by now, Congress‘ upper chamber needs 60 votes to do anything controversial, and very few matters are more contentious than changing tax laws and rates.

That means that efforts to extend or end some tax breaks enacted early in the Bush administration will almost certainly be subject to a 60-vote threshold. Yet getting to 60 will be nearly impossible.

Stalemate will be the result, leaving many questions unanswered, such as what the top income tax rate is and how high the estate tax is.

In fact, it’s possible that partisan divisions could run so deep that none of the tax breaks - even the consensus items that benefit the middle class - will be allowed to move through and onto the books.

Such would be the train wreck of the fall congressional session. Some of these items could be resolved during a so-called lame-duck meeting of Congress after the elections. But don’t count on it. Real progress is rare during such sessions, especially if there’s been a major shift in power, which is extremely possible this year.

The easiest bet in Washington, therefore, is that gridlock will prevail for months on most major issues, including any that involve trying to reduce the enormous budget deficit. In other words, the issues that really matter.

Here’s the spiral that it will create.

Angry voters will toss out dozens of Democrats in an effort to make Washington work for a change. Instead, the capital will become even more divided and less able to complete its tasks.

Voters will demand action but get virtually none. Republicans will be blamed for the failure. Voters will get angry again and vote against almost anyone who’s an incumbent.

You get the picture.

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About the Author

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations. His firm represents a variety of corporations.

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