The deal hammered out in the U.S. Senate and reluctantly approved by the House this week was massively flawed; however it did call the Republicans’ bluff on no tax increases. Technically they might be able to hang their hats on the proposition that since they did not vote until January 1, they were actually voting for a decrease in taxes because the so-called Bush tax cuts had expired. The only people who might buy that are the politicians themselves.
Lots of people will focus on the many flaws of this legislation, but let’s look at the real positives.
(1) A bill passed Congress with bipartisan support. Huzzah! Everyone was grumbling (which is often the case with legislation that has bipartisan support) but a supermajority in the Senate and majority in the house voted yes. This proves they can do it!
(2) Republicans and Democrats voted for a tax increase. As I have written before, our annual deficits cannot be solved with spending cuts alone. Although House Republicans voted almost 2-1 against the bill, this vote shows recognition by a majority of legislators that we must also have increased revenue.
(3) Congress made most of the changes permanent. It’s important to recognize that permanent does not mean they may not be changed in the future. It means they stay in place forever until they are changed by law.
This differs from Congress’s typical approach of short-term fixes that they need to address year after year after year. This practice of temporary changes became standard because of the way Congress “scores” the cost of legislation. It minimized the costs and maximized benefits to make legislation look good. This process allowed politicians to make claims supported by incomplete economic analysis and also caused myriad opportunities for junk measures (aka pork) to ride along with a bill that must be passed. Making these changes “permanent” takes away “must pass” bills that are tar babies for pork.
(4) It returns the marginal tax rates on those with $400,000 (single) $450,000 (joint) back to 39.6% and also limits deductions and the personal exemption for those earning over $250,000 (single) $300,000 (joint). Capital gains rates will also be greater for higher income earners. These changes show a recognition that those well off must bear more responsibility for our tax revenues than they did.
(5) The AMT (alternative minimum tax) is finally indexed to inflation so it will apply to targeted groups and not add unintended taxes on middle class taxpayers.
(6) Eliminates the payroll tax holiday. While effective as a stimulus in getting more spending money to those working, it was ineffective in its appreciation by those receiving it. Further, it eroded the security of Social Security, which is particularly important at a time when so-called entitlements are all under attack.
(7) Congress blocked an increase in their pay. They actually thought they deserved one for their performance? I’ve said before Congress should get no pay until they pass a complete budget for the fiscal year.
Of course I wish this legislation had done more, but what it did accomplish was mostly pointed in the right direction. The next battle will be waged by the next Congress as it tackles the artificial debt limits imposed in the same short-sighted manner as the “fiscal cliff” by previous Congresses.
Happy New Year.