CQ’s Richard Rubin writes in this week’s CQ magazine (as part of the cover story on “Health Care’s Taxing Questions”–here’s link to a LexisNexis reprint) that the current Congress has little experience surviving voting for tax increases, because so few of them were even around to vote for them the last time around, back in 1993. Richard argues that even among the Democrats, the lack of numbers in members who have experienced the fiscal responsibility of the Clinton era will hurt the likelihood that fiscal courage will prevail today:
Of the 218 House members who voted for Clinton’s deficit-reduction package of 1993, only one-third of them, 73 Democrats, remain in the House. That measure included a $250 billion, five-year tax increase that remains the most recent substantive increase in income or payroll taxes. What that first statistic means is that, of the 258 Democrats now serving in the House, 185 of them (or 72 percent) have never cast a vote for a significant net tax increase that became law.
A somewhat larger percentage of sitting Democratic senators have voted for a tax increase, but that number is still only a bit more than half. Of the 50 Senate Democrats who voted for the 1993 measure, only 21 remain. In addition, 11 current senators voted for the legislation as members of the House.
But I don’t think it’s the lack of numbers that hurts us; one third or one half is not at all too small to matter. After all, the “squeaky wheel” gets the grease, even if it’s only one wheel out of four –and in the 1992 presidential election it only took one “squeaky” candidate named Ross Perot to get incoming President Clinton to make reducing the deficit an even bigger priority than keeping his campaign promises for middle-class tax cuts.
But you need that “squeaky wheel” (at least a few politicians willing to “squeak” about fiscal responsibility) and you need the President to take a strong lead–to forcefully say “we’ve got to take care of it” (to oil that squeaky wheel).
The lack of fiscal courage in today’s Congress is a problem of quality, not quantity.
Today’s politicians who understand what was accomplished during the Clinton Administration aren’t too few; they’re just too cynical–not idealistic enough on policy, or maybe just too politically pragmatic. Richard goes onto explain (and quotes me) in the CQ story:
Tax increases aren’t a part of the congressional repertoire for the most part because they are anathema to voters. Bush is widely believed to have lost his bid for a second term because of the 1990 measure, which violated his famously explicit “Read my lips: No new taxes” campaign promise. And the 1993 deficit-reduction law led, in part, to the Republican takeover of Congress the following year. It didn’t matter that Clinton attributed some of the country’s 1990s prosperity to the legislation; the electoral lesson was clear.
“We’re dealing with a generation of politicians who have been conditioned into thinking that the way to keep their jobs is to keep proposing deficit-financed tax cuts,” said Diane Lim Rogers, a former House Democratic aide who’s now the chief economist at the deficit-opposing Concord Coalition.
And Richard writes of my biggest gripe–that despite a new Democratic president who was elected as the candidate of “change” and whose top economic advisors were always extremely critical of the Bush tax cuts, the President is not taking the lead in insisting that the (few) squeaky wheels in Congress–those with the courage to say we cannot afford to extend tax cuts to all households with incomes under $250,000 (or to keep “fixing” physician payments)–are heard, listened to, and given the (presidential) grease:
Rogers laments how, in response to Republican criticism, Democrats have shifted their positions on the tax cuts pushed into law by President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2003. The party’s widespread sentiment of outrage at the time those laws were being debated has evolved — after a period in which ending the cuts was successfully labeled by the GOP as a big tax increase — into an acceptance that most of the Bush tax cuts are likely to remain on the books indefinitely. “It really bothered the Democrats,” she said. “It really shook them in a way that I think they lost confidence in their abilities to sort of take the high ground on fiscal responsibility in regard to the Bush tax cuts.”
Today’s Congress seems to fall far short of the fiscal courage of 1993–not just on tax increases but on federal tax and spending policy more generally–because this time congressional Democrats simply aren’t getting enough leadership from their President or encouragement from their people (their voters). Thank goodness (for my job security) that the mission of the Concord Coalition is guaranteed to remain alive and well (i.e., unfulfilled) for awhile. And it’s good that Concord’s online “Principles and Priorities” exercise, aka the “Federal Budget Challenge,” well illustrates that it’s not easy getting to a “better place” (a more sustainable budget outlook) without making some really “tough choices”–the biggest one of most immediate impact being letting most or all of the Bush tax cuts expire. (And yes, more on that soon.)