What to Make of the Fiscal Cliff Deal?

By Sharon Ward, Third and State

Tell us what you think about the Fiscal Cliff deal. Take our two-question survey.

The agreement reached by President Obama and Congress on January 1 was both historic and disappointing – and it leaves much unsettled. The urgency of the Fiscal Cliff has dissipated, but significant threats remain to federal funding for state and local services as well as refundable tax credits for low-income working families, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security.

There is much to dislike in this agreement. It makes permanent most of the Bush era tax cuts, ensuring that income from dividends and capital gains will be taxed at a lower rate than income from work. It makes permanent the estate tax but locks in a tax rate that creates a huge windfall for the top 0.3% of households. Sequestration cuts – the automatic spending cuts that members of both parties hated and the President said would not occur – have been postponed for two months, with three-quarters of FFY 2013 cuts ($85.6 billion) and $109 billion in annual cuts after that still in law through 2022. The President’s line in the sand on raising tax rates for the top 2% of earners got pushed way back, with top rates kicking in at $400,000 for an individual and $450,000 for a couple. A low-wage earner might need 20 years to make that much.

The agreement is at the same time extraordinary. Eighty-five Republican members of Congress voted with their Democratic counterparts to raise taxes on wealthy Americans – no small feat in a Congress defined (some might say dominated) by its Tea Party members, Grover Norquist, and fealty to the no-tax pledge. Even toward the end, the House of Representatives stood firm in its defense of tax cuts, failing to muster enough votes for Speaker John Boehner’s “Plan B,” which included significant spending cuts and limited tax hikes to millionaires and billionaires.

On the plus side, the agreement abandoned the plan for “chained CPI,” a new measure of inflation that would have reduced future cost-of-living increases for Social Security, veterans’ benefits and other critical benefits. There were no additional spending cuts. The family tax credit programs – including the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit – were protected, and improvements made to those credits were extended for five years. Emergency unemployment insurance benefits were extended for laid-off workers who would have faced a significant immediate threat if we went over the cliff.

So what happened? The framework for the debate has always been the same: a grand bargain that would achieve a deficit reduction target of $4 trillion through a combination of cuts and new revenue. 

The President took what could be considered a realistic path – pressing for tax cuts for the middle class and tax hikes for the top 2% who could most afford it (and have done the best over the past decade). He largely succeeded, and while that is a significant victory, it does not raise enough revenue to stabilize the nation’s debt. This will end up putting significant pressure on the spending side of the ledger.

Already much of the press on the agreement is calling for significant new cuts, without acknowledging the $1 trillion in cuts already agreed to in the Budget Control Act of 2011. Plus, the President has lost the leverage of the Fiscal Cliff deadline.

The next fight will take place over the next two months when Congress will have to act to raise the debt ceiling, probably in February. Sequestration cuts will be announced on March 1 and scheduled to begin on March 27, the date that the continuing resolution governing current year spending expires. 

The President acknowledged that the debate is not over in his January 2 press conference and made two strong statements; that the vote on the debt ceiling should not be tangled up in the larger deficit reduction plan, and that new spending cuts have to be matched one for one with new revenue. Still, few are optimistic that Congress will take a reasoned, balanced approach to resolve the remaining issues, as The New York Times notes:

In the weeks to come, Republicans will use not just the debt-ceiling threat, but also the $100 billion across-the-board cuts known as the sequester, delayed for two months in this week’s deal, and the potential shutdown of the government when the current spending resolution expires in March. Standing up to brinkmanship will require a level of resolve that the president has yet to fully demonstrate.

It is also unclear where new revenue will come from given the long-term agreement on the Bush tax cuts and the fact that the President has taken corporate tax reform off the table, arguing that loophole closures should be dedicated to corporate tax reduction. The easiest and most politically popular option, higher marginal tax rates on wealthy individuals, is done. The other options (capping the value of tax deductions for home sales or charitable contributions) will be harder to accomplish.  

So what’s at stake moving forward?

Sequestration cuts. The current plan locks in three-fourths of the cuts ($85.4 billion) plus another $4 billion in discretionary cuts in the current year (FFY2013). While there is some hope current year cuts will be reduced, it is more likely that the debate will center on knocking back the devastating sequestration cuts for 2014 and beyond.

Working family tax credits. One of the surprises of the debate was the targeting of the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit programs, which are refundable for very low-income working families. While the fiscal cliff agreement continues those programs for five years, including the improvements that specifically benefit low-income families, there is grave concern that their refundability may be in jeopardy.

Medicaid. The health care program was excluded from sequestration, but cuts are likely to be on the table. Since states jointly fund this program, reduced federal participation will just shift costs to states. On the plus side, Medicaid is key to the promise of coverage under the Affordable Care Act, so protecting Medicaid is likely to be a high priority for the administration.

Entitlements. Chained CPI might return, as well as cuts to Medicare and Social Security. 

Pressing for additional revenue will continue to be the key to avoiding new deep cuts to health care, education and other critical services. While the Fiscal Cliff no longer looms, the Debt Ceiling Cliff is just over the horizon.

Toeing The Cliff

The House will adjourn tonight with no vote on the fiscal cliff crisis.  The President said this afternoon that an agreement is near.  Word is Democrats have compromised on tax cuts by agreeing not to raise taxes for anyone earning $450,000/year or less.  This cuts potential revenues by 40% making it harder to balance the budget.

No House votes means the country will go over the fiscal cliff at midnight.  Because January 1st is a federal holiday nothing will happen tomorrow either.

Keystone Progress had a bit of fun this morning holding its “Fiscal Cliff Bowl” on a field in the 16th Congressional District in Reading.  Mike Morrill did the announcing while Dan Sauder played the part of Jim Gerlach who rigged the game for the millionaires.

Fiscal Chicken

by Walter Brasch

Talk show hosts and other bloviators have spent hours giving their versions of the fiscal cliff.

In fewer than 750 words, I’ll explain the truth.

Taxes and the deficit are intertwined. If Congress can’t come up with a plan to solve those problems, the U.S. will jump into the abyss of a deeper recession than existed under the latter years of the Bush-Cheney administration.

Let’s first look at taxes.

The Bush tax cuts expire at the end of this year.

The idea of the cuts was to spur the economy and give what is loosely called the “jobs creators” a slight push to hire more people.

But, the millionaire “jobs creators” held onto their money. They continued to downsize and outsource jobs, making even more money-which they used to buy whatever trinkets that rich people spend money on.

If Congress can’t agree on tax rates, beginning Jan. 1, 2013, every American will see a restoration of tax rates to a level that is about what they were before the Bush tax cuts. The lower- and middle-classes will be hit harder than the upper class.

President Obama, contrary to what the screaming harpies of the extreme Rightwing claim, doesn’t want to raise taxes. He wants the tax cuts to continue for 98 percent of all Americans-the ones making less than $250,000 a year. He wants to restore-note that word, restore, not raise-the tax liability for the richest 2 percent of Americans. The rate to the rich would still be below the rates they paid during most of the latter half of the 20th century. Even billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet agree that the rich need to be paying more.

The Republicans, knowing where their financial base is, demand that the tax cuts be extended to everyone. Their compromise was to allow the cuts to apply to everyone making $1 million a year or less. That would be net income, not gross income. Millionaires could still make $3 million a year if they can scam $2 million in deductions. Their rates would still be lower than almost any time since the income tax was first created in 1913.

The President countered with a $400,000 limit. That would include about 99 percent of all Americans. House Speaker John Boehner, however, found that a segment of his Republican party don’t want a compromise; they are determined to uphold some kind of a non-legal pledge to Grover Norquist that there would be no tax increases-ever-even if it is to restore, not raise, tax rates.

The second part of the problem is that of entitlements. The Republicans are willing to do some horse-trading. They won’t continue to hold 99 percent of Americans hostage if there are cuts in “entitlements” and programs that would significantly reduce the deficit. These entitlements benefit mostly the 99 percent. The Republicans even say they’ll consider closing some tax loopholes used extensively by the upper class. But, they won’t tell us what those loopholes are, even though the President has several times asked for specifics. Apparently, the Republicans believe releasing such information is classified, much like battle plans in Afghanistan or the number of toilet paper rolls the Pentagon buys.

The President has already compromised several times, but every time he makes a concession, the Republicans want even more. He has proposed an orderly reduction of the deficit by $1.6 trillion. Not good enough, say the dogma-driven Republicans. They want even more. And they want it now. They are aware that if the tax cuts expire all at once, the deficit immediately decreases, something that makes them drool in ecstasy. However, almost every economist of every political persuasion says a severe decrease in the deficit would lead the U.S. into an even worse recession than the one created by the Bush-Cheney administration.

Behind a wall of political gesturing, the Republicans are doing nothing, while blocking those who can do something. John Boehner now acknowledges he is blocked by party dogma and can’t control the Republican majority in the House who want the government to several cut entitlements while continuing all Bush tax cuts, even to millionaires who, not surprisingly, make up the majority of Congress. Their actions are driving America into fiscal cliff suicide.

The obstructionists in Congress need to realize this isn’t a deserted two-lane highway, and Americans don’t want the Republicans playing chicken with our nest eggs.

[Walter Brasch, a social issues columnist, has covered politics and government for four decades. His latest book is Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution.]

 

Few in PA Would Be Affected by Ending High-income Tax Cuts

By Sharon Ward, Third and State

The Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center is out today with a new analysis finding that President Obama’s plan to end federal tax cuts for high-income earners would have very little impact on taxpayers in most Pennsylvania counties.

In over half of the state’s 67 counties, fewer than 1 in 100 residents (that’s 1%) would pay the higher marginal tax rate on income above $200,000 for individuals and $250,000 for married couples.

In most counties, only a small number of individuals are affected. In 24 counties, fewer than 200 high-income earners would pay the higher rate. Almost two-thirds of the top earners who would be impacted reside in just six Pennsylvania counties.

Map 1. Percentage of Taxpayers in Each PA County with Incomes Over $250,000

Map 2. Number of Taxpayers in Each PA County with Incomes Over $250,000

Under President Obama’s plan, families earning over $250,000 would keep other tax breaks on the first $250,000 of income, including a lower bottom tax rate and preferential tax rates on capital gains and dividends – a savings of $12,112 per taxpayer. The top tax rates would be restored to those in effect in the 1990s when the nation added 23 million jobs.

The PBPC county estimates are based on 2010 taxable income data published by the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue. You can read more about the estimates and analysis here.

Toomey Gets It Wrong, Again

Sen. Pat Toomey got it wrong again this week when he told reporters “This is a spending problem, a structural spending problem, and that’s what needs to be fixed.”

He was talking about deficit reduction and the impending “fiscal cliff,” a situation created by Republicans like Sen. Toomey when they refused to approve paying for the trillions of debt they created.  Conservatives spent like drunken sailors on wars of choice, tax cuts for the rich and corporate welfare then refused to pay the bill without holding the rest of us hostage.  Now the situation they crafted is looming and they still won’t accept responsibility for their failed policies.  

The issue isn’t spending, what caused the deficit are three things:  two wars put on credit, massive tax cuts for the rich and failed economic and regulatory policies which crashed the global economy.  The Great Recession diminished tax revenues as eight million people lost their jobs and 7 million of them their homes.  This was the direct result of Republicans refusals to regulate Wall Street, tax the rich and pay for their wars.  Spending really has nothing to do with it.  In fact economics requires us to be spending more to put folks back to work so they can begin paying taxes again and raise revenues.

Republicans are insisting on raising revenues only by ending deductions and reducing the formula for cost of living increases.  This insidious “reform” would hurt those receiving VA benefits, disability payments, Social Security, welfare, food stamps and other social safety net benefits designed to lift them out of poverty, keep them warm in winter and feed their kids.  It would throw more Americans into poverty and increase hunger.  This is what they want to do instead of taxing the richest 1%.  It’s beyond insidious, it’s inhumane.