A year ago, in the face of almost universal conservative opposition to raising taxes to deal with the national debt, I urged Republicans to accept a politically uncomfortable compromise. In light of House Speaker John Boehner’s failed attempt at a last-ditch fiscal cliff bill, it’s time to say I told you so.
Boehner, who proposed his “plan B” after cliff negotiations with the president stalled yet again, declared its passage to be the “last, best hope” for avoiding the multi-trillion-dollar tax hikes and spending cuts set to go into effect January 1. Plan B raised taxes on those making more than $1 million annually from 35 to 39.6%, bumped capital gains (investment) taxes from 15 to 25%, and cranked up the estate (inheritance) tax to 35%. Boehner also tacked on some spending cuts late Wednesday night to appeal to more of his caucus, but reasoned that new taxes on the wealthy would be sufficient to cover an extension of the Bush tax cuts for the middle class.
By Thursday night, it was obvious that assumption was a serious miscalculation. In an embarrassing stumble, Boehner and the rest of the House leadership failed to rally enough of their fellow Republicans in a late-night mass meeting to pass the bill. It was a severe kneecapping by the far right of the caucus. Too few of the 51 tea party representatives wanted to raise taxes on the wealthy without meaningful spending cuts, even if that would allow them to extend tax cuts to over 98% of the US population.
Misguided? You bet. Unforeseeable? Certainly not.
In 2011, the House was left to mull a similar deal proposed by the President in exchange for a debt ceiling increase. At one point in the negotiations, Obama proposed $4 trillion in spending cuts for $1 trillion in new taxes over the next decade. I said take the deal; the House (with Boehner at the helm) shot it down. At the time, accepting $1 trillion in new taxes for $4 trillion in cuts and changes to entitlement programs wasn’t very conservative, but Republicans had one chamber and Democrats the other. Clearly we weren’t going to get something for nothing, and it’s significantly easier to lower taxes later than to cut spending.
The great irony is that now Boehner and his right-leaning caucus are scraping and scrapping their way towards a far uglier bargain. I may have been a moderate when I proposed we accept $4 in spending cuts for every $1 in new taxes, but that deal looks much better to conservatives now that we’ll be lucky to get 80 cents in cuts for each dollar in new revenue.
On top of that, after the plan B bungle, Democrats will be writing any eventual legislation for dealing with the cliff. Does the House really expect to get a better deal from Harry Reid that John Boehner?
Here’s the moral of the story: if you want to preserve conservative values in the long run, you may have to make some short-term compromises. Everyone wants to get everything they campaigned for passed. But when “everyone” includes 51 Democratic senators and a Democratic White House, Republicans should realize they’re lucky to get any deal with major spending concessions. We have to govern with principles but we also have to govern pragmatically.
To twist Vince Lombardi’s words, we can chase perfection relentlessly, knowing all the while that we can never attain it. But along the way, we could find a relatively good deal, and if we don’t take it we may not like the alternatives.