THE MINORITY party in Congress often will try to force consideration of its bills by attaching them to legislation the majority wants to pass. The tactic works best in the Senate, where germaneness is in the eye of the beholder and 41 votes are enough to shut things down. The Democrats in recent years have used the device, or the threat of it, to force votes on a minimum wage increase and regulation of managed care, to name just two examples.
Now the majority Republicans are doing the same thing in reverse. They have been reduced to doing so in part by the narrowness of their majority. This is a Congress in which neither party has the power to impose its will. Both have to hitch their rides.
The Democrats want a minimum wage increase, which the Republican leadership lacks the votes to block outright. It proposes instead to enlarge the wage bill -- use it as a vehicle for salvaging part of the vetoed Republican tax cut. Workers would get a wage increase, small business owners tax cuts, ostensibly to cover the cost. No matter that, on examination, some of the larger tax cuts being discussed turn out to have scant connection with either small business or the minimum wage. This is a political trade, not a substantive one.
Likewise on managed care legislation, which Republicans also propose to sweeten, from their perspective, with tax cuts. The gloss for these is the need to increase access to health care by making it more affordable in a country in which a sixth of the population is uninsured. But most of these cuts would go to people who are well-off and already insured; most of the uninsured have too little income to owe much tax or be helped by a tax cut.
There are other possible vehicles for a tax cut this year. A number of popular tax credits, for example, including the research and development credit, have been allowed once again to expire. Congress regularly lets that happen, or nearly so, then uses their renewal as the stem or pretext for a broader tax bill.
All these proposals face the same problem. It isn't clear how they'd be paid for -- surely not from the budget surplus, which Congress already has spent, perhaps several times over. But the folks who were prepared to grant a $1 trillion tax cut over the next 10 years ought not be expected to lose a lot of sleep over a much smaller sum. Like everyone else in Congress, the tax cutters are still out there on the highway, thumbs outstretched. Any old bus will do.