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.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle