With tax vote, Republicans fail in their attempt to appear fiscally responsible

Friday, August 20, 2010

WHEN LAWMAKERS return from the August recess, the focus of congressional debate is likely to be the expiring Bush tax cuts -- which to extend and for how long. A little-noticed vote taken before the Senate's departure is a chilling sign of what a number of lawmakers believe passes for fiscal responsibility. Voting on a proposal by South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, 42 senators -- every Republican except for the unfortunately departing George V. Voinovich of Ohio, plus Democrats Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas -- backed a permanent extension of all the Bush tax cuts.

Under the DeMint "plan," the costs would purportedly be offset by making cuts in programs under the jurisdiction of the Senate Finance Committee. Not surprisingly, these are unspecified. The proposal merely called for "provisions which decrease spending as appropriate to offset such permanent extension." By far the biggest programs under the Finance Committee's jurisdiction are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and unemployment insurance. Does anyone really think Congress is going to take a big bite out of these? A $3 trillion bite -- which would be the cost of extending all the cuts? This is not fiscal responsibility in the form of offsetting a known cost with an identifiable savings. It's fiscal irresponsibility of the worst kind: play-acting at prudence instead of making hard choices.

Moreover, as choice goes, this one -- in the unlikely event it were implemented -- would represent a terrible trade-off. In what moral universe are tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans -- tax cuts that would be worth about $125,000 annually to those making $1 million or more a year -- a more worthy way to spend scarce resources than money for seniors, the poor or the unemployed?

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus called it right on the DeMint proposal. "This is a stunt. It is a gimmick," he said. "It is not serious and it is very sad." It will be sadder still if this vote augurs what is to come next month when the tax debate gets underway in earnest.

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