The Americans, bless them, never miss an opportunity to hype a product or an issue. And the so-called "fiscal cliff" is another example of the type of drama that characterizes its noisy policy scape.
The description, coined by the normally circumspect Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, has been spun for a year by partisans into a catastrophe. But it's not a cliff and, in fact, it's the beginning of a solution.
The airwaves and pundits are having a field day and the cool, aloof President just strolls past the fray. This is because he "belled the cat" in August 2011 with his eleventh hour deal and its deadline of Dec. 31, 2012, now dubbed the "cliff."
This is how it works: The deadline of Dec. 31, 2012 is when Bush tax cuts end and when $500 billion in automatic tax hikes and spending cuts begin annually -- $100 million a year in Medicare cuts and $100 million in Pentagon cuts. This was agreed to by Congress and Obama in August 2011 to try and force an end to the logjam.
It didn't work and Republicans became intractable in the year leading up to the election.
So the "fiscal cliff" looms, forcing both parties back to the table. The President proposes a mix of spending cuts and higher taxes on the privileged, a principle of "shared responsibility" toward deficit fighting. Republican leader John Boehner is leader of the other, no tax cuts side where the infighting is fierce between its factions.
"Boehner has the toughest job in Washington," Canada's Ambassador to the United States, Gary Doer, told the Economic Club of Canada last week. "One-third of the Republicans are Tea Partiers, one-third are worried about the Tea Party and one-third are traditional dealmakers."
Fortunately, cool hand Luke in the White House had the foresight to impose a deadline on these legislators who have demonstrated that they are as decisive and responsible as Greece's parliament when it comes to collecting taxes. If he hadn't done that and won the country would truly march toward a cliff as its warring factions failed to decide anything.
So what happens if the cliff is breached?
Taxes will revert to the levels collected under the Clinton regime and will yield $500 billion more taxes next year. And defense and Medicare will each have $100 billion sliced off their allotments. That $700 billion represents an economic contraction of roughly 4.7 per cent over the year, enough to put the economy into a recession.
Obviously, that's too much of a cold shower and the likeliest deal will be a more gradual series of cuts and hikes. But a process has been launched and begins a solution to a deficit situation that has dogged the U.S. economic recovery, demoralized the public and paralyzed businesses. The money's been on the sidelines, trillions, in large measure because of the combination of fiscal deficit and governance deficit alike.
Arguably, markets will react favorably to this after the initial Tea Party hysteria subsides. Nobody likes tax increases but these would return to tax levels that still remain among the lowest in the developed world and were in place when the greatest economic expansion in history took place.
It's also possible that the Republicans and Democrats will be irresponsible in which case the economy will contract, as will Canada's too. This would be a short-term problem to fix the finances in the long run, the type of cold shower the British have imposed on themselves.
But it won't be the end of the world. As a Bloomberg headline said this week: "Bernanke Cliff Analogy Overstates Immediate Economic Harm."
Besides that, it's long overdue.
What's missed in the media discussions is an appreciation of the magnitude of these tax breaks -- $500 billion a year, or the size of Switzerland's economy. This means that the richest half of Americans have been spared trillions of dollars in taxes since George Bush handed them these gifts.
And all the yelling and rending of garments is even less justifiable given the fact that this half a trillion in taxes per year returns their tax rates to levels that are still considerably lower than that paid by Canadians or Europeans.
This $500-billion giveaway means that Bush's tax cuts represent the biggest entitlement anywhere by any nation in history to the very people who need it the least. That why it's ironic that Mitt Romney accused 47 per cent of Americans of always voting for Democrats because they give out the most entitlements. Turns out he was correct in one sense: He got 47 per cent of votes from Americans who wanted to keep their half a billion a year tax entitlements.
Frankly, the sooner the cliff is reached the better. The debate is silly, as usual, and tiresome. Everyone knows that the cliff compromise will likely be hikes and cuts but more gradually than is proposed. But if the U.S. goes on a crash diet it may cause other temporary problems, but the patient will eventually survive and thrive.
But the United States is a noisy polity that has always, and will always, stumble and bumble along. It's a wonderful country, but a messy one, and Canadians have much at stake too.
The outcome is predictable, as Winston Churchill, half American himself, once proffered: "You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing -- after they've tried everything else."
In his last offer to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), President Barack Obama lobbied for $16 billion in cuts from the military's health care program, TRICARE. In 2012, the president also proposed hiking fees for military personnel and veterans who receive benefits under the program in an effort to help cut the defense budget. His proposal drew significant fire from Republican lawmakers and veterans' groups.
Both sides agreed to cuts from the military retirement program. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) claimed during July 2011 talks that lawmakers had reached a tentative deal to slash $11 billion. Under the current system, military personnel receive immediate retirement benefits after serving for 20 years. According to a recent report from the Congressional Budget Office, the appropriation cost per active military service member has increased at a higher rate than either inflation or the total pay package of private-sector employees. Given the budget constraints looming before the Defense Department, the CBO floated the idea of transitioning the military retirement program to a matching-payment model.
Cantor claimed that Republicans and Democrats had agreed to $36 billion in savings over 10 years from civilian retirement programs. The president proposed a marginally more modest figure of $33 billion in his final offer to House Speaker John Boehner. Just this year, Republicans in the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform also looked to find savings from the Federal Employee Retirement System by requiring employees to pay more of their salary into their pensions, which Democrats opposed as a pay cut that would make civil service less attractive for top talent. In September 2011, the federal government employed over two million individuals, either through the cabinets or independent agencies. Many Republicans have complained that the federal workforce has ballooned during the Obama administration, and while the raw number of employees has risen by 14.4 percent between Sept. 2007 and Sept. 2011, the percentage of public employees out of the total civilian workforce has remained fairly constant around 1.2 percent since 2001. Much of the raw growth has been concentrated in the Department of Defense, Veteran's Affairs and Homeland Security.
Democrats and Republicans agreed to cut as much as $30 billion from agricultural subsidies; the main opposition fell along geographical lines rather than partisan ones. Hailing from an agriculture-heavy state, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) threatened to pull out of talks entirely if a deal included that much in subsidy reduction. The president ended up pushing for $33 billion in cuts, but that figure also included reductions in conservation programs. Baucus now tells HuffPost any cuts should be made through the farm bill, not fiscal cliff talks.
Cantor pushed hard for significant cuts to food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. He charged that the federal government could save as much as $20 billion over ten years by eliminating waste and fraud, but the White House countered that the real number was closer to $2 billion. Instead, those cuts would force the program to scale back on the number of enrollees and the level of benefits it could offer.
Obama proposed cutting $4 billion from flood assistance funding in his final offer to Boehner in July 2011. But Hurricane Sandy straining the National Flood Insurance Program; The New York Times reports that thousands of claims are being submitted daily, which could send the overall cost upwards of $7 billion for a program that suffers from a ballooning debt problem. And with climate change promising future flooding disasters along the eastern seaboard, cutting the program looks unwise.
The president offered to cut $110 billion over the next decade from the government's health care spending, excluding Medicare. Among the programs that could lose crucial funding is home health care, where Democrats and Republicans agreed to $50 billion in reductions over ten years. Cantor pushed for closer to $300 billion in spending cuts to health care, but Democrats appeared to stand firm.
The president proposed cutting $10 billion from higher education over the next decade, mostly from Pell grants. Over nine million students relied on federal subsidized loans to afford college during the 2010-2011 school year, and the skyrocketing costs have continued to diminish the purchasing power of the Pell grant program. Obama has actively worked to make college more affordable for lower-income students. Key Republican lawmakers have attempted to cut funding for student loans; most notably, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) slashed the maximum award from $5,550 per student per year down to just $3,040.
The original funding levels proposed by Cantor and the GOP leadership would turn the entitlement program for America's poor into little more than a block grant program, Democrats claimed during the 2011 debt ceiling talks. Under such a program, they argued that states would then drop more people from enrollment and scale back on health benefits. In fiscal year 2009, over 62 million Americans -- many of them children -- depended on Medicaid for their health care. But the president did agree to $110 billion in cuts from Medicaid and other health programs.
Republicans pushed for a drastic overhaul to the entitlement program for America's seniors. Ryan infamously proposed turning Medicare into little more than a voucher system in which seniors would receive checks to purchase their own health care on the open market -- a plan that would ultimately force individuals to shoulder more of the burden for their health care costs. Democrats refused to accept changes similar to those in Ryan's plan. The president, however, was more open to other GOP suggestions on Medicare. In his final offer to Boehner, he agreed cut $250 billion over the next ten years -- in part by increasing premiums for higher-income seniors and by raising the eligibility age from 65 to 67 (although over a longer time frame).
Republicans have again and again decried any attempt to raise taxes, either on the highest earners or on corporations. (A Democracy Corps/Campaign for America's Future survey shows that 70 percent of voters support raising taxes on the wealthiest two percent of Americans.) Instead, Boehner has pushed for a comprehensive tax reform bill that would lower the marginal tax rates while closing loopholes and eliminating deductions in order to raise around $800 billion in additional revenues. For many Democrats, that figure simply isn't enough. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney announced Tuesday that the president was aiming for as much as $1.6 trillion in new revenues, and the president told reporters on Wednesday that it would be practically impossible to raise the amount of revenue he wanted simply from closing loopholes and lowering rates.
Social Security isn't driving the deficit, yet Republicans have pursued drastic changes to the program. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has promised that Social Security would be off the table in the on-going negotiations to avoid the fiscal cliff, but Obama did concede to tying the benefits to a recalculated Consumer Price Index that would ultimately provide less money to retirees. Sen. Bernie Sanders claims that, under such a measure, seniors who are currently 65 years-old would see their benefits drop by $560 a month in 10 years and by as much as $1,000 in 20 years. The Moment of Truth project (led by the two former co-chairs of the president's deficit reduction commission, former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles) claims that the recalculated CPI could save as much as $112 billion from Social Security over the next ten years.
Although Cantor and other GOP House members demanded that any deficit-reduction deal brokered in 2011 be classified as revenue-neutral, they were open to closing particular loopholes in the corporate tax code and limiting itemized deductions for individuals -- given that they were offset by other tax cuts. Out of the $50 billion in savings to be found over the next decade from closing loopholes, Cantor proposed getting $3 billion from eliminating the break for corporate-jet owners and another $20 billion from voiding the subsidies for the oil and gas industries. On the individual earner side, he proposed eliminating the second-home mortgage deduction for $20 billion, as well as limiting the mortgage deduction for higher-income households to rake in another $20 billion. He also offered to tighten the tax treatment of retirement accounts. But Democrats wanted to see even greater action taken on itemized deductions. In June 2011, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) proposed raising $130 billion in new revenues by capping itemized deductions at 35 percent for the highest income brackets. The GOP response to his proposal at the time was a resounding "no."
Set to expire on Dec. 31, 2012, the Bush tax cuts represent one of the most controversial elements of the so-called fiscal cliff. They added over $1.8 trillion to the deficit between 2002 and 2009. Yet Republicans argue that an extension is necessary to create jobs and spur economic growth. But a study from the Congressional Research Service found that tax cuts for the wealthiest earners had little economic effect. The White House is pushing for a renewal only of those tax breaks for the lower- and middle-class Americans in order to save the average middle-class family between $2,000 and $3,500 next year. Letting the cuts expire for those earning over $250,000 a year -- or the wealthiest two percent of Americans -- would haul in $950 billion in savings over the next decade, according to the CBO. Obama stressed how much the country stood to gain from such an approach Wednesday during a press conference. "If we right away say 98 percent of Americans are not going to see their taxes go up — 97 percent of small businesses are not going to see their taxes go up," he said. "If we get that in place, we're actually removing half of the fiscal cliff."
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