There are two good things about the huge tax cuts working their way through Congress this week. First: They will never become law. Second: They are drawing clear lines for a national debate over what we want government to do, who needs help in the new economy and how to preserve the economic progress of the past seven years.
Now the bad news: The big tax cuts are a ploy. They are designed to push President Clinton to agree to a tax cut that would still be big enough to threaten a rise in interest rates, a new era of deficits and cuts in programs the public says it wants.
The long-term goal, about which Republican leaders are candid, is to put government in a fiscal straitjacket for years to come. The price tag on the House tax cut passed Thursday is $792 billion in the first decade of its life. But in the next 10 years -- at the very moment when the baby boomers start retiring -- it will be $2.8 trillion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Doesn't the surplus mean we can afford a tax cut of this size? "Cutting $800 billion when you've got $3 trillion coming in is hardly an outrageous, irresponsible move," says Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.).
It's an appealing argument. But most of the surplus hasn't materialized yet. Its size is premised on cuts in future spending Congress promised but won't be able to deliver. Many Republicans -- notably, Reps. Mike Castle (R-Del.) and John Edward Porter (R-Ill.) -- say that Congress must break spending caps it enacted a couple of years ago if it wants to avoid dangerous reductions in programs such as Head Start, education, the national parks and law enforcement.
And having struggled for a decade to eliminate the deficit -- starting with President Bush's efforts in 1990 -- why throw away the achievement at the moment it's achieved? Enough moderate Republicans worry about this that their leaders had to accede to a gimmick (as some Republicans characterized it privately) that theoretically rules out some tax cuts if they threaten an increase in the deficit. No one expects the gimmick to survive.
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan shares the Republican goal of cutting taxes. But he's against this tax bill. "The timing is not right," he told Congress, just hours before the House ignored him.
Tax cuts make sense when the economy is in a downturn. But as Rep. Charles Stenholm, a conservative Texas Democrat warned, heating up the economy with tax cuts when the Federal Reserve is trying to cool it off with interest rate hikes only risks more rate hikes. Higher interest rates could wipe out any of the benefits from tax cuts.
Who would benefit from these cuts? Republicans have been intellectually honest in acknowledging that since the bulk of income and capital gains taxes are paid by the well-to-do, their cuts would help the well-off the most.
The Treasury Department estimates that the top one percent of families get 33 percent of the money from the House tax cut, while the bottom 60 percent of families get a little more than 7 percent.
Here's the problem: Three-quarters of all taxpayers -- those with middle and low incomes -- pay more in payroll taxes than in income taxes. Those are the families that could use a break because they have not benefited nearly as much as the well-off have from big salary or stock market gains. The bill crafted by Sen. Bill Roth (R-Del.), which the Senate will be taking up in the coming week, is slightly more generous to the middle class, but its benefits still tilt toward the top.
Finally, there's the issue raised repeatedly by Rep. Bill Archer (R-Tex.): "What this debate is really about is downsizing the power of Washington."
It's a fair point. But a different way of casting it is: Would the surplus better be used for purposes other than tax cuts? Wouldn't the country, not just Washington, be better off shoring up Medicare and Social Security, improving the schools, extending health coverage to the uninsured, providing day and after-school care? Oh, yes, and in paying off the debt?
The man whose character is about to be tested is President Clinton. Will he insist on a modest, affordable tax cut, or will he abandon his ground and join the bidding war in pursuit of a deal, any deal? This weekend, Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and Gene Sperling, the top White House economic adviser, insisted Clinton would stand firm. Sperling said that even a cut of $500 billion would be "irresponsible," a word that could haunt the president if he changes his mind.
Clinton's biggest legacy is long-term solvency, built on more progressive taxes. If he deals that away, he'll throw away the one achievement for which even some of his harshest critics are willing to give him credit.