What a Lame-Duck Session It’s Been!

The Liberal Ironist feels vindicated for his past approval of the President‘s tax cut deal considering what has come out of the lame-duck session.  With only days left until the Great Reddening of the House of Representatives, the outgoing Democratic Congress is likely to be remembered as the most-ambitious and successful since the days of President Johnson‘s “Great Society.”  As segregation and the failure to enforce black Americans’ voting rights represented the most-serious failure of our political system at that time, so do I think the failure of the Federal Government to establish a comprehensive approach to rising costs in health care, growing gaps in health insurance coverage, “free-riding” on emergency medical benefits, lack of regular check-ups to prevent disease and overall disorganization and duplication in our health care system was its most-serious failure in our own.

But this isn’t an obituary for the Democratic Congress; this entry is about the achievements of the “lame-duck” session, and the way it vindicates the President’s tax cut deal with the Congressional Republicans.

To review, the tax cut deal worked like so: The President convinced most Congressional Democrats and Republicans to work together to extend the Bush income tax cuts not just for the working- and middle-class (individuals earning up to $200,000 and families earning up to $250,000 a year), but also for the rich.  He also accepted a compromise on an increase in the estate tax, which had been lowered to 0% for 2010, to 35% for those bequeathing $5 million or more per individual, instead of an increase to the scheduled 55%.  This is what President Obama and the Democrats had to sacrifice: Our progressive tax structure…continues to be not-very-progressive–for the next 2 years.  What did the Democrats get from the deal?  A 13-month extension of unemployment benefits (which usually last about 26 weeks but which will currently last for a range of 60 weeks to 99 weeks in light of what is anomalous unemployment rates for Americans) and a 1-year Social Security payroll tax cut, which the President proposed as a replacement for his “Making Work Pay” working-class tax cut.  From an informative article on the Senate passage of the tax cut deal that ran in the New York Times: “The one-year payroll tax cut would reduce to 4.2 percent the 6.2 percent Social Security tax levied on income up to $106,800. For a family with $50,000 in annual income, the cut would yield tax savings of about $1,000. For a worker paying the maximum tax, it would provide savings of $2,136.”  All of this compromise came at the modest cost of $858 billion and the countless hours we Democrats and Republicans spent, imitating our public figures the way children imitate their parents, shrilly arguing with fellow party members over the merits of the deal.  But there was an added benefit to the passage of the tax cut deal, one previously discussed by the Liberal Ironist: As they said they would, Moderate Republicans stopped supporting filibusters on the remaining items on the lame-duck session’s docket–with one exception thus far.

And what a lame-duck session it’s been.  Congress passed a food safety bill designed to reform and strengthen the FDA–long overdue considering the embarrassingly unclean state of our food supply relative to other developed countries.  (The House just passed that bill today.)  The Senate repealed the wasteful and unnecessary “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy banning gays and lesbians from serving openly in the US military by a vote of 65-31 this Saturday.  Senator John Kerry (D-MA), who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee, has calmly insisted for about a week that Senate Democrats will have 67 votes to ratify the New START Treaty with Russia, which sets new limits on both countries’ number of strategic nuclear weapons and establishes new monitoring protocols to enforce compliance.  His assurances were vindicated yesterday as the Senate voted 67-28 to end the filibuster of the Treaty and to move to a vote without further amendment.  That vote is expected today, and Senator Kerry said that as many as 3 other supporters of the Treaty were unable to attend the cloture vote.  “I think you’ll agree that in today’s political environment,” the Senator joked, “70 is the new 95!”

There have been some frustrating failures in the lame duck session–as I had been expecting.  The DREAM Act failed in the Senate 55-41 on Saturday, the same day the Senate voted for repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.  The DREAM Act would have granted legal status and a path to citizenship, but not amnesty, to young undocumented immigrants enrolled for 2 years in a 4-year liberal arts college or who completed 2 years of military service.  Also, the 2011 budget, which was supposed to be passed by September 30th (the 2011 Federal fiscal year starts in October), was abruptly filibustered by Senate Republicans–after they requested a large number of earmarks–and replaced with a 2 1/2 month continuing resolution.  This continuing resolution will take us to early March, by which time the large Republican House majority will now have to put up their proposed $100 billion in cuts to domestic discretionary programs months ahead of schedule.  (Some have called Republican partisan dirty tricks, but the Liberal Ironist thinks that this is clearly a response to the unexpectedly swift and harsh criticism Republicans faced from Tea Partiers over their previous support for continuing the fiscal year 2010 budget through 2011.)

After the 2012 elections, in theory anything could happen to the tax rates (“anything,” that is, aside from a return to revenue-maximizing top income tax rates, which would be somewhere closer to 69% than the current 35%), but I doubt overall taxes will remain this low after New Years’ Eve 2012.  Both the 20% estate tax cut and the Bush tax cuts will either have to be extended by President Obama in 2012 or, in the still-dim event of his loss of his re-election bid, get 60 votes in the Senate to pass to Republican President X’s desk.  That’s a reason for Congressional Republicans to try to work with the President.  And that’s what they’ve been doing.  But whatever helps Congressional Republicans make deals with a Democratic President makes it hard for a Republican Presidential candidate to attack him without looking like…well, Bob Dole in 1996.

See?  I told you the tax cut deal was a good one.

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