PRESIDENT BUSH is getting ready to sign his fourth tax bill in four years. Mr. Bush came into office at a time of budget surpluses proposing an audacious $1.6 trillion tax cut over 10 years. The surplus long since evaporated, the country is at war -- but with this latest bill Mr. Bush and his enabling Congress will have cut taxes by $1.9 trillion, and that doesn't include the added costs of interest on the mounting government debt. Quite an achievement, really, unless you worry about the impact -- which hardly anyone seems to be doing.
This latest cut, which ended up with a price tag of $146 billion, most of it to be paid in the next five years, is the outgrowth of lawmakers' bogus bid to look as if they had a modicum of fiscal responsibility on the last go-round. Then, they insisted that the tax package couldn't cost more than $350 billion over 10 years. They achieved that illusion by jury-rigging the bill to have its most popular tax breaks expire this year -- limiting the ostensible cost while knowing full well that their weak-kneed colleagues wouldn't dare risk looking like tax-hikers with an election looming.
The inevitable extension came about in a particularly cynical and anti-democratic way. Leaders dispensed with bothersome rituals such as hearings, committee markups, floor debate and amendments. They hijacked a tax bill that was supposed to help the working poor and that therefore had been languishing in conference for months. They recalibrated it so that the working poor got the tiniest slice of the benefits, and then they took it directly to the floor, where it could not be amended -- no requirement, for example, that the cuts be paid for. In the Senate, just three brave souls dared withstand the pressure: retiring Democrat and deficit hawk Ernest F. Hollings (S.C.) and two moderate Republicans, Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and Lincoln D. Chafee (R.I.). John F. Kerry wasn't so courageous; he supported the tax-cut extensions.
And was it, as advertised, a middle-class tax bill? Certainly, middle-class families get help. According to an analysis by the Brookings-Urban Institute Tax Policy Center, taxpayers earning between $50,000 and $75,000 will receive an average tax benefit of $353 next year as a result of the bill. Taxpayers earning between $200,000 and $500,000 will see their average tax burden fall by nearly $2,400. More than half of the bill's benefits go to taxpayers earning more than $100,000 a year, although they account for fewer than 13 percent of all taxpayers. If all of this were without cost, it wouldn't much matter. But the tab will come due down the road. And those who will end up having to pay are, more likely than not, the children of the middle class that is the supposed beneficiary of this election-year pandering.