Monday, December 03, 2012

Why we will probably go over the fiscal cliff (and why it's not such a big deal)

Relax. Let go. It's going to happen. We're going over the fiscal cliff, but it's not that big a deal. In fact, Congressional leaders would be better off (and more honest) if they went ahead and just assumed that we are going over the cliff and began negotiating the post-cliff compromise.

Here's a few reasons why going over the fiscal cliff is virtually assured.

1. John Boehner wants to continue being Speaker of the House, and he will not challenge the Tea Party wing of the GOP until he his safely re-elected Speaker.

2. Eric Cantor is laying low right now. He's hoping Boehner either compromises, in which case he can lead a Tea Party insurrection, or that Boehner takes the blame for going over the fiscal cliff, in which case he can lead a Tea Party insurrection. All of this is ironic because Cantor is more responsible than any other member of Congress for scuttling the grand bargain Obama and Boehner were close to making in the summer 2011. In effect, sequestration was Cantor's solution: a gamble on the outcome of the 2012 elections--a gamble Cantor and the GOP lost.

3. Grover Norquist is still a potentially potent force in GOP primaries. This year's elections show that Grover Norquist isn't an especially powerful force in general elections. The American people as a whole have rejected Norquist's message. But Norquist remains a potent force in the GOP's intra-party primary fights. Recent elections have shown that the Tea Party and its allies are very good at defeating establishment Republicans in primaries. While a handful of Republicans are thumbing their noses at Norquist, the vast majority remain rightfully terrified of a primary challenge from the right funded by Norquist and his allies.

4. Gerrymandering has made general elections less important than primaries in the House of Representatives. Our nation's congressional districts are comically gerrymandered these days. GOP representatives in most House districts could care less about general elections: they know that if they can avoid a primary challenge (see #3) they are safe in the general election.

5. The Republicans have nothing to offer Democrats comparable to the results they gain by going over the cliff. Letting the Bush tax cuts expire resets the nation's tax structure to what it was under Bill Clinton when, as Democrats are fond of pointing out, things weren't all that bad. Once we go back to status quo Clinton, we can then talk about selective tax cuts for the middle and working classes. Republicans simply have nothing to offer Democrats.

6. Once we are on the other side of the cliff, Norquist's pledge no longer applies. Once we go over the cliff and the Bush tax cuts have expired, Democrats can come back to Republicans with a package of tax cuts targeted at 98% of Americans. Because these are tax cuts, Republicans can vote for them without violating their pledge to not raise taxes. If Republicans tried to block tax cuts for 98% of Americans, they could fatally damage their party by confirming that they only care about the 2%.

So relax. Enjoy Christmas and New Year's. On January 2, 2013, Congress can get down to the real business of crafting a real compromise once the Bush tax cuts have expired. Anything before then is probably just posturing.

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