Tuesday, December 10, 2013
By SUZY KHIMM The Washington Post
The very notion of a "fiscal cliff" suggests that the country is approaching a calamitous drop-off at the end of the year -- and it would be tantamount to suicide to jump off.
Senate Finance Committee members, shown during a private meeting last month with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, continue to seek a way to avoid going over the “fiscal cliff” despite arguments in favor of taking the leap.
The Associated Press
COMPROMISE ON AUTOMATIC CUTS HAD BROAD SUPPORTThe fiscal cliff refers mostly to a budget plan that was put into play as part of a budget compromise in August 2011 that averted a default on the federal debt.
Under the compromise, Congress would have to come up with $1.2 trillion in alternative budget cuts by the end of this year. If it were to fail, automatic cuts of $1.2 trillion over nine years would begin on Jan. 2, 2013, with half coming from defense. The cuts were designed to be so painful that Congress would be compelled to act.
Many economists, however, warn that if Congress allows the cuts to take place and also lets all of the Bush-era tax cuts expire, as Republicans have proposed, the economy will plunge over a fiscal cliff and into recession.
The budget deal drew broad bipartisan support last year from both President Obama and his Democratic allies and most Republicans, including vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan and House Speaker John Boehner.-- The Associated Press
But a contingent of policy wonks and Democrats insist that letting the Dec. 31 deadline come and go -- thus triggering automatic tax increases and spending cuts -- could produce the best outcome.
Once the tax hikes have kicked in, the reasoning goes, Republicans would be hard-pressed to roll them all back and would have to accept a deal on taming the deficit that contains more new tax revenue than Republicans want.
So some policy analysts and legislators say they are willing to go over the brink -- and some are even gunning for Congress to do it.
Call them the cliff-divers.
"It will be much easier to negotiate a budget deal going over the cliff," said William Gale, an economist at the Brookings Institute and former adviser to George H.W. Bush. "It seems to be the only way we can boost revenues."
"The willingness to go over the cliff is a means to force a deal," said Matt McAlvanah, a spokesman for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the fourth-ranking Democrat. In July, Murray said she would rather push the debt debate into 2013 rather than reach a deal "that throws middle class families under the bus."
Publicly, most Democrats haven't gone as far as Murray, continuing to stress that avoiding the fiscal cliff is their priority. But privately, some acknowledge that they'd be willing to jump if Republicans refuse to let Bush-era tax cuts on the wealthy expire. Repupublican leaders have vowed to preserve the Bush tax cuts for the top income brackets and everyone else.
Other prominent cliff-divers include MSNBC cable host and former Senate Finance Committee chief of staff Lawrence O'Donnell, who's launched an "Off the Cliff" campaign to press Democrats to jump; and Robert Greenstein, president of the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, who says going over could be the "least bad" option.
"I wouldn't say it's desirable, but it may be necessary," explains former White House budget director Peter Orszag, who believes that going past the Dec. 31 could produce the best policy outcome in the face of a political stand-off.
In an ideal world, these figures would want Congress to reach a reasonable deal before the deadline. But they are skeptical that will happen, given the politics surrounding the fiscal cliff, and argue that going over the cliff would remove the biggest stumbling block.
Since individual tax rates would go up automatically -- rising from 33 to 39.6 percent for the highest-income bracket and 10 to 15 percent for the lowest -- Congress would technically be voting to cut them rather than raise them. It's a distinction that the cliff-divers believe will make all the difference.
"Republicans won't have to violate their 'no new taxes' pledge," says Gale. "The politics are a lot easier and the incentives are a lot stronger."
President Obama, for his part, promised to veto any legislation that kept the cuts for the wealthy intact.
The cliff-divers don't deny that the fiscal cliff would deal a serious blow to the economy, knocking the US back into a recession if the spending cuts and tax hikes remain in effect for all of next year. But these advocates say the immediate risk is overblown.
The CBPP points out that most of the changes under the cliff would be phased in gradually, preferring the term "fiscal slope" to counter the notion of an immediate economic apocalypse. The group points out that some of the tax and spending changes could be reversed retroactively, and the Treasury Department also has discretion to stave off changes to withholding tables for payroll taxes.
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