Ruth Marcus: The no-big-deal deal

BY RUTH MARCUS Published: January 4, 2013
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The moment called for a grand bargain. It yielded a pathetic punt.

No one should feel good about this outcome. Washington proved, as if more proof were needed, that it is good at dispensing benefits with money it doesn't have, bad at making the hard choices it so solemnly vows to pursue.

Judging the merits of the cliff deal depends on what problem you were hoping to solve.

If the goal was to avoid inflicting immediate pain, and that's a worthy aim, the agreement succeeded. The middle class — indeed, nearly all Americans — will not see income taxes rise. Benefits will continue for the long-term unemployed. The blunderbuss impact of across-the-board spending cuts has been postponed.

Yet the goal was, or should have been, larger: not only to prevent instant fiscal shock but to help avoid future fiscal catastrophe. By this metric, the deal was a flop.

First, it failed to raise anywhere near enough tax revenue. Recall, President Obama sought $1.6 trillion over 10 years. House Speaker John Boehner offered $800 billion. So they compromised … on $620 billion ($737 billion with interest).

Yes, this was the first vote for a tax increase in umpty-ump years. But the Bush tax rates are now locked in for nearly everyone, as are lower rates on capital gains and dividends and a gallingly generous, permanent estate tax break.

Second, the agreement did nothing about spending — specifically, nothing about the entitlement programs, primarily Medicare, driving the debt. Instead, that discussion was, surprise, put off.

Recall: The debt ceiling debate begat the supercommittee, which was supposed to produce $1.2 trillion in cuts. The supercommittee failed, which begat the sequester — or was supposed to.

“I will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts to domestic and defense spending,” Obama proclaimed in November 2011, after the supercommittee fizzled. “There will be no easy offramps on this one.”

With the sequester about to hit, this week's deal featured, yes, an offramp, in the form of a two-month delay — paid for, yes, but in part with a tax gimmick that helps better-off taxpayers and ultimately loses billions of dollars.