The Wall Street Journal
January 1, 2013
Whatever ultimately emerges from the fiscal-cliff negotiations over the past 48 hours, the country will survive. But the damage can't be undone. Taxes are going up for all working Americans. And so is the size of government.
Businesses have been waiting to see whether a second Obama administration will encourage the economy. During the fiscal-cliff negotiations, however, the president made clear that his goal isn't to get business going again but instead to expand government and redistribute income. He offered no real spending cuts and instead used the year-end deadline to divide America into classes—to the point of campaigning on New Year's Eve against higher earners. Though the president talks about fairness, his policies penalize profit and investment. This hurts aspiring Americans more than it hurts those who have already made it.
The deal that emerged from the Senate early Tuesday morning is being sold as a tax cut for the middle class, but the expiration of the two-percentage-point payroll tax holiday means that working Americans' take-home pay will drop. The bill reduces the value of tax deductions for upper incomes and, with the new open-ended 3.8% Medicare tax that was enacted under ObamaCare, income-tax rates on families and small business owners earning over $450,000 have been pushed above 44%.
The Senate bill makes the tax code more complex, provides for no spending cuts and creates four deadlines—for the debt-limit increase within weeks, the March 1 automatic spending cuts known as the sequester, a second sequester on March 27 (to make up for overspending since the first sequester) and the March 30 expiration of government spending authority. These deadlines will keep Washington negotiations on the front page for months but with little likelihood that government will cut programs, sell assets or downsize the 1,300 federal agencies and commissions.
No wonder many House Republicans balked at what was presented. The New Year's Day legislation is breathtaking in its largess. The Senate bill extends 52 tax credits, mostly for one year, ensuring huge annual lobbying fees and political contributions. Section 206 provides a juicy capital-gains tax exemption for contributions of property for conservation, meaning wealthy environmentalists with extra acreage will be able to take a tax deduction for the appreciated property and have the environmental organization preserve it, adding to the value of the primary property. Section 312 provides faster tax deductions for "motorsports entertainment complexes." Section 317 allows expensing of film and television productions, meaning lower taxes for Hollywood.
The bill devotes much space to tax credits for government-approved energy schemes, providing taxpayer subsidies for energy-efficient new homes, existing homes, appliances, cellulosic biofuel and "Indian coal facilities." Underscoring the complexity of the tax code, the bill takes seven pages to index the alternative minimum tax for inflation because it takes side trips to curry favor with the owners of plug-in electric vehicles and with first-time home-buyers in the District of Columbia.
The pattern across the developed world is for politicians to negotiate with each other and, after much drama, make the brave decision to downsize jobs through taxes and mandates rather than downsizing government. This country is no different: Whatever tax and spending decisions Washington makes over the next few months, the likelihood is that government will be bigger in 2013 and the fiscal problems even more urgent.
There has emerged from the budget negotiations no process to cut government programs, limit the debt or reform the tax code. Many tax rates have now gone up and almost no spending restraint has been implemented, hurting 2013 investment and hiring. Even if the spending sequester is allowed to proceed on March 1 or substitutes are found, the cuts will be a small fraction of the spending binge in recent years that left a string of $1 trillion deficits.
The Congressional Budget Office scores the Senate bill as adding $4 trillion to the national debt by 2022. That assumes the sequester or equivalent spending cuts are fully implemented in March, which seems unlikely. Some are hoping that during the coming confrontation over the debt-limit increase fiscal conservatives will be able to recover lost ground on spending. That won't work, because the debt limit doesn't provide much leverage.
The debt-limit statute was written specifically to make it easier to increase the debt, not as a way to limit the debt. It should be repealed and replaced with a law that cuts spending when there is too much debt. While Republicans rightly want to stop the unending growth in debt, the current debt-limit statute gives most of the power to the president, allowing him to shut down parts of the government and blame holdouts until he gets enough votes for more debt.
Rather than rejecting an increase in the debt limit, fiscal conservatives should offer a lasting remedy. This would be a debt-to-GDP limit that, when exceeded, would give the president the power to underspend congressional appropriations and to propose fast-track reductions in entitlements—but would also require him to make monthly reports to the public on excess spending and prohibit raises for government employees making over $100,000.
Fighting under the current rules isn't working and leaves government inexorably bigger. The country can't afford this approach. Demographics are making it harder each year to restrain spending or win elections on the platform of limited government. The rules pit fiscal conservatives against themselves, leading to bigger government.
Regardless of how the current crisis is ultimately resolved, there is sure to be another. Republicans and fiscally conservative Democrats should use every opportunity to strengthen the framework for limited government, in order to restrain federal spending and allow the private economy to grow.
Mr. Malpass, a deputy assistant Treasury secretary and legislative manager for the 1986 Tax Reform Act in the Reagan administration, is president of Encima Global LLC.
A version of this article appeared January 2, 2013, on page A17 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Nothing Is Certain Except More Debt and Taxes.