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More Game Playing on the Fiscal Cliff

The lingering question over Congress these days concerns the so-called “fiscal cliff,” that set of policies that expire at the end of the year, which are likely to be cleared up in an unaccountable lame duck session of Congress. The move now is to claim that this party or that party won’t leave these loose ends untied before the election, and that they’ll have the courage to act sooner. They won’t act, of course, they’ll just push out a legislative set unpalatable to the opposition. But they’ll try to claim that they are acting, and that the other side is twiddling its thumbs.

That’s the context for John Boehner’s claim that the House will pass a bill to extend all the Bush tax cuts before the election.

The House will vote before the November elections to extend all of the current tax rates that are set to expire at the end of the year, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Tuesday.

Boehner warned about a “train wreck” of big-ticket legislation that could be left for a lame-duck session if Congress doesn’t act beforehand. House Republicans have been discussing plans to extend the George W. Bush-era tax rates, and Boehner said leaders had not decided whether to act to make them permanent or extend them only temporarily.

“The House is going to act to extend the current tax rates. Whether we make them permanent or extend them for a year – that debate is still up in the air,” Boehner said in an interview on CNBC.

“Otherwise we’re going to have this mess all stacked up until after the election. And you want to talk about a train wreck? You’re talking about a big one.”

I have no doubt that the House can pass that bill whenever they want. That’s because they won’t try to pay for it. But does this mean that some compromise will get struck before the election? Of course not. Both the House and Senate will try to forward the bills that represent the first bid in their negotiating strategy. House Republicans want to just extend the Bush tax cuts without offsets, while Democrats want the high-end tax cuts to expire. Just because they will put those bills on the floor of the chambers they control doesn’t mean they are “working” in any meaningful way to avoid the fiscal cliff. It just means they are making their ideological preferences clear to the public. That’s useful in the context of the election, but it won’t bring us any closer to a resolution. So the idea that any of this will avoid the “mess all stacked up until after the election” is pretty ludicrous.

Hilariously and predictably, the party in control of the majoritarian institution blamed the party in control of the artificial supermajority institution for their failure to act:

And the Speaker suggested that the Senate would have to act before any serious negotiations could begin.

“The House is prepared to extend all the current tax rates … All,” Boehner said. “The Senate has to act. Until the Senate acts, it’s hard to determine how we deal with this.”

If the Senate had the same freedom to maneuver as the House – and I believe they should (well, actually if you get down to it I don’t think there should be a Senate) – they would pass legislation that the House would reject on principle. It’s only the fact that Senate Republicans can do it for them, through the filibuster, that the House GOP can try to position the Senate as somehow impotent. And that’s another part of this game.

We’re going to wake up on November 7 with less than two months before the fiscal cliff, no negotiations to work out a solution and only a lame duck Congress available to do anything about it. That’s the reality, the rest is posturing.

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David Dayen

David Dayen