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A Conspicuous Pattern: The GOP Is Really Not Interested In Governing

At his press conference the other day, President Obama noted the recommendations of the bipartisan deficit-reduction commission (which, by the way, failed to reach an agreement). He mentioned in passing that his White House set up the structure for the commission: “As you will recall, this was originally bipartisan legislation that some of the Republican supporters of decided to vote against when I said I supported it — that seems to be a pattern that I’m still puzzled by.”

It is, to be sure, quite a pattern. For two-and-a-half years, Obama has run into congressional Republicans who not only refuse to take “yes” for an answer, but routinely oppose their own ideas when the president is willing to accept them.

This seems especially relevant in the context of the current debt-reduction talks. At a certain level, it’s almost comical — here we have a Democratic president agreeing with a conservative Republican House Speaker on a massive deal that would lower the debt by over $4 trillion over the next decade. It would tilt heavily in the GOP’s direction, and address the problem Republicans pretend to care about most. Obama is even willing to consider significant entitlement “reforms,” which should be music to the ears of the right.

And yet, in the latest example that “puzzles” the president, Republicans aren’t interested.

Now, part of this is obviously the result of Republicans adopting a faith-based approach to revenue, which happens to be wildly disconnected to reality. But that’s not the only angle that matters. Matt Yglesias had a good item the other day that raised a point that’s often lost in the shuffle.

[H]ere we get to the problem that’s recurred throughout Obama’s time in office. If members of Congress think like partisans who want to capture the White House, then the smart strategy for them is to refuse to do whatever it is the president wants. The content of the president’s desire is irrelevant. But the more ambitious his desire is, the more important it is to turn him down.

After all, if the President wants a big bipartisan deal on the deficit, then a big bipartisan deal on the deficit is “a win for President Obama,” which means a loss for the anti-Obama side. When Obama didn’t want to embrace Bowles-Simpson, then failure to embrace Bowles-Simpson was a valid critique of him. But had Obama embraced Bowles-Simpson, then it would have been necessary for his opponents to reject it.

For weeks, many have marveled at the priorities of the Republican policy wish-list — given a choice between the larger debt-reduction plan in American history and preserving some tax breaks for the wealthy, GOP officials at nearly every level strongly prefer the latter. Indeed, for nearly all Republicans, it’s such a no-brainer, this question is almost silly.

But there’s a separate challenge — Republicans have a choice between advancing policies they ostensibly agree with and Obama scoring a legislative victory. And as it turns out, that’s a no-brainer, too, since GOP lawmakers don’t really care about governing so much as they care about denying the president political victories. It might make them appear ridiculous — why would anyone reject their own ideas? — but looking foolish isn’t a major concern for congressional Republicans.

Obviously, this makes compromise literally impossible, and all but guarantees the least productive legislative session in many years. But it also suggests the president needs to adapt to an awkward set of circumstances: given Republican beliefs, Obama must realize his support for a legislative idea necessarily means it’s less likely to happen.

By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Political Animal, Washington Monthly, July 17, 2011

July 18, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Congress, Conservatives, Debt Ceiling, Deficits, Democracy, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, GOP, Government, Government Shut Down, Ideologues, Ideology, Lawmakers, Medicare, Politics, President Obama, Republicans, Right Wing, Tax Loopholes, Taxes, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Yes, Paul Ryan Does Cut Taxes For The Rich

A number of conservatives have asserted that, contrary to what I’ve written, the House Republican budget written by Paul Ryan does not cut taxes for high earners. (See John McCormack, Ramesh Ponnuru, Charles Krauthammer, and McCormack again quoting Ryan.) Here’s the argument. Ryan keeps overall tax levels the same as they are right now by making the tax cuts permanent. He would then reduce the corporate tax rate and the top income tax rate by ten percentage points, from 35% to 25%. But he would make up for that additional revenue loss by closing “loopholes and deductions,” many of which benefit the rich. Therefore, his plan doesn’t really cut taxes on the rich.

There are four problems with this claim, each of them fatal.

First, the argument simply reflects a legitimate difference in baselines. Under current law, the Bush tax cuts are in full effect, but expire at the end of 2012. Keep Bush-era tax levels in place is not a tax cut compared with the tax code now, but it is a tax cut compared with the tax code in 2013. Which is the true baseline? I think both sides have a point, and Congressional scorekeepers have taken to using both baselines.

When President Obama accuses Ryan of cutting taxes for the rich, he’s using the post-2012 baseline. I consider that the best point of reference because the most important force in our political system is inertia. Given our multiple veto points, it takes great effort to enact a policy change that the parties disagree upon. Ryan proposes to make that change. Therefore, I think it’s fair to describe him as “cutting taxes,” even if revenues did remain at present levels (which I dispute, but more on that later.) I do think there’s merit in both baselines. The argument that Obama is lying about Ryan — that calling him a tax-cutter is, in Krauthammer’s characteristically understated phrasing, “scurrilous” — rests upon the assumption that the current-policy baseline is not only more preferable but the only remotely honest point of reference. That seems like a huge stretch.

Second, even if we accept Ryan’s preferred baseline, his description of his plan is hard to accept at face value. Tax reform is a trade where you take away deductions (that’s hard) and use the money to reduce rates (that’s easy.) The rate reductions are specified. The reduced deductions aren’t. Another way to put this is that Ryan has proposed a specific tax cut that would benefit the affluent, accompanied by utterly vague promises to find offsets. At the very least, the rate-lowering portion ought to carry more weight than the deduction-closing portion.

Third, even if we accept both Ryan’s baseline and assume he will match every dollar in lost revenue from the rate cuts with another dollar in reduced deductions, he will almost certainly wind up cutting taxes for the rich relative even to the post-Bush tax code. Ryan implies that his plan would leave the rich paying the same effective tax rates as they do now because he’s “getting rid of loopholes and deductions, which by the way are enjoyed by the top [tax] rate filers, the people in the top two brackets.” But he hasn’t put out any details. In 1995, House Republicans loudly promised to promote shared sacrifice by rooting out corporate welfare in the tax code. The actual savings they produced turned out to consist of proposals that hurt the poor (by cutting the Earned Income Tax Credit), benefited business (by letting them swipe funds from employee pensions, keeping the money as profit and thus increasing corporate tax revenue), or other reverse-Robin Hood measures.

Now, Ryan was not around then. But we can get a measure of his intentions from the more specific tax plan laid out in his “Roadmap” from 2010. That plan constituted a massive tax cut for the rich, combined with a tax hike on the middle class.

The Tax Policy Center examined various proposals to reduce tax deductions while using the revenue to lower rates across the board. All the plans decreased the tax burden for the top-earning 1%. The problem is that tax deductions are just not worth as much to very rich people as low tax rates.

It’s true that the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan includes proposals that would lower rates to around 25% while increasing the effective tax rate paid by the very rich. To do that, you have to do things like raise the estate tax rate and completely eliminate the preferential treatment of capital gains. But Ryan’s budget promises instead — and this is the only specific policy commitment in its tax section, other than lowering rates — to expand the preferential treatment of income from wealth:

Raising taxes on capital is another idea that purports to affect the wealthy but actually hurts all participants in the economy. Mainstream economics, not to mention common sense, teaches that raising taxes on any activity generally results in less of it. Economics and common sense also teach that the size of a nation’s capital stock – the pool of saved money available for investment and job creation – has an effect on employment, productivity, and wages. Tax reform should promote savings and investment because more savings and more investment mean a larger stock of capital available for job creation. That means more jobs, more productivity, and higher wages for all American workers.

Fourth — almost there! — even if you reject everything I’ve written to this point, Ryan’s plan includes the repeal of all the taxes in the Affordable Care Act, including the taxes on the affluent. Here’s the Path to Prosperity’s description of health care taxes he proposes to undo:

The new law imposes a 0.9 percent surtax on wages and a 3.8 percent surtax on interest, dividends, and capital gains. Both taxes only apply to filers in the top two income brackets, but as discussed elsewhere in this section, those filers include small businesses employing millions of Americans, and the new taxes on capital will reduce the pool of capital available for investment and job creation.

There. Per Paul Ryan, these are upper-bracket taxes he proposes to lower. He could keep those taxes in effect, and cover a few of the uninsured people he throws off their coverage, or make the progressively-more-inadequate health care vouchers he uses to replace Medicare slightly less inadequate. But he chooses not to do that, because he believes it’s more important to tax capital at lower rates. It’s fine for him to believe that. But he and his defenders have to stop insisting that he doesn’t propose tax cuts for the rich. He indisputably does so.

By: Jonathan Chait, The New Republic, April 20, 2011

April 23, 2011 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Budget, Businesses, Congress, Conservatives, Corporations, Deficits, Democrats, Economic Recovery, Economy, GOP, Government, Health Care, Health Reform, Jobs, Politics, President Obama, Rep Paul Ryan, Republicans, Right Wing, Tax Loopholes, Taxes, Uninsured, Wealthy | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Deficit Hawks and The Games They Play

For 30 years, conservative ideologues have played moderate deficit hawks for suckers.

You’d think this might endow those middle-of-the-road deficit-busters with a touch of humility. Fat chance. They stick with their self-righteous moralism, pretending to be bipartisan and beyond ideology. In fact, they make the problem they want to solve worse by continuing to empower the tax-cuts-in-every-season conservatives.

It’s thus satisfying to see President Obama ignore the willfully naive who are wailing over deficits. He knows that new revenue will have to play a big role in deficit reduction. He also knows that House Republicans are pretending we can cut our way out of this mess and would demagogue any general tax increases.

So he has proposed some serious spending cuts and some modest revenue increases to keep things stable as he embarks on a long struggle to move our dysfunctional budget politics to a better place. This annoys his deficit-obsessed critics, by which I mean just about everyone who says he should simply embrace the proposals of the Bowles-Simpson commission. Obama should smile, let them rage and go about his business.

Let’s look at history. When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, he won big tax cuts coupled with big increases in military spending. The tax cuts and a severe recession tanked government revenue.

Unlike today’s conservatives, Reagan at least acknowledged mathematical reality and signed some tax increases. But these were insufficient, and it fell first to George H.W. Bush – the last truly fiscally responsible Republican – and then to Bill Clinton to restore budgetary sanity.

But the conservatives who dug the hole did nothing to get us out of it. On the contrary, they denounced the first President Bush for raising taxes, and every Republican voted against Clinton’s economic plan. For their bravery in supporting tax increases in 1993, Democrats lost control of Congress in 1994.

By the end of the Clinton years, we had a handsome surplus. In came the second President Bush who, with Republicans in Congress, declared the surplus too big. It was one problem they worked very hard to solve. Two tax cuts and two wars later, we were plunged into deficits – again. And the economic downturn that started on Bush 43’s watch made everything worse, cutting revenue and requiring more deficit spending to get the economy moving.

Where were the moderate deficit hawks in all this? They have a very bad habit. When conservatives blow up our fiscal position with their tax cuts, the deficit hawks are silent – or, at best, mumble a few words of mild reproach to have something on the record – and let the budget wreckage happen. Quite a few in their ranks (yes, including some Democrats) actually supported the Bush tax cuts.

But when it’s the progressives’ turn in power, the deficit hawks become ferocious. They denounce liberals if they do not move immediately to address the shortfall left by conservatives. Thus, conservatives get to govern as they wish. Liberals are labeled as irresponsible unless they abandon their own agenda and devote their every moment in power to cutting the deficit.

It’s a game for chumps. The conservatives play it brilliantly. By winning their tax cuts and slashing government revenue, they constrain what liberals can do whenever they get back into power.

How do we know our difficulties stem primarily from a shortage of revenue? Consider what would happen if we allowed all the tax cuts scheduled to expire in 2012, including the ones enacted under Bush, to go away. That would produce nearly as much deficit reduction over the next decade – roughly $4 trillion – as all the maneuvers of the Bowles-Simpson commission put together. If you want to be serious about closing the deficit, ending the Bush tax cuts is a good place to start.

The commission’s work showed just how effective conservatives have been. By saying they will never, ever, ever raise taxes, conservatives intimidate moderates into making concession after concession.

In the end, the Senate conservatives on the commission – but not the House conservatives – supported some mild tax increases. But Bowles-Simpson proposed about twice as much in spending cuts as in revenue increases. You would think that moderates could at least hold out for a 50-50 split. But no, they’ll do anything to win over a few conservatives.

As a result, any conservative who supports even the smallest tax increase is hailed as courageous. Any liberal who proposes moderate spending cuts is condemned as a gutless coward unless he or she also supports slashing Social Security and Medicare. What’s “moderate” or “balanced” about this?

I hope Obama has the spine to keep calling the bluff of the deficit hawks until they get serious about changing the politics of deficit reduction. We can’t afford another 30 years of fiscal evasion.

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr-Op-Ed Columnist, The Washington Post, originally posted February 17, 2011

February 27, 2011 Posted by | Budget, Deficits | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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