Congress' Tax Alamo

After watching the debate over the President's tax framework in the House last night on C-SPAN, I have to admit to being somewhat amused. I know that the progressives in the Democratic caucus fought the good fight last night, and I've heard some folks say they have a right to be upset that the President negotiated this framework without them. But a few hundred more people covered under the estate tax? This was their big Alamo?

Thinking about this set of events led me to try to put them in a larger context. It's easy to say congressional Democrats should fight for a slightly higher estate tax in this particular bill, and if they don't win it that's it; I'm done. For some it has even been easy to ignore the importance of passing an unemployment comp extension immediately for the several million people who would have seen it expire with no hope for an extension after the GOP takes over the House Jan. 5.

Joel, stop picking on the House progressives, they did alright. I agree they've done alright over the past two years.

Throughout last night's debate I kept remembering how President Obama had urged Democrats in Congress to finish the health reform bill by July 2009 – before the right-wing could mobilize their corporate resources to fund the tea party movement. He warned that extending the debate into the fall would give the right more time to mobilize opposition, and it would slow down momentum on the Democratic agenda.

Democratic leaders said no, no, no, we need time to work this out. They essentially patted him on the head and shook their own jowly faces and smiled. Naive, they thought. He's a youngster but he'll learn how these things work.

Republicans, despite being in disarray and on their heels after essentially losing two elections in a row, were all too eager for the delay, and they made the most of it. Even some of non-congressional friends loved to emphasized the President's "inexperience," an dendearing quality because its showed his idealistic side.

Meanwhile, climate legislation, which had had bipartisan support languished. Immigration reform inched forward but could not be brought across the finish line. Two or three Senate Democrats found a plethora of reasons to side with a Republican filibuster of the Employee Free Choice Act, after a misleading campaign by Republican-controlled FOX News and other corporate front groups.

On the balance, in his first two years the President managed to win important reforms, needed stimulus and other new directions: the recovery act, a second round of aid to the states, unemployment comp extensions, health reform, important civil rights legislation, an end to the Iraq war (though not a full end to the occupation), a starting point for ending the occupation of Afghanistan (though far too slowly), a massive infusion of public and private investments in renewable energy resources and alternative energy, Wall Street reforms (that still have big banks in a tizzy), EPA rules that will regulate global warming-causing pollution, along with crucial appointments in the Labor Department, the courts, and other agencies that shift the balance of forces in a positive direction in vital parts of the government.

Throughout 2010, in the meantime, I sat in on call after call held by labor and advocacy groups to renew the estate tax, which expired this year. People like Rich Trumka warned that without reinstituting the estate tax, the every richest Americans – no more than several hundred families out of 160 million households in this country – would avoid a fairer share of the tax burden.

Let's be clear: the estate expired. Without the President's framework, the richest Americans would be paying NOTHING on the unearned wealth passed to their spoiled, lazy children.

Why is that? Why didn't Congress reinstate the estate tax? Seems like low-hanging fruit, right? Since this past summer, however, few in Congress – and this isn't the fault of its progressive members – wanted to pass anything controversial before the election. They quietly said these things could be put off to the "lame duck" session when things pass easily. Unfortunately, since the shellacking in the election, even fewer in Congress have had the stomach for taking these things up.

It was the President who took the bull by the horns, and what was need now was his ruthless side to come out. Congressional Democrats can complain about not being consulted on this (this is within their rights), but what's the point? If the framework had not been negotiated, we can be sure that this lame duck session of Congress would not have passed an unemployment comp extension, and the molasses in January that is congressional action would have provided every working family with the New Year's present of more taxes.

This fight wasn't about the President making a mistake or caving in as our friends at MSNBC have repeated ad nauseum. This was about Republicans who fought tooth and nail to grind Congress to halt until they could ensure a tax break for the millionaires and billionaires who financed their campaigns.

And apparently Americans in general understood that. Most Americans, according to polling, favored passage of the framework. While pollsters were afraid to reveal public opinion about Bush tax cuts for the rich vs. middle-class tax cuts, it was clear that people understood the vital importance of passing the unemployment comp package and keeping their own taxes from going up come January. Most people understood better than most MSNBC commentators that this wouldn't happen without a framework such as this.

During the debate on C-SPAN every single caller from all three of their partisan telephone lines expressed an understanding that the Republicans were out to pass tax cuts for the rich and it was that stance that had gotten us to this point. Unfortunately, most of the progressive punditocracy failed to emphasize this fact in the past ten days enough to earn any political capital. Instead they focused on the President – as if he were their opponent.

In addition, the Senate GOP was so gleeful about passing tax cuts for the rich they have let other important legislative items through their filibuster gate: START may have the 67 votes it needs; the DADT repeal just picked up 4 Senate Republican endorsers (possibly enought to avoid a Republican filibuster); and, the DREAM Act, though more uncertain, may get a chance as well. None of this would have happened without the President's framework.

What will happen in the new year? Obviously, the fight to limit GOP budget cuts will be the first big fight. The GOP plan will be to cut social spending (not military), cut taxes more, and weaken regulatory oversight of health and safety, Wall Street reforms, health reform and so on. Our goal will be to block these harmful goals, and to put forward constructive alternatives like a more progressive tax code and an end to the budget-busting and human rights-abusing occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Don't expect a lot – except that this effort will not stop.

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