Where Have All the Deficit Hawks Gone?

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For awhile, the House GOP insisted on paying for the payroll tax cut by cutting elsewhere, but now they've agreed to borrow -- again.John Boehner hand on face - Jason Reed Reuters - banner.jpg


In Washington, D.C., one party -- the Democrats -- insist that this is the wrong time to worry about historic peacetime budget deficits. And the Republicans argue that fiscal profligacy imperils the nation! They've nevertheless decided that the payroll tax cut must be extended, even if the money must be borrowed. "Facing emboldened Democratic negotiators and a quickly thinning legislative calendar, House Republican leaders have offered to extend the payroll tax holiday through the end of the year without paying for it," Brian Beutler reports at Talking Points Memo. "The development represents a dramatic reversal for GOP leaders, who nearly allowed the payroll tax cut to lapse in December in part because of their insistence that the package be financially offset."

Paul Kane lays out the background at The Washington Post:

All sides agree that it will be extended and there will be no repeat of a pre-Christmas showdown over the tax benefit that created bitter political divisions within [the] party's ranks. As part of a December 2010 tax compromise, which extended the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts through the end of this year, President Obama won inclusion of the payroll tax cut that dropped individuals' withholding rate to 4.2 percent from 6.2 percent, giving the average worker an extra $80 a month. Republicans have questioned the efficacy of the plan, while others have lamented its effect on Social Security's future. But Obama trumpeted the idea as a way to put cash quickly into workers' pockets, helping to fuel the improving economy, and in his September proposal he offered to extend the holiday through this year and expand it for workers and employers.

While most of his nearly $450 billion in jobs initiatives fell by the wayside, the payroll tax holiday has survived. When a full-year extension of the existing tax holiday could not be agreed upon in December, the Senate passed, by a wide bipartisan vote, a two-month extension, but House Republicans rebelled. They suggested it was bad economic policy to temporarily adjust payroll taxes, and, more important, many of the 89 Republican freshman lawmakers said it was just the sort of half-a-loaf deal that they were swept into office to correct.
Jonathan Bernstein predicts that this portends more spending in the future:

...This is almost certainly a preview of what eventually happens on the military spending cuts in the scheduled sequester under the debt limit deal. Recall that the Budget Control Act set up a "Supercommittee" to come up with deficit reductions, and when that (predictably) failed, the next step is a future sequestration that would take all of the deficit reductions out of the spending side, very much including military spending. Already, hawkish Republicans have suggested trading in those defense cuts for something else. Eventually, they'll do there what they did today: they'll propose just eliminating the defense cuts with no offset. The question then will be whether Democrats have the leverage (and the inclination) to trade cuts to Democratic priorities for cuts in defense.
And if the automatic cuts don't happen? As Doug Mataconis explains, that could affect revenue projections in a way that triggers another standoff over the debt ceiling before the 2012 presidential election:

A debt-ceiling fight right before an election would likely be a disaster. As I noted when we saw this last year, voting to increase the debt ceiling is the one vote that no member of Congress really wants to cast because it lays bare the Federal Government's fiscal problems, and because it is easy for a political opponent to demagogue. Explaining why voting to increase the debt ceiling is, in reality, a fiscally responsible move because it means authorizing the government to pay for things that Congress has already authorized is hard.

Denouncing a Congressman or Senator for voting to "raise the debt" is very, very easy and you can guarantee that this is exactly what we'd see in the event Congress had to vote on this issue before November. The debt kamikazes would be back in full force, and the world would be sitting back and watching while the United States argued down to the wire over an issue that shouldn't even be in doubt.

Stay tuned.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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