Tag: Fiscal Cliff

Wait, Didn’t the Fiscal Cliff Deal Originate in the Senate?

If you thought the policy side of the “American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012” is bad, did you notice that there’s a constitutional problem too? I’m sure there’s more than one, actually, but this one was easy to spot without even digging into the gory details.

Recall that the fiscal cliff bill was first passed by the Senate in the wee hours of New Year’s Day, and then seconded by a vote of the House some 20 hours later. And yet, Article I, Section 7, Clause 1—known as the Origination Clause—states: “All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.” 

Far from being “archaic, idiosyncratic and downright evil”—as Georgetown law professor Mike Seidman claimed as part of his argument for throwing out the Constitution altogether—this provision serves, or at least is supposed to serve, the very real and timeless purpose of keeping the taxing power as close to the voters as possible. Mindful of the potential for abuses of this awesome power (see, e.g., John Roberts on Obamacare) the Constitution’s authors chose to give it to the congressional body that is elected every two years directly by people in local districts (the House), instead of the one whose members serve alternating six-year terms and weren’t initially directly elected (the Senate). As Cato adjunct scholar Tim Sandefur explains in a forthcoming law review article (footnotes/citations omitted):

When the Anti-Federalist “Brutus” warned that the taxing power, “exercised without limitation,” will “introduce itself into every corner of the city, and country” and “light upon the head of every person in the United States” crying “GIVE! GIVE!” the Constitution’s supporters answered that this risk was minimized by the political checks over the taxing power. “The exclusive privilege of originating money bills [belongs] to the house of representatives,” wrote Alexander Hamilton.  This would ensure that the power to tax belonged to “the most popular branch” of the government, “the favorite of the people.” James Madison reiterated this point: the “principal reason” why the House was given the power “of originating money bills” was that the Representatives “were chosen by the people, and supposed to be the best acquainted with their interest and ability.” Perhaps the point was put best by George Mason, who considered the Senate “[a]n aristocratic body” which “should ever be suspected of an encroaching tendency,” and believed that “[t]he purse strings should never be put into its hands.”

So what happened last week? Did Harry Reid, John Boehner, and Barack Obama simply agree to ignore the Constitution? (Specifically here, I mean—we know they do generally where federal power is concerned.) Were the House and Senate parliamentarians overruled by a naked political deal?

Grading the Fiscal Cliff Deal: Terrible, but Could Be Worse

The faux drama in Washington is finally over. The misfits in Washington reached a deal on the fiscal cliff.

Republicans and Democrats managed to come together and decide that they should get a bigger slice of what the American people earn. Gee, what a surprise.

First, the good news:

Oh, wait, there isn’t any.

Now for the bad news.

  • The top tax rate will increase to 39.6 percent for entrepreneurs, investors, small business owners, and other “rich” taxpayers making more than $400,000 ($450,000 for married couples). This is Obama’s big victory. He gets his class-warfare trophy.
  • The double tax on dividends and capital gains climbs from 15 percent to 20 percent (23.8 percent if you include the Obamacare tax on investment income).
  • The death tax rate is boosted from 35 percent to 40 percent (which doesn’t sound like a big step in the wrong direction until you remember it was 0 percent in 2010).
  • The alternative minimum tax will still exist, though it will be “patched” to protect as many as 30 million households from being swept into this surreal parallel tax system that requires people to use a second method of calculating their taxes – with the government getting the greatest possible amount.
  • Unemployment benefits are extended, ensnaring more Americans in joblessness.
  • Medicare spending is increased as part of a “doc fix” to increase reimbursement payments for providers.

This is sort of like a late Christmas present, but we must have been naughty all year long and taxpayers are getting lumps of coal.

That being said, I was expecting the final outcome to be even worse, so this deal almost seems like a relief.

Bipartisan cliff cartoonSort of like knowing that you were going to have your arm amputated, but then finding out that at least you’ll get some anesthetic. You’re not happy about the outcome, but you’re relieved that it won’t be as bad as you thought it would be.

But let’s not delude ourselves. This deal is not good for the economy. It doesn’t do anything to cap the burden of government spending. It doesn’t reform entitlement programs.

And we may even lose the sequester, the provision that was included in the 2011 debt limit that would have slightly reduced the growth of government over the next 10 years.

What a dismal start to 2013.

Happy New Year, Washington

Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, a Democrat representing the federal workforce, frets over the impact of sequestration or any alternative on his Fairfax County district: “Undoubtedly, we will take a hit….It’s going to result in a steady retrenchment in government investment in both the civilian and defense sectors. That’s going to affect employment and the robustness of our economic growth in this region.”

Of course, this is a “hit” – or more likely a nick – that comes after a doubling of the federal budget in a decade. And in the past weeks, the Washington Post has done a good job of reporting the impact of all that taxed and borrowed money on the Washington area. For instance:

The Washington region has emerged from the recession looking even more affluent compared with the rest of the country, boasting seven of the 10 counties with the highest household incomes in the nation, new census numbers show.

With a median household income surpassing $119,000, Loudoun County heads the list. Fairfax County, at nearly $106,000, is second. Both have held the same positions for several years running….

The rankings in the 2011 American Community Survey released Thursday expand Washington’s dominance among high-income households, reflecting a regional economy that was largely cushioned as the recession yanked down income levels elsewhere. Household incomes rose in most counties around Washington last year, even as they continued to sink around the country.

The stability of an economy built on the pillars of the federal government, its legions of contractors and a flourishing high-tech sector is evident in the income rankings.

In 2007, before the recession began, five counties in suburban Washington made it into the top 10. By 2010, there were six. The seven in the latest ranking is an all-time high.

And where does that money go? To housing, certainly (thanks, America!), as the Post noted in an article on the “red-hot real estate market”:

It didn’t look like a house anyone would pay $400,000 extra for.

Several walls inside the gray townhouse with blue trim were streaked with water stains. The first floor was noticeably uneven. And termites had dined in front.

The big pluses: It was 2,850 square feet, had off-street parking, and was in walking distance of Union Station [and thus of Capitol Hill]….

Two weeks and 168 bids later, the house — in the 800 block of Fourth Street NE — was sold this month for $760,951 to an unidentified buyer….

While much of the nation is still struggling to emerge from a historic housing-market meltdown, the District is reliving its boom days. High rents, low interest rates, low inventory, and a flood of new residents in their 20s and 30s are making parts of the city feel like it’s 2005 again.

The median home sale price in the District is up 14 percent from last year, according to RealEstate Business Intelligence (RBI)….

Bullish real estate agents say it is only a matter of time until those areas catch up as well. There is no talk of “bubbles” or fallout from a dive off the “fiscal cliff.” People are still moving to the Washington area, where the population grew by 122,000 from 2010 to 2011, Census Bureau data show.

And for those with money left over after paying Washington real estate prices, there are the finer things in life, the things that used to be for hedge fund managers in New York and tech innovators in Silicon Valley:

The Fiscal Cliff and Congress’s Dysfunction

The words “default” and “dysfunction” are again showing up on the front pages as the debt ceiling suddenly looms along with the Taxmageddon deadline. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s letter to Congress, raising the specter of “default” and “extraordinary measures,” set off much of the new hand-wringing. Journalists and pundits lecture Congress about its “dysfunctional” failure to raise taxes and promise to cut spending.

But as I told a journalist who was very concerned about dysfunction the last time the debt ceiling began to bite, the real problem is not the dysfunctional process that’s getting all the headlines, but the dysfunctional substance of governance. The real dysfunction is a federal budget that has doubled in 10 years, an annual deficit of some $1.5 trillion, and a national debt bursting through its statutory limit of $14.3 trillion and approaching 70 percent of GDP.

We’ve become so used to these unfathomable levels of deficits and debt—and to the once-rare concept of trillions of dollars—that we forget how new all this debt is. In 1981, after 190 years of federal spending, the national debt was “only” $1 trillion. Now, just 30 years later, it’s more than $16 trillion – and all that debt rung up during a period without a major war or Great Depression. Here’s a graphic representation of dysfunction (through mid-2011; now you can visualize the blue line bursting through the $16 trillion level at the top of the chart):

National debt

Those are the kinds of numbers that caused the rise of the Tea Party and the election of members of Congress who vowed to stop out-of-control spending and debt. It’s too bad that Congress hasn’t been able to rein in spending without the pressure of a debt ceiling or a “fiscal cliff.” But it hasn’t. And so if fiscal conservatives in Congress can use those deadlines to put some caps on the money-shoveling, more power to them. 

The Poverty of Affordability Arguments

In the bargaining over avoiding the fiscal cliff, President Obama has taken to framing the argument this way:

We can solve this problem. All Congress needs to do is pass a law that would prevent a tax hike on the first $250,000 of everybody’s income – everybody. (Applause.) That means 98 percent of Americans – and probably 100 percent of you – (laughter) – 97 percent of small businesses wouldn’t see their income taxes go up a single dime. Even the wealthiest Americans would still get a tax cut on the first $250,000 of their income. But when they start making a million, or $10 million, or $20 million you can afford to pay a little bit more. (Applause.) You’re not too strapped.

I’m no political expert, but this seems like a pretty effective, if demagogic, frame: “Ol’ Boehner is just doing the bidding of his bazillionaire paymasters, trying to stick it to regular folks like you.” By framing the debate as being about whether very wealthy people “can afford to pay a little bit more,” Obama skews things in his favor. (On the substance of the argument about increasing taxes to close the gaping fiscal maw, try this from Alan Reynolds or this from Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH).)

And what does John Boehner think about Obama’s framing? Not much, obviously: “We have a huge national debt because Washington spends too much, not because it doesn’t tax people enough.” Boehner rejects the whole affordability frame, proposing his own—“is the problem taxes or spending?”—and adding on an argument that increasing taxes will hurt economic growth. So you’ve got dueling frames.

But what’s of interest to me is the analog of Obama’s frame in the foreign policy/defense spending discussion. In that debate, neoconservatives and liberal imperialists have framed the debate the same way Obama has framed the fiscal cliff debate: except in that case, it’s not about whether wealthy people can afford to pay higher taxes, but whether the United States can afford to continue spending around 50 percent of world military expenditures. Take it away, Robert Kagan:

What about the financial expense? Many seem to believe that the cost of these deployments, and of the armed forces generally, is a major contributor to the soaring fiscal deficits that threaten the solvency of the national economy. But this is not the case, either. As the former budget czar Alice Rivlin has observed, the scary projections of future deficits are not “caused by rising defense spending,” much less by spending on foreign assistance. The runaway deficits projected for the coming years are mostly the result of ballooning entitlement spending. Even the most draconian cuts in the defense budget would produce annual savings of only $50 billion to $100 billion, a small fraction—between 4 and 8 percent—of the $1.5 trillion in annual deficits the United States is facing.

Here again, if the debate is about whether the United States—let’s call us the One Percenters here—can afford to continue frittering away money playing globocop, the advantage is with Kagan and his confreres. But in both cases, Obama and Kagan try to substitute an affordability argument for a propriety/desirability argument. Of course wealthy people can “afford” to pay higher taxes—they’ve done so before, after all. By the same token, the United States can afford to continue funding its globe-girdling military presence. But in neither case do these affordability arguments answer the question: What should happen? To say something is affordable is not to say it is preferable

Obama doesn’t say, “We’ve spent a ton of money over the past 10 years and entitlement costs are ballooning so we’re going to squeeze as much as we can out of the rich and then see where we go from there.” Similarly, Kagan doesn’t lead with his argument that the debt and deficit should be fixed by increasing taxes and sprinkling pixie dust on entitlement costs. Instead, he wants to have the affordability debate. As well he ought to, since the public is increasingly disenchanted with the interventionist foreign policy program.

In neither case should we let the affordability argument carry the day. Boehner rejects the affordability framing of the tax increase debate. Conservatives ought to realize in both cases that something’s affordability is not synonymous with its propriety.

With Purge, House GOP Leadership Reaches New Low

In December 2010, I wrote that “An indicator of the incoming House Republican majority’s seriousness about cutting spending will be which members the party selects to head the various committees.” The final roster ended up leaving a lot to be desired from a limited government perspective. For example, the House Republican leadership and its allies went with Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), aka “The Prince of Pork,” to head up the Appropriations Committee.

Two years later, the committee situation is about to get even worse now that the House Republican leadership has decided to send a message that casting a vote according to one’s beliefs instead of one’s instructions is a punishable offense. On Monday, four congressmen were booted from “plum” committee assignments for failing to sufficiently toe the leadership line. I suspect that the purge was motivated, at least in part, by Team Boehner’s desire to have the rest of the rank and file think twice before casting a “no” vote on whatever lousy deal is struck with the White House to avoid the “fiscal cliff.”

Three of the purged Republicans are returning members of the 2010 freshmen “Tea Party Class”: Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ), Justin Amash (R-MI), and Tim Huelskamp (R-KS). Over the past year, I have been keeping a loose record of how the freshmen voted on opportunities to eliminate programs and prevent spending increases. On seven particularly telling votes*, Schweikert and Amash voted in favor of limited government every time. Out of 87 freshmen, only Schweikert, Amash, and five others had a perfect record. Huelskamp was six for seven. He also was one of only four Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee to vote against the bloated farm bill that passed out of the committee in July. The fourth outcast, Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC), had become an irritant to the Republican establishment after turning against the Iraq War and associating himself with more libertarian Republicans like Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX).

The best that can be said for Team Boehner thus far is that it isn’t Team Pelosi. A common excuse is that House Republicans have been constrained by Democratic control of the Senate and White House. While there is an element of truth to that claim, we’re talking about a House Republican majority that wouldn’t even vote to get rid of the loan guarantee program that led to the Solyndra debacle. The reality is that most Republicans were only ever interested in using Solyndra to score political points against the White House. Ditto pretty much every other White House spending endeavor that House Republicans claim to oppose.

*Votes were to terminate the Economic Development Administration, Advanced Manufacturing Technology Consortia, Essential Air Service program, Title 17 Energy Loan Guarantees, Community Block Development Grant program, against reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank, and against the Continuing Appropriations Act in September.