THE CONGRESSIONAL negotiations over this year's budget resolutions turned into something of a soap opera in the final days and hours -- albeit one whose plot twists appeal only to a narrow category of viewers. Would the two moderate Republican senators insisting on limiting tax cuts to $350 billion cave in? How would the Senate parliamentarian rule? The end result, though, is more than inside-the-Beltway psychodrama. It's a story with enormous consequences for the country, about equal parts tragedy and farce.
Farce first. With the two houses unable to agree on a bottom line for tax cuts, they took the unprecedented step of crafting a budget resolution that contains two separate tax cut numbers, one for the Senate ($350 billion through 2013), the other for the House ($550 billion over the same period). This had the effect -- farce number one -- of simply postponing resolution of what seems to be intractable disagreement. The final version, however, contained a technical but important twist. It would allow the Senate to pass tax cuts of up to $350 billion by a simple majority vote; anything higher would require 60 votes, a high hurdle in the closely divided Senate. That rule would change, however, once the two chambers passed their competing tax plans and moved to conference. At that stage -- farce number two -- tax cuts of up to the House number, $550 billion, would be able to pass the Senate by majority vote. In other words, the Senate could hold the line at $350 billion all through the process and then, very possibly, fold in the end.
But that isn't the end of the story. As the Senate prepared to vote on the resolution, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) announced that he had given his word to the two GOP holdouts -- Maine's Olympia J. Snowe and Ohio's George V. Voinovich -- not to agree to any conference with a tax cut greater than $350 billion. Mr. Grassley is an honest man, and for him to make that pledge on the Senate floor represents a significant improvement in an otherwise empty resolution. Still, there's a big difference between a limit written into a budget resolution and one that's dependent on the continued insistence of senators whose positions, however resolute they now appear, could weaken over time. A $200 billion gamble is too big for our taste.
And that leads to the tragic part of this budget resolution, which is that we've gotten to the point where a $350 billion tax cut looks like a victory for the forces of fiscal restraint. The overall tax cut provided for in the budget resolution, for one thing, is far bigger: $1.2 trillion over 10 years, although it's only the smaller number that could pass by majority vote. But to knowingly dig the deficit that much deeper is simply irresponsible. Two years ago, Congress passed the president's $1.3 trillion tax cut in the context of a supposed surplus. This tax cut, by contrast, represents a deliberate policy choice to tolerate huge deficits. If there were any question about that, one need only look at the fate of the cuts in mandatory spending that were proposed by House Budget Committee Chairman Jim Nussle (R-Iowa). Mr. Nussle, who is committed both to tax cuts and balanced budgets, showed a painful path to balance, with $470 billion in cuts in entitlement programs. But the Nussle budget provoked an outcry in his own party, and the cuts were first dramatically reduced, then whittled away with side agreements to protect vocal interests such as veterans and farmers, and then, in the final budget resolution, abandoned altogether. Like the Cheshire cat's smile, all that remained were the tax cuts -- and deficits as far as the eye can see.