Both sides must share pain

Published 11:58 pm Friday, December 14, 2012

If Americans are less than confident, slightly confused and even a little angry with the political narrative they are hearing about the “fiscal cliff,” they have every reason to be.

The fiscal cliff is a politically-created crisis resulting from two separate legislative undertakings. In December of 2010, Congress passed and President Obama signed the “Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010.” In short, this legislation temporarily extended, among other items, a number of tax provisions including the so-called “Bush tax cuts,” retained unemployment insurance expansions and reduced the employees’ portion of the Social Security payroll tax by two percent. The extension of many of those tax reductions is scheduled to expire on Dec. 31, 2012.

Less than a year later, the President and Congress agreed to the “Budget Control Act of 2011.” In what amounted to a high-stakes game of chicken, America’s political leadership agreed to cut spending by $1.2 trillion over 10 years, through an agreement by the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction or through automatic across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration. The Budget Control Act also authorized an increase in the federal debt ceiling which currently stands at $16.394 trillion. Not surprisingly, the committee approach failed. As a result, sequestration will be ordered on Jan. 2, 2013, unless there is further legislative action. To make matters worse, with $16.366 trillion in current debt, the federal government will likely hit the debt ceiling in short order.

The tax increases, spending cuts, and the debt limit issue have been bundled together by politicians and the media to form the “fiscal cliff.” The fear is that the combination of $109.3 billion in expected spending cuts and significant tax increases next year could ultimately send the American economy into another recession. The potential downgrade to the U.S. credit rating due to either failing to reach a compromise or further increasing the federal debt ceiling makes the issue even more complicated.

Most politicians and the media fail to explain how the “fiscal cliff” came about, and perhaps worse, they decline to provide a context. Essentially Democrat and Republican political leadership are at loggerheads over how to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal budget over 10 years. At the same time, those politicians waxing poetically about the “fiscal cliff” have spent more than $1.2 trillion each year for the last four years.

Bipartisan irresponsible spending is driving America’s fiscal problems. A review of federal tax and budgetary numbers reveals spending that is so far detached from tax revenues that even confiscatory tax increases on the wealthiest Americans would fail to balance the budget. If the government demanded ALL of the taxable income from tax returns with adjusted gross income of $200 thousand or more, Washington still would have produced a deficit in excess of $215 billion in 2009.

President Obama’s proposed budget notes that taxing high-income earners and increasing the estate tax would generate less than $100 billion a year in revenues. That sounds like a lot of money…until it is compared to the borrowed money Washington currently spends each year.

Washington already spends far more money than it takes in. Without hard, meaningful spending caps and reductions, sending more tax dollars to D.C. politicians will be about as successful at reducing the deficit as trying to douse a fire with gasoline.

Sequestration may be an interesting starting point. The cuts, while again paling in comparison to current spending, are equally offensive to both sides of the political spectrum. While many Republicans loathe cuts to defense spending, Democrats bemoan the equally-allocated non-defense discretionary cuts. In many respects, sequestration is the purest embodiment of the concept of “shared sacrifice” because both sides believe it to be an equally awful bargain.

Cameron Smith is policy director for the Alabama Policy Institute.