Congress and the White House veered away from the fiscal cliff before they could drive off it, and that is good news. But the budgetary road remains treacherous, and the nation still remains far from its desired destination.
The House on Tuesday overcame opposition from majority Republicans to approve the combination of tax increases and spending cuts — much more in tax increases than spending cuts — that the Senate had approved the day before. Rep. Doc Hastings of Pasco, who represents Central Washington’s 4th District, voted with the rest of the state’s Republican delegation to approve the measure, but they were in the minority of the GOP. Only 85 of 236 House GOP members voted for the deal; overwhelming support from Democrats pushed it through.
In the Senate, Democrats Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell of Washington state voted with the lopsided 89-8 majority to approve the accord; only five Republicans and three Democrats opposed it.
The deal prompted grumbling across the board; conservatives lamented that so many Republicans broke away from party orthodoxy about raising taxes, and some on the left believe Democrats agreed to a higher income threshold — $400,000 for single filers, $450,000 for married couples — for raising income taxes than they should have.
The higher incomes aren’t the only ones hit. All households will no longer benefit from a temporary Social Security payroll tax reduction; a household with an annual income of $40,000 to $50,000 will pay $579 more in taxes this year, according to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. That’s a financial hit, but it will help satisfy concerns about making Social Security more financially sound.
But short term and long term, it only buys some more time. The combatants will be at it again in two months when deep spending cuts that were deferred as part of this deal come due. At about the same time the government’s legal ability to borrow money will expire; aka, we’ll hit the debt ceiling. Recall the congressional brinksmanship over this issue in 2011. Republicans have signaled they will stand their ground again in an effort to wring savings out of the federal budget.
Deficit hawks are quick to criticize the deal; note the comments by former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles, a former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton. In 2010 they co-chaired a presidential commission on deficit reduction, only to see both parties ignore their deficit-reduction proposals of spending cuts and tax increases. Simpson and Bowles called the recent measure “truly a missed opportunity to do something big to reduce our long-term fiscal problems.”
And that’s the problem: The New Year’s deal essentially kicked the can down another road. Whether that road will again lead toward a cliff depends on the ability of a divided government to reach further agreement.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.