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Opinion: The Senate Let Bush Tax Cuts Expire and All We Got Was This Lousy Economy

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Senate Democrats hold a press conference after a 54-45 vote to let the Bush tax cuts expire for people with income over $250,000 a year.

Virginia Democratic Senator Jim Webb and Independent Joe Lieberman were right to vote against President Obama's political play to allow the tax cuts for those making more than $250,000 a year to expire in a few months.

Unfortunately, Webb and Lieberman were the only Senators who caucus with Democrats to vote against the bill. There should have been more. The Senate narrowly approved President Obama's proposal on Wednesday.

It's clear as day that this is really a political play by the Obama campaign, just like how the Republican-controlled House keeps passing repeals for the health care reform. Neither have any chance of passing; yet while Rome burns, the two major parties grandstand rather than push for potentially passable legislation that could help our country dodge bullets we know are coming. Patricia Murphy aptly lamented these "dueling fools' errands" over at The Daily Beast:

...official Washington has become little more than a backdrop for partisan campaign commercials, a land of make believe where bills never need to pass, press conferences substitute for negotiations, and both parties’ behavior would be comical if the problems facing the country were not so serious.

She's spot on. There are, in fact, some ongoing behind-the-scenes talks that are working on a compromise package based on an updated version of the Fiscal Commission's recommendations, but for the most part the only "work" getting done in Washington right now is that of of spinmeisters and partisan pugilists. Camp blue thinks this will play well in the polls, and they might be right. It also might be the opening salvo in negotiations to avoid the upcoming "fiscal cliff."

Bully for them. That doesn't make it good policy. Nor does it accomplish anything but get us a few days closer to economic disaster (again) without charting a course to avoid said cliff.

Don't get me wrong: I think taxes on people at that income level do need to go up, but as Joe Lieberman said on the issue, it's just "not what we need now." The kicker is the "now" part.

Senator Webb doesn't want to raise taxes on regular income at all, but would support tax increases on capital gains and dividends. I'm all for that as well, but doing any of this on its own would only make the serious, long-term tax reforms we really need more difficult to pass.

Lieberman gets right to to the heart of it in this quote from Politico:

"It’s not that I don’t think we ought to raise taxes on people that make more money,” Lieberman told POLITICO. “To me, we ought to be focused on achieving a bipartisan, long-term debt elimination agreement. And that tax reform and tax increases would be part of it. I don’t want to pick it off piece by piece."

Obama is trying to have his cake and eat it too. He knows there is no way this sort of thing passes right now. Like the House Republicans, he's only interested in scoring political points. If he really cared about this sort of thing, he would have gotten behind the Fiscal Commission's recommendations when it actually had a chance to pass during the 2010 lame duck session. I hammer this home at almost every chance I get, given how so many have been duped into thinking that Obama actually cares about the deficit.

Obama made sure that the Fiscal Commission's recommendations never got to the floor of Congress, by requiring it garner far more than even a super-majority to do so. He showed that he has the ability to use the bully pulpit to push important legislation during the run-up to the passage of health care reform. Yet he chose to sit back in early 2011, allowing the momentum of Simpson-Bowles to subside long enough for the far right to regroup, then push back against John Boehner's efforts to sell the 'Grand Compromise' to his caucus. And since then, Obama's continued to stay on the sidelines, as the 'Gang of Six' has been toiling to put together a package for long-term fiscal sanity that might actually have a shot of passing.

Both sides blow hot air about wanting to avoid the 'fiscal cliff' coming later this year, but then they follow that up with hyper-partisan grandstanding, often masquerading as legislation that has no chance of passing. All the while, excellent legislation that does exactly what our country needs—short term stimulus, phased-in spending cuts over several years to avoid harming near-term economic growth, cutting out tax loophole, simplifying the tax code and lowering rates across the board, among other things—languishes on the shelf.

Michael Gerson really nailed it:

The president has responded to a severe, continuing labor market slump with a four-year-old, marginally counterproductive tax increase proposal. His current economic agenda has little relevance to anything except his current political requirements: picking a political fight on tax-code equity to distract attention from his economic stewardship. It is the triumph of tactics and the surrender of seriousness.

Allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for those making over $250,000 a year is not what the economy needs right now. If anything, it'll hinder it, although probably not nearly as much as the Republicans would like us to believe. Calling it a "surrender of seriousness" makes a lot of sense, but more than that, these are smoke signals to the American people that our sitting President is perfectly fine with playing political games right up until we get to the edge of economic calamity—again. How many times are we going to come to some sort of cliff like this, entirely a product of political ineffectiveness, before we end up slipping over the edge?