It is clear by now that President Obama and House Speaker John A. Boehner are not going to work out a full-blown deal on taxes, spending and entitlements by the end of this month.
The task before them and Congress is so fraught with fiendishly complicated and politically charged issues that the idea that a couple of people behind closed doors can come up with a broadly acceptable solution is laughable. In fact, I’m going to go out on a “cliff” on this and say there will be no final resolution of these thorny issues, known as the “fiscal cliff,” until next year.
Wrapping up a grand, multitrillion-dollar compromise bill in four weeks or so isn’t in the cards to begin with, and the two most important people needed to do this sent out a number of signals that they’re in no rush to meet any deadline.
Since the president met with congressional leaders in a postelection lovefest, pledging they were ready to work together to avoid a fiscal leap into the abyss, Mr. Obama and Mr. Boehner haven’t met in two weeks. It is reported they haven’t even talked on the phone for at least a week.
Even Erskine Bowles, the Democratic co-chairman of the president’s deficit reduction commission in 2010 that proposed a sweeping, taxing-and-spending reform plan, now doubts an agreement to steer clear of the cliff will be signed before the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve. “It would be insane to breach this fiscal cliff, yet I think there is only a one-third possibility we’ll actually get something done before Dec. 31,” Mr. Bowles confessed Tuesday at the Christian Science Monitor’s newsmakers breakfast forum. “There has been no serious discussion yet about entitlement reform.”
“Am I optimistic? No, but I am hopeful,” he told reporters as he left a meeting in the Capitol with Mr. Boehner and other House Republican leaders this week.
The compromise Budget Act of 2011 requires Mr. Obama and Congress to come up with a $1.2 trillion deficit-cutting plan for the next decade by year’s end. If not, $100 billion or so will be automatically cut from defense and non-entitlement programs on Jan. 1. Quite frankly, if Congress can’t find $100 billion to cut from a waste-ridden, inefficient $3.5 trillion budget — even absent serious defense cuts — they are not really trying.
Mr. Obama is threatening to veto any deal, however, that does not significantly raise tax rates on investors, small businesses and other sectors of our economy.
For his part, Mr. Boehner has sketched out part of a plan to deal with the revenue side of the equation that would raise the tax flow into the Treasury by getting rid of dozens of exemptions, credits, deductions and other loopholes that will broaden the revenue base in order to lower tax rates on individuals and corporations to boost economic growth.
Mr. Obama, who still doesn’t know how to balance a budget, keeps saying the “math doesn’t add up.” The tax code is filled with tax preferences worth trillions of dollars over time, without touching the holy grail of tax deductions for mortgage interest and charitable contributions. Similar steps were taken in the Reagan tax reforms of 1986 that slashed a top tax rate to 28 percent.
Mr. Obama often talks about standing his ground on raising the two top individual tax rates, and the White House has threatened to let all the George W. Bush tax cuts expire if he doesn’t get his way. This will raise taxes for every American — lower-, middle- and upper-income taxpayers alike — including the 10 percent tax rate for those in the lowest income bracket.
Mr. Boehner feels his good faith compromise on raising new revenues by reforming and simplifying the tax code is as far as he and his party are willing go. “We’re willing to put revenue on the table as long as we’re not raising rates,” he told reporters this week for the umpteenth time.
There is new evidence that a majority of Americans favor Mr. Boehner’s approach. A national poll by the Winston Group, a Republican research firm, found that 65 percent of the Americans surveyed favored a plan to boost tax revenues that ends “special interest tax loopholes and deductions commonly used by the wealthy” rather than one that raises tax rates on “Americans earning more than $250,000.”
The frightening fiscal cliff and tax cut expiration deadlines that we face are a creation of Congress that was agreed to by Mr. Obama, who signed them into law. He agreed to extend all the Bush tax cuts at the end of 2010, including the top rates, for two more years because the economy was weak and unemployment was hovering over 9 percent, despite his $831 billion “stimulus” plan.
Unemployment remains at 8 percent, or more if you count part-timers who can’t find full-time jobs, and the economic growth rate this year is averaging a mediocre 2 percent that ensures high unemployment will persist for the foreseeable future. The Obama economy, economists agree, remains sluggish.