Prisoners of Bush
The Bush tax cuts: How a 10-year-old blunder haunted, then doomed, the supercommittee.
Photograph by Pool Photo/Newsmakers.
The death of the supercommittee was announced, in classic Washington fashion, by two lung-emptying interviews on Meet the Press. Sen. Jon Kyl, the debacle’s senior Republican, bemoaned Democrats for being “unable to cut even $1 in spending without saying it has to be accompanied by tax increases.” Meanwhile, the thwarted Republican heroes of the committee had proposed a plan under which “the wealthiest Americans would pay more taxes than they do now.”
It was left to Sen. John Kerry, the committee Democrat who’d staked the most on a deal, to put Kyl’s words through the shredder. By saying people would pay more taxes than they do now, Kyl was only affirming that Republicans wanted to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, then start tinkering. The tax cut deal of 2010 only extended the Bush rates to January 2013. Republicans wanted to rewrite the deal, extend the rates forever, and add an estimated $2 trillion to the debt in exchange for a smaller number of revenue-raisers and loophole-busters.
The “most significant block to our doing something right now, tomorrow,” said Kerry, “is their insistence, insistence, insistence on the Grover Norquist pledge and extending the Bush tax cuts. Now, we are not a tax-cutting committee. We’re a deficit-reduction committee.”
By failing, the supercommittee will still have reduced the deficit. (It leaves the current tax code, including the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, in place, and it will result in automatic spending cuts unless Congress decides it won’t.) But it could have done more. The Bush tax cuts cut the top marginal tax rate by 4.6 percentage points and the other rates by 3 points. They were passed 10 years ago, were all set to expire 11 months ago, were extended by a glum President Obama, and—this is probably the important part—made it impossible to shrink the deficit or fix the tax code. By extension, they prevented Democrats from giving in and reforming entitlements.
That’s not the pathetic part. The pathetic part is that all of this was predictable when the tax cuts were passed 10 years ago. There were plans that would have prevented us from getting locked in to tax rates too low to fund a country heading into an entitlement crunch. The plans were rejected. They were sold as a stimulus, as a solution to a unique problem—high surpluses—that soon evaporated. Ten years later, the supercommittee was trapped by a tax policy that stopped making sense within a year of being passed.
This story begins in January 2001, at the beginning of George W. Bush’s presidency. He’d promised to enact a $1.3 trillion tax cut. (The number had increased during the campaign.) He took office with wan Republican majorities in favor of tax cuts—with conditions. His treasury secretary, Paul O’Neill, and his inherited Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, had conditions, too. On Jan. 5, 2001, the two men met and agreed on a way to cut taxes without risking huge deficits. They would back them, but suggest “triggers” that canceled them out if the surpluses melted way. “A good enough idea,” said O’Neill, “if it can be sold.”
It wasn’t sold. For starters, the Bush administration didn’t want the triggers. Republicans running the House and Senate budget committees didn’t want them, either. The coup de grace was Greenspan’s Jan. 25 testimony on the tax plan. When Greenspan gave the remarks to Sen. Kent Conrad, the ranking member of the committee, the Democrat warned him that he’d “unleash the deficit dogs,” and “all those who want more tax cuts will see this as confirmation that they’re right.” Former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin gave him the same advice.
Greenspan gave his testimony. The “trigger” stuff made it in there, albeit in murky Greenspanese. He floated a “phased in” tax plan that “would limit surplus-reducing actions if specified targets for the budget surplus and federal debt were not satisfied.” He had to: “What if, for example, the forces driving the surge in tax revenues in recent years begin to dissipate or reverse in ways that we do not now foresee?”
Almost nobody noticed. The headline was the Maestro of the Markets backing tax cuts, not any of the nuance. “It turned out that Conrad and Rubin were right,” Greenspan wrote in his memoirs. “The tax-cut testimony proved to be politically explosive.” When I brought up this comedy of errors to Conrad, he remembered—without much joy—that Greenspan told him he “wished he’d followed my advice.”
“I supported a trigger, because it was better than the tax cuts with no trigger,” said Conrad. “It was rejected by those who insisted on the whole enchilada.”
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.