Three little words

Much hot air has been expended, with much coming, about the failure of Congress' Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to reach an agreement to forestall $1.2 trillion in budget cuts beginning in 2013.

The "supercommittee" thus confirmed the worst suspicions about this Congress: It is not capable of addressing the nation's debt crisis, not if it would imperil its members' individual interests. That 9 percent approval rating Congress got in the most recent New York Times/CBS Poll now looks 9 points too high.

Floating in the hot air are all manner of excuses: President Barack Obama failed to lead. The Republicans wouldn't give on tax expenditures. The Democrats wouldn't be specific about cuts to entitlements. Etc., etc.

Ignore it all. Three words explain the supercommittee's failure and, indeed, much of the debt crisis itself: Bush tax cuts.

Had Congress not enacted President George W. Bush's tax-cut proposals in 2001 and 2003, at least $2.2 trillion more would have flowed into the Treasury between 2001 and 2010, according to the authoritative Tax Policy Center of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution.

Had Congress not decided to pass a Medicare drug benefit and wage two wars off the books, the picture would have been even brighter.

Water under the bridge, right? Well, here's some water that's still upstream: If Congress were to allow the tax cuts to expire next year (they've already been extended two years because of a deal Obama struck with congressional Republicans) it would mean an additional $4 trillion to the Treasury between 2012 and 2020.

Four trillion dollars is precisely the amount that the leaders of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform recommended last December as being needed in the next 10 years to stabilize the debt crisis. But the commission couldn't get the majority seven votes among its members to send its plan to Congress.

That was Failure to Deal No. 1. Failure to Deal No. 2 came during last summer's debt-ceiling negotiations, which was resolved with the appointment of the supercommittee, which just executed Failure to Deal No. 3. All of them, and more to come, stem from the Primal Failure, the Bush tax cuts.

Fundamental points:

  • The United States cannot, without gutting needed programs and savaging the elderly and infirm, cut $1.2 trillion out of its budget in the next 10 years without increasing revenue. The only way to do that would be to take half of those cuts from defense and security spending, as the deal creating the supercommittee called for. Republicans and many Democrats will balk at that.
  • A combination of careful spending cuts, eliminating or cutting back tax breaks and returning the top tax bracket to the pre-2001 level of 39.6 percent could raise or save enough revenue to navigate the crisis responsibly.
  • At this point, more than two-thirds of the benefits of the 2001-2003 tax cut packages accrue to the wealthiest 20 percent of American households. This entire crisis has been manufactured to benefit 2 percent of taxpayers, households earning $250,000 a year or more.
  • None of this will be settled before the 2012 elections are over. The campaign will be, and should be, about the ascendancy of greed. It is a fight worth waging. It is a battle worth winning.

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