Today's lead editorial in the New York Times rightfully calls out the Congressional Democrats on their timidity in not doing the right thing:
We are starting to wonder whether Congressional Democrats lack the courage of their convictions, or simply lack convictions.
Last week, Senate Democrats did not even bother to schedule a debate, let alone a vote, on the expiring Bush tax cuts. This week, House Democrats appear poised to follow suit. The idea is to spare incumbents from having to vote before Nov. 2 on whether to let the rich go on paying less taxes than the nation needs them to pay.
This particular failure to act was not about Republican obstructionism, of which there has been plenty. This was about Democrats failing to seize an opportunity to do the right thing and at the same time draw a sharp distinction between themselves and the Republicans.
President Obama has been steadfast — and basically correct — in calling to extend the Bush tax cuts for 98 percent of taxpayers and to let them expire for the top 2 percent. But by postponing a vote on the cuts, Democrats are increasing the likelihood of an eventual cave-in to Republicans, who are pushing for an extension of all the tax cuts, including the high-end ones.
We presume that Democrats, especially those in more conservative districts, are doing this in response to the anti-Washington insurgency on the right. But it’s hard to imagine that conservative voters will confuse them for Republicans, and punting on the tax cuts won’t score them any points with the Democratic base.
As the politics of the tax-cut fight move to center stage, far more important issues are being pushed into the background. Letting the high-end tax cuts expire, for instance, is a crucial step in the long process of reducing the federal budget deficit. Extending them will add $700 billion more to the debt over the next decade than under the Obama administration’s tax proposal — and for what? To bolster the weak economy, the money would be better spent in any of several more demonstrably effective ways, like payroll tax cuts, infrastructure spending or state aid to hire more teachers and police.
Letting the high-end cuts expire would also be a strong signal to the nation’s creditors that Congress has the political will to cut deficits and, by extension, to prudently service debts. Delaying a vote on the tax cuts leaves that message hopelessly muddled.
To their credit, 46 House Democrats sent a letter recently urging Speaker Nancy Pelosi to hold a vote on the tax cuts before the election. But 31 other Democrats — many of them self-described deficit hawks — also sent a letter urging that the high-end tax cuts be extended.
The American public is right to be confused and distrustful of its elected representatives.
Their focus on the well-being of the richest Americans is eclipsing the needs and concerns of vulnerable Americans. A roughly $1 billion pro-work program in last year’s stimulus law that has provided jobs to 250,000 low-income workers is scheduled to expire at the end of September. But with less than a week to go before adjourning, Democrats have been unable to get Republican support to extend the program or, it seems, to make the Republicans pay a political price for being the Party of No.
This program is a model of the welfare-to-work initiatives long championed by the Republican Party. But Republican lawmakers would prefer to end it than to let the Obama stimulus package be seen as helpful. So deep is their desire to thwart Mr. Obama and the Democrats, that they are ignoring Republican governors who have called for the program’s continuation. And they have indicated they would vote down a must-pass spending bill and other last-minute legislation if Democrats attach a provision to extend the program to those bills.
That is pure obstructionism, but it leaves Democrats still struggling to challenge the Republicans’ ability to define the terms of the political debate this election season, while Americans who really need the help go without.
As Roger Cohen in London wrote in the International Herald Tribune, comparing the U.S. to other nations moving ahead [italics in original]:
Britain has similar post-binge economic problems — of personal and national debt and spiraling deficits. But Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and his Liberal Democrat partners have actually put bipartisanship to work — did any Republicans notice? They are looking to lock in five years of stability through a new law and push through painful cuts across government departments.
Five years is a decent stretch. In America today, quarter-to-quarter concerns hem in even a visionary chief executive.
The policy debate in the United States is head-spinning. Nobody knows if there’s going to be more fiscal stimulus, after the first $787 billion, or how a row over taxes will end. Under an Obama proposal, Bush-era tax cuts are due to expire at year-end for affluent couples and small business owners earning over $250,000. Republicans are digging in, saying it’s crazy to raise taxes in a faltering economy.
It’s not crazy. Ending the tax cuts for the rich is a minimum signal for a divided land, a statement that the two Americas are acquainted with each other.
But with Obama facing a stinging midterm defeat, it looks like a long shot. What is needed above all is some clarity and sense of direction — the kind Cameron has given in London and booming China consistently applies.