US Senate does something unbelievable: passes a bill

Taxmaggedon's not averted, but the competition is on fair ground

The United States got a little more likely to avoid Taxmaggedon yesterday, as the Senate voted narrowly to pass the Democrats' bill extending "middle-class" tax cuts 51-48.

On December 31st, 2012, the tax cuts passed by George Bush will all expire at once, along with a number of other tax cuts and spending provisions. If this isn't averted, the resulting economic shock – dubbed a "fiscal cliff" by Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, and Taxmaggedon by others – has been predicted to knock 4 per cent from US growth in 2013.

The strange thing about the situation, though, is that both parties want to avert it. Unfortunately, their chosen outcomes are different enough that each would rather let the nation burn and blame it on the other than pass something they don't agree with.

The desired outcome for Republicans is keeping all the tax cuts except for two – Obama's payroll tax cut, and the tax cuts implemented in the 2009 stimlus package. Not coincedentally, these are two of the cuts which affect low-income people most, and as a result, the party isn't hugely eager to mention that they are in favour of repealing them with the "Tax Hike Prevention Act of 2013" (which will directly implement tax hikes. America).

The Democrats, however, want to keep those low-income tax cuts, and also all of the Bush tax cuts up to $250,000 per year. Despite the fact that only 2 per cent of the country earns above that, they have come to be called the "middle-class" tax cuts. In return, they want to soak the rich a bit more, reverting marginal tax rates above that level to where they were in the Clinton era, and implementing the so-called "Buffet rule" to prevent brazen tax avoidance.

It is clear, however, that there are a large number of tax hikes which both parties want to avoid. So why the reticence? Because after the election – indeed, after Taxmaggedon actually takes effect – it will be a lot easier to get bipartisan support. Right now, the Democratic position involves tricking or cajoling Repbulicans into voting for tax hikes, even if only on the rich. But coming to that same position in 2013 will involve voting for tax cuts, since the hikes they want will happen automatically. That vote is a far more palatable prospect.

So while the Democrat-controlled Senate passed the their preferred bill, the Republican House of Representatives in gearing up to reject it out of hand. It will not make it to the President's table in this form, and nothing is likely to until at least November. 

But there is, buried in this, a small bit of good news. Because the Senate did something rather unusual: they had a vote which was won by the side with the most people on it. Normally, the arcane standing orders of the Senate require a supermajority, of at least 60, to win any vote - otherwise it can be filibustered indefinitely, preventing any other business from occurring. The fact that this was passed by a simple majority could mean a simmering of tensions on the matter, or an eagerness (however slight) to work together. Or it could be that they knew it wouldn't pass the House and weren't in a mood to fight.

Time, as ever, will tell.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid, the Democrats' man in the Senate. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR