The “tax-cut bill” that isn’t a tax cut, but a measure that keeps income tax rates right where they have been for nearly a decade, has passed both houses of Congress and has been signed into law by President Obama.

That always was the way this debate was headed after the vote on Nov. 2 came out the way it did.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from that, it is that elections have consequences — even when the people doing the voting aren’t necessarily the ones who will be showing up next month when the 112th Congress first meets.

When President George W. Bush and a Democratic Senate negotiated over his lower tax rate proposal at the beginning of Bush’s first term in office, the fact that the cuts would expire at the end of 2010 was a bargaining ploy to get lower rates and other concessions, such as a gradually diminishing estate tax — which has been at zero for precisely one year.

George Steinbrenner’s heirs, among others, have to be happy about that.

But if nothing had been done, not only would the estate tax (called the “death tax” by conservatives) have snapped back to its fiscal year 2000 level of 55 percent on estates over $1 million, but everyone’s income tax obligations would have risen by hundreds or thousands of dollars in 2011.

That’s because the Bush tax cuts never were just “for the rich,” but were applied across the board, something that has now been made obvious.

The compromise negotiated between GOP leaders and President Obama, essentially the same as the bill he signed Friday, did raise estate taxes. Estates over $5 million will be taxed at 35 percent, which is still far short of the level most Democrats wanted.

Along with an extension of unemployment payments, some new cuts are involved. The payroll tax (for Social Security) will drop 2 percentage points for the coming year, which could put up to $2,136 in the pockets of higher-paid wage earners. Since some workers don’t make enough to pay income taxes, but nearly everyone in the private sector and many in government pay SS taxes up to the wage ceiling of $106,800, this is a way for lower-paid workers to get a tax cut.

But the compromise is only for two years, as the GOP’s efforts to make it permanent fell short. That means that the issue of rates in coming sessions of Congress will be tied up in the larger question of tax and spending reform spurred by Obama’s debt commission, which called for major changes in the way the federal budget is assembled.

So, this debate isn’t over. In fact, it has just begun.