Commentary: Congress punts on Bush tax cuts, middle class

"We want to keep the Bush tax cuts for 98 percent of Americans, individuals who earn up to $200,000 and couples who earn $250,000. But we want to allow the tax cuts to expire for millionaires and billionaires, the 2 percent of taxpayers at the very top of the income ladder.

"Those wealthy Americans still would be entitled to the tax cut on $200,000 in income, just like everybody else. And the tax on the rest of their income would rise only by 3 percentage points, to about the same levels as the '90s. You did OK in the '90s, didn't you?

"Extending the tax cuts for the richest Americans would cost $700 billion over the next 10 years. Think about it, most of that money would go to the top 1 percent, people who make at least $600,000 a year. And what would they do with that extra money? They'd put it in the bank.

"These aren't small businessmen struggling to make payrolls and get by. They're the richest 1 percent of Americans who already control nearly one quarter of the nation's wealth. And even if we let the Bush tax expire for this upper crust, they still would be paying taxes at far lower rates than they were under President Reagan during the boom years of the '80s.

"Let's continue to give middle-class Americans a tax break. But let the tax cuts expire on schedule for those who don't need them."

There now, was that so hard? Not everyone would agree with that argument, but it probably would resonate with many voters, especially those making less than $200,000 a year.

But the Democrats didn't want to make that case, at least not on the floor of the House or Senate. Instead, they decided to punt.

Members of Congress this week passed a bill to keep the government running through November, and then they packed their bags to leave town. Most will scurry home and start campaigning in earnest.

But they're heading home without addressing the issue of the Bush-era tax cuts, which are due to expire at the end of the year. Nor will they address any other controversial issues until after the elections. They didn't even pass a federal budget.

There are strategic reasons for not debating a tax bill before Nov. 2. In all likelihood, it would be a rhetorical bloodbath ending in stalemate with no bill being passed.

Many Democrats fear that they are doomed to lose any argument on tax cuts. They always get painted as the "tax and spend" party. Why give Republicans the chance to demagogue their favorite issue?

But why couldn't the Democrats at least have tried to make their case? They're always being accused of fomenting class warfare; why not actually take a shot at telling middle-class voters that doling out $700 billion more to the super-rich is not in their best interests? If Republicans are sincere about reducing the deficit, how do they plan to pay for extending the tax cuts for the rich?

This issue may crystallize the philosophical differences between the two parties more clearly than just about any other. And there is no certainty that the Republican argument would prevail this time: Voters are split about evenly over whether to extend the tax cuts for all or just for the middle class.

It would have been an interesting and potentially enlightening debate to have. And we, as a nation, will have it.

But not until after Election Day.


James Werrell is the Rock Hill Herald's opinion page editor, can be reached by e-mail, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.