The Corner

Something for Nothing

Byron York writes:

Under the most likely scenario, Republicans will get nothing — nothing — in return for giving in on tax rates for the highest-income Americans.  No spending cuts, at least no serious spending cuts beyond what are already included in sequestration, would be part of the deal done on Sunday or Monday, if that is indeed what happens. . . .

[T]he bottom line is that the fiscal cliff fight will not end happily for Republicans.  They will have given in on what was an article of faith — that taxes should not be raised on anybody, poor or rich — in return for essentially nothing. 

It won’t be a happy ending, that’s for sure. If the law kept the current tax rates and spending levels going forward, Republicans would never take a deal that let taxes rise as much as they are going to rise without also getting a lot of spending cuts. But of course that’s not what the law says, and it’s the backdrop of a legally scheduled rise in tax rates that is structuring all the fiscal-cliff negotiations. Republicans are going to get “nothing” in return for tax increases because Democrats don’t need the Republicans to do anything to get those tax increases. (If Republicans were getting serious spending cuts, liberals would be making the mirror-image complaint: that Republicans were getting those cuts in return for giving up nothing beyond what the law was already making them give up.)

But there’s something a little odd about this accounting anyway. If letting part of a scheduled tax increase take effect counts as Republicans’ “giving in” on taxes, why doesn’t letting a scheduled reduction in projected spending take effect count as Democrats’ giving a little on spending?

John Hinderaker comments on York’s article:

This is baffling. Why would Republicans agree to tax increases without getting spending cuts in return? . . . Regardless of how this plays out–and I agree with Byron that the result is likely to be unhappy–it will vindicate what we have been saying for weeks, if not months: stop making secret, last-minute, back room deals! 

Hinderaker’s post doesn’t even acknowledge the fact that taxes are scheduled to go up–the unbaffling reason any agreement will be an unhappy one for conservatives. The reason we’re not going to get spending cuts beyond those already scheduled in return for tax increases smaller than those already scheduled is that current law doesn’t force larger spending cuts and does force larger tax increases.

What would Republicans get out of a deal? A reduction in scheduled tax increases; the avoidance of a fight with Obama that would be structured in a way that lets him get to Republicans’ right on middle-class taxes and posture as the biggest tax-cutter since Reagan; and that’s about it.

Republicans had two ways of avoiding this scenario. They could have passed smaller tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 but not given them expiration dates. Or they could have done better in the last few elections. At this point it’s hard to see what strategy would undo the effects on the budget from that mistake and that failure.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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