- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 19, 2010

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.

At least under the Democratic Congress and President Obama, a few major pieces of legislation ended up winning the day: financial regulation, economic stimulus and health care reform, to name just three. However, two of them - economic stimulus and health care reform - got failing grades from most Americans.

In the offing now is lack of movement on almost anything of importance, including measures as vital and personal as tax rates. Mr. Obama and Congress will almost certainly be at loggerheads a lot of the time.

The outcome: Republicans could well win more seats in Congress and quickly lose the public’s respect.

That’s one of the dangers of not running for something but rather against something. Republicans are happy - and probably smart in a short-term sense - to be the un-Democrats given the low poll ratings of the president and his party.

But unless they come up with some policies they will push, they can be labeled do-nothings and pay the price.

In 1994, Newt Gingrich faced a similar situation and, at the last minute, came up with his Contract With America. Not many people remember that its details were not unveiled until after Labor Day.

The same thing could happen in 2010, and Republicans could try not just to win but to win with a mandate to accomplish a few things.

A debate, no doubt, is raging within the GOP about what to promise and what to stay silent about.

Either way, the politicians need to understand that citizens will care a great deal more than usual about what’s decided.

Issues as consequential as who pays how much to Uncle Sam will be on the line.

Jeffrey Birnbaum is a Washington Times columnist, a Fox News contributor and president of BGR Public Relations.

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