Commentary: How Republicans Got Stuck in the Fiscal Cliff

Parsing out the good and bad news from the fiscal deal.

Posted: 01/02/2013 12:45 PM EST
Keith Boykin: How Republicans Got Stuck in the Fiscal Cliff

If you're confused about what just happened in Washington with the "fiscal cliff" mess, you're not alone. Although neither side got everything they wanted, in the end, President Obama got a decent bill.

Here's the good news. Republicans this week voted for a tax increase for the first time in more than two decades. Under the fiscal cliff deal approved by Congress on New Year's Day, taxes will rise on the wealthiest Americans and the nation's unemployed will continue to receive jobless benefits in 2013. In addition, the college expenses tax credit, the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit for working Americans will all be extended for five years. And finally, the deal includes no cuts to Social Security or Medicare for now.

Now here's the bad news. The payroll tax cut for working Americans will not be renewed. That means most Americans will see their paychecks reduced immediately, possibly as soon as Friday. And the deal doesn't resolve the issue of spending cuts, which were put off for two months, or the debt ceiling, which was put off as well. Republicans are hoping to force concessions from the president in those upcoming negotiations.

But here's the worst news. This whole confusing fiscal cliff controversy was a total farce from the beginning. It was a completely avoidable manufactured crisis that diverted our attention from jobs to deficit reduction.

This is the problem. Until Tuesday, the last time any Republican member of Congress voted for a tax increase was in 1990. That was the year Papa Bush broke his "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge. Since that time, Republicans have taken a new pledge to a man named Grover Norquist and vowed never to raise taxes again for anyone for any reason.

But let's remember what's happened in America since that last GOP tax increase vote. Since 1990, Americans have lived through the Gulf War, the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the Iraq War, the war in Afghanistan, Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. Republican President Bush even created a new government department (Homeland Security) and a new government entitlement program for prescription drug coverage under Medicare.

But despite the huge government costs involved in wars, natural disasters, federal emergencies and all the other spending they authorized over the past two decades, Republicans had not voted for one new penny in government revenue to pay for any of it in 22 years. Not one cent. No wonder we're in debt.

And yet that's still not the biggest problem. The real crisis in our country is unemployment and underemployment that haven't fully recovered from the Bush recession. If more Americans get good-paying jobs, then the government will be able to collect more money in tax revenues, and that will reduce our deficits.

If Republicans really cared about deficit reduction as much as they claim they do, they would not object to the fiscal cliff. That's because the fiscal cliff is deficit reduction. It was purposefully engineered by Congress to cut the nation's debt by trillions of dollars by slashing government programs across the board and raising new revenue from taxes. If you really believe reducing the debt should be the top priority of the government right now, then you should welcome the fiscal cliff because it does just that.

But Republicans have not embraced the fiscal cliff; they've feared it. That's because they've finally had to admit that too much deficit reduction in the midst of an ailing recovery is not a good thing. In other words, Republicans don't believe their own rhetoric on deficit reduction. What they really believe in is cutting taxes for the rich. That's why they fought hard to try to preserve the budget-busting Bush tax cuts, estate tax cuts and capital gains tax cuts for the wealthy but didn't lift a finger to extend the payroll tax cuts that affect most working Americans in every paycheck.  

If nothing else comes out of this silly two-month-long debate, we can finally bury the lie that the top GOP priority is cutting the deficit. It's clearly not.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes political commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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