President Barack Obama’s victory on taxes this week was the second, grudging round of piecemeal successes in as many years in chipping away at the nation’s mountainous deficits. Despite the length and intensity of the debate, the deal to raise the top income tax rate on families earning over $450,000 a year — about 1 percent of households — and including only $12 billion in spending cuts turned out to be a relatively easy vote for many. This was particularly so because the alternative was to raise taxes on everyone.
But in banking $620 billion in higher taxes over the coming decade from wealthier earners, Obama and his Republican rivals have barely touched deficits still expected to be in the $650 billion range by the end of his second term. And those back-of-the-envelope calculations assume policymakers can find more than $1 trillion over 10 years to replace automatic across-the-board spending cuts known as a sequester.
“They didn’t do any of the tough stuff,” said Erskine Bowles, chairman of Obama’s 2010 deficit commission. “We’ve taken two steps now, but those two steps combined aren’t enough to put our fiscal house in order.”
In 2011, the government adopted tighter caps on day-to-day operating budgets of the Pentagon and other cabinet agencies to save $1.1 trillion over 10 years.
The measure passed Tuesday prevents middle-class taxes from going up while raising rates on higher incomes. It also blocks severe across-the-board spending cuts for two months, extends unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless for a year, stops a 27 percent cut in Medicare fees paid to doctors and prevents a possible doubling of milk prices.
The alternative was going over the cliff, an economy-punching half-trillion-dollar combination of sweeping tax increases and spending cuts. Despite the deal, the government partially went over the brink anyway with the expiration of a two-year cut in Social Security payroll taxes of two percentage points.
Action inside a dysfunctional Washington now only comes with binding deadlines. So, naturally, this week’s hard-fought bargain sets up another crisis in two months, when painful across-the-board spending cuts to the Pentagon and domestic programs are set to kick in and the government runs out of the ability to juggle its $16.4 trillion debt without having to borrow more money.
Unless Congress increases or allows Obama to increase that borrowing cap, the government risks a first-ever default on U.S. obligations. Republicans will use this as an opportunity to leverage more spending cuts from Obama, just like they did in the summer of 2011.
House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) vows that any increase in the debt limit — which needs to be enacted by Congress by the end of February or sometime in March — must be accompanied by an equal amount in cuts to federal spending. That puts him on yet another collision course with Obama, who has vowed anew that he won’t let haggling over spending cuts complicate the debate over the debt limit.
The cliff compromise represented the first time since 1990 that Republicans condoned a tax increase. That has whipped up a fury among tea party conservatives and increased the pressure on Boehner to adopt a hard line in coming confrontations over the borrowing cap and the spending cuts that won only a two-month reprieve in this weeks’ deal.