While members of Congress were fighting over marginal tax rates on income between $200,000 and $450,000 a year, a two-year, 2 percent payroll tax holiday was allowed to expire.
So, while the Bush tax cuts have been made permanent for all but the top 1 percent of wage earners, almost everyone who gets a paycheck will take home a little bit less starting this week. It will add up to about $1,000 a year for a median income family.
This is the sad coda to a lame-duck session of Congress that started with talk of a grand bargain and ended up with a stop-gap deal on deadline that puts off the next financial crisis for only two months.
This December we worried about falling off the fiscal cliff. In February we can worry that confrontation between the White House and House Republicans will force the nation into defaulting on its debts, which would have a much worse effect on the economy.
Given the level of dysfunction in Washington, we could be happy that they were able to reach any kind of deal at all, and there are aspects of the fiscal cliff resolution that are good for the country. Returning tax rates to 1990s levels for individual annual income above $400,000 adds some fairness to the tax code, and extending middle class and low income tax credits along with unemployment benefits deal with the consequences of a slow and uneven economic recovery.
But the bite of the payroll tax hike takes much of the gloss off any optimism that the fiscal cliff deal provides.
It’s troubling to know that the same members of Congress who fought any high-income tax hikes that could have paid for a permanent payroll tax cut will roar into February demanding benefit cuts to programs like Social Security and Medicare, claiming the nation cannot afford to keep its promises. And in the second round of the debt ceiling debate, those members will be able to hold the whole economy hostage, again.
Today is the last day of the 112th Congress, one of the most divisive and unproductive in modern times.
When the 113th tackles these problems, we hope members think more about protecting the families that are struggling to survive, paycheck to paycheck, and show less concern for the small minority of people who have benefited handsomely from the Bush-era tax policies.