The Washington Post

In debt talks, Eric Cantor’s impossible impasse on taxes

Rep. Eric Cantor, House majority leader, pulled out of deficit talks with Vice President Joe Biden over the question of tax increases. The negotiations were taking place in advance of a vote on raising the debt ceiling. (Charles Dharapak/AP)

It’s a stunt, some are calling it. It was inevitable, others say. It’s a power struggle that has Cantor throwing Speaker John Boehner under the bus, Ezra Klein writes, forcing Boehner to be the one making a deal with the Democrats so Cantor can keep himself pure in the eyes of his party’s most conservative wing.

I’ll just call it absurd. Yes, the negotiations were ultimately going to be left in the hands of Boehner and President Obama anyway. But to punt to them now as a result of what Cantor calls an impasse over the question of tax increases implies there was real negotiating actually going on about the tax issue in the first place.

Here’s the way a stalemate in negotiations usually comes about. One side gives up a little in exchange for something they want. The other side gives up a little in order to get something that matters to them. This goes back and forth until the two sides reach a deal or come close but can’t quite meet in the middle. But between the no tax increase pledge by the Republicans, and Boehner’s acknowledgement that Cantor would continue the conversation only if “tax hikes [are] off the table,” it doesn’t seem as if the usual rules of engagement have applied on this issue.

Yes, the two sides had found at least $1 trillion in common ground over spending cuts, and were apparently making progress in a civil fashion. But they hadn’t really broached the difficult areas of health and retirement programs or defense spending and taxes. By making the revenue side of the solution entirely off-limits (Democrats are looking to eliminate some corporate tax breaks and cap deductions for affluent taxpayers in order to share the sacrifices made in spending cuts that affect lower income Americans), the so-called impasse on taxes appears to have started before the first volley was ever even thrown over the net.

Put aside, for a moment, the fact that most constituents probably expect their leaders, even if frustrated by partisan gridlock, to stay at the negotiating table until something this important to the financial security of the country was settled. But to say that an impasse was reached over the tax issue makes it sound like there was an actual good faith give-and-take on this topic in particular. If the issue isn’t even “on the table,” how can a stalemate have been reached?

More from On Leadership:

Why no one is owning a debt solution

Is painless debt relief possible?

Sexual misconduct by men in power

Next-generation government

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.



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