Calling their bluff
Vermont’s three-man congressional delegation is not in a position to engineer a compromise between the White House and Republicans in Congress over the looming fiscal cliff. But Vermonters expect them to stand firm for the interests of the American people.
The Republican leadership is attempting a preposterous maneuver. They are proposing to President Obama that he comply with the Mitt Romney program of tax and budget measures, rather than standing behind the ideas he himself championed during the campaign — the ideas that gained him re-election.
Think back a month to the different views advanced by the two candidates. Romney said the deficit could be addressed by closing tax loopholes, which he refused to identify, while lowering tax rates and cutting the budget. This is exactly what Republican leaders in Congress are proposing now.
Obama argued that the math didn’t add up. It still doesn’t add up. Instead, Obama proposed to retain the Bush era tax cuts for 98 percent of taxpayers but to raise taxes to Clinton era levels for the top 2 percent. Obama’s latest proposal would also save about $400 billion over 10 years from changes in health care and entitlement programs.
If he were to accede to Republican demands now, he would be telling the people who elected him: “Never mind. You elected me, but you got Romney.”
Why do Republicans think the people would stand for that? Nevertheless, congressional Republicans are continuing the same struggle that Romney was fighting during the campaign — a struggle on behalf of the wealthy elite and the corporations. Obama must stand firm on behalf of his own agenda, and Vermont’s members of Congress need to back him up.
It is the responsibility of Congress to act. Laws originate in Congress, and Congress passed the law that created the fiscal cliff — the array of tax increases and budget cuts that will take effect automatically on Jan. 1. Unless Congress enacts alternative tax and budget measures, in a way that meets a baseline of conditions established by the president, it is Congress’s failure. If the nation goes over the fiscal cliff, it will be Congress’s fault. Congressional leaders know what they have to do, and if they refuse to do it, then the recession that follows will be their doing.
Why should the Republicans in Congress accept a baseline of conditions from Obama? Because in our system, neither branch of government can dictate to the other. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell displays contempt for the president and our system of checks and balances when he suggests that the only acceptable solution is for Obama to accept the discredited Republican agenda.
Their agenda was discredited when Republicans lost the election. Instead of the ideologically rigid anti-tax program proposed by Romney, the American people chose a program that asks the rich to pay a little more.
Compromise will be essential. Toward that end the Obama administration and its supporters need to be ready to give if the Republicans show signs that they are willing to give. If Democrats are willing to accept adjustments to rein in the growth of entitlement programs, Republicans will have to give on tax benefits enjoyed by the rich, such as the favorable tax rate on capital gains and the top marginal rates. One cannot happen without the other.
So far Democrats are standing firm, suggesting they would accept a plunge over the fiscal cliff rather than surrender to Republican blackmail. Economists say doing so could bring on a new recession, which is a sobering prospect. We know from recent experience that recessions take a costly human toll. But if Republicans continue to use the welfare of the American people to hold the nation hostage, the only recourse may be to call their bluff.
Rep. Peter Welch and Sens. Patrick Leahy and Bernard Sanders are firmly in the Obama camp. Sanders has been especially strong in defense of Social Security and the need to defend programs that middle and lower class people depend on. Welch has shown himself to be an effective practical legislator, so if a reasonable compromise emerges, he may serve a role in bringing along reluctant Democrats.
During Obama’s first term, he bargained against himself by signaling early that he would be willing to compromise in the interest of bipartisanship. The Republicans reciprocated with unyielding obstruction. Obama’s election victory has strengthened his hand, which means he is in a better position to stand up for the interests of the American people. We hope he does so.