Fearing a soaring deficit, many analysts favor letting Bush tax cuts expire

From foreclosure to food shortages, the economic downturn set in motion by the financial crisis of 2008 is having a broad and deeply-felt global impact.
By Lori Montgomery Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 21, 2010; 3:23 AM

The tax cuts at the heart of a fierce pre-election battle on Capitol Hill were designed when the economy was booming, the federal budget was in surplus and George W. Bush was campaigning for president on a promise to return the extra cash to taxpayers.

Today, the economy is sluggish and the national debt is soaring to worrisome levels. As lawmakers bicker over whether to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, not just for the middle class but also for the wealthy, many economists and budget analysts say there's a simple way to curb borrowing: Let the tax cuts expire for everyone.

Official and independent budget estimates show that letting tax rates spring back to pre-Bush levels for all taxpayers would bring the country within striking distance of meeting President Obama's goal of balancing the budget, excluding interest payments on the debt, by 2015.

"If we actually ended the Bush-era tax cuts, that would pretty much do it," Obama's recently departed budget director, Peter Orszag, said in an interview last week with CNN's Fareed Zakaria. "If you do a bit on the spending side and then end the tax cuts, you pretty much get there."

But for all the election-year hand-wringing about deficits, no one in Washington is talking about letting the tax cuts lapse on schedule in January. Instead, Senate Republicans have offered a measure that would extend all the cuts, adding nearly $4 trillion to the debt over the next decade. This week, Senate Democrats say they plan to unveil a bill that would preserve most of the cuts for most Americans. That would add nearly $2 trillion to deficits by 2020.

Obama argues that allowing the cuts to expire for the wealthiest 3 million taxpayers - one of the chief differences between the two Senate proposals - is more fiscally responsible than the GOP's position. "The first thing you do when you're in a hole is not dig it deeper," he said at a town hall meeting Monday in Washington.

But the Democrats' plan also represents a pretty big shovel, budget analysts said.

"Both parties are being disingenuous here," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the nonprofit Concord Coalition, which advocates balanced budgets. "When I hear the Democrats saying Republicans are willing to add to the deficit, well, the Democrats are willing to add $2 trillion to the deficit themselves. The Democrats are doing almost as much damage to the deficit as the Republicans are."

Although the down economy might offer good reason to keep tax rates low for another year or two, putting more money in the hands of consumers, Bixby and other budget experts say it makes no sense to maintain that level of taxation permanently when the government is borrowing more than 40 cents of every dollar it spends.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicts that the economy would be stronger with the cuts, but only through 2012, when the extra borrowing they require "would reduce or 'crowd out' investment in productive capital." Even former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, an early advocate of the cuts, now says Congress should let them expire.

"I am very much in favor of tax cuts, but not with borrowed money," Greenspan said in an interview last month.

The budget outlook was far rosier when Bush conceived the cuts, which were one of the biggest tax reductions since World War II. Thanks to tax increases and robust economic growth, the Clinton administration had balanced the budget for the first time since the 1960s and was starting to pay down the national debt.

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