Austerity averted in US

Country hauled back from the fiscal cliff.

At 10:59 PM EST yesterday, the US House of Representatives voted 257-167 to pass a bill originating in the Senate to prevent the government from being forced to implement a damaging mixture of spending cuts and tax rises – popularly known as the fiscal cliff.

To understand how much of a misnomer that title was, consider this: The US had already gone over the "cliff" at midnight on 31 December, 23 hours before the House passed its preventative bill.

The cliff was in fact the date at which the United States would, unless it passed new legislation, implement a series of European-style austerity measures. While these all became law at the stroke of midnight, implementation was to be phased out throughout the next few months. Unemployment benefits would have been cut within a week, while the full tax hikes – caused by the automatic expiration of Bush II's tax cuts – were to have taken several more months to implement. If we must keep the cliff metaphor, then the plummet was slow enough that the House was able to throw a rope down a day later and haul the nation back off the precipice.

Not that everything is peachy. The compromise that the Democrat- controlled Senate and the Republican-controlled House came to was 154 pages of legislation, but still involved kicking a couple of hand-grenades down the road.

Included in the bill was:

  • an agreement to return taxes to Clinton-era levels for families with income above $450,000 (a compromise between the Democrats' desire to do so above $250,000 and Republicans' desire to do so above $1m – or preferably not at all)
  • a similar rise in capital gain and dividend tax above that threshold
  • another rise in estate tax above that threshold (although, for no good policy reason, the estate tax threshold and only the estate tax threshold is to be indexed to inflation)
  • a civil service pay-freeze
  • unemployment benefits extended for another year
  • The Alternative Minimum Tax, which was intended to impose high taxes on the rich but has been affecting more and more middle-class families, will be "patched" to prevent any further mission-creep.
  • And an extension of Obama's tax breaks for low-income households.

In other words, nearly every measure extended yesterday was a tax break, with the exception of the three headline tax rises. There were also – because there always are – a host of other smaller measures added to the bill to ensure its passage. Joe Weisenthal finds six, including tax breaks for Puerto Rican rum and market loss assistance for asparagus farmers.

But two things weren't dealt with yesterday, instead booted down the line. On 1 March, the "sequester" will be enacted. This is the bundle of spending cuts agreed to in summer 2011 as part of the deal which raised the debt ceiling. It is similar in degree to the spending cuts implemented by the UK coalition, and most of the American establishment – the Republican party excepted, as usual – appear to have learned from the lesson Cameron provided, and have no intention to enact austerity in the midst of a depression.

The second fight due to come is over the debt ceiling. Exactly the same debt ceiling which was "dealt with" by enacting the sequester. The ceiling was raised – not abolished – and current Treasury projections suggest that it will have to be raised again in about two months.

The battlefields are drawn, in other words. The White House wants the sequester and debt ceiling extended or abolished; the Republicans want the sequester – and probably further spending cuts – enacted, and are prepared to see government spending hit the ceiling to do so. And unlike the "fiscal cliff", the debt ceiling is a real cliff. If the US hits it, a full government shut-down is required to stop it defaulting on its bonds.

The comparison with the UK is fascinating. Much has been made of the fact that the fiscal cliff, which has taken so much effort to avoid, is more accurately called "austerity"; but while the US legislature has been hosting fake debates in which the Republican party pretends it is fine with the whole thing and the Democrats pretend they don't want to negotiate, there is broad understanding in the rest of the US establishment (including the media) that to do so would be a very bad thing. That serves only to highlight how strange the UK right is in persisting in its defence of austerity. So while it's for the best for the US that it prevented the crippling austerity, it does mean that the evidence-based debate in Europe is deprived of yet another data point showing the damage such policies do.

Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner. 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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Is TTIP a threat or an opportunity?

TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US - we should keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Barack Obama made it abundantly clear during his visit to the UK that if Britain left the European Union then it would be quite some time before we would be able to negotiate a trade deal with the United States. All the more reason to examine carefully what the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will mean for the UK. For Labour this is especially important because a number of trade unionists and Party members have expressed concerns about what TTIP could mean.

The economic worth of such a partnership between the European Union and the US has been questioned and it has been frequently stated that TTIP could give multinational companies unprecedented influence and undermine the British NHS.

With regard to the economic benefits of TTIP there are few that would argue that there are no economic gains to be achieved through the partnership. The question is to what extent economic growth will be stimulated. On the positive side the European Commission has argued that an agreement could bring economic gains of between €68 billion to €119 billion per year to the EU (0.3% to 0.5% of GDP) and €50 billion to €95 billion (0.2% to 0.4% of GDP) to the US. For Britain, this means that an agreement could add up to £10 billion annually to the UK economy.

On the negative side, a study commissioned by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Group in the European Parliament has maintained that TTIP would bring only “limited economic gains”. These gains have to be weighed, it was argued, against the “downside risks”. Those risks have been identified as coming from the alignment of standards in areas such as consumer safety, environmental protection and public health.

These are important concerns and they should not be quickly dismissed. They are made all the more important because the existence of already low tariffs between the EU and the US make the negotiations to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade all the more significant.

There are a number of areas of concern. These include food standards and the regulation of GM crops and the worry that the EU’s focus on applying the environmental precautionary principle might be weakened. The European Commission, which has a responsibility for negotiating TTIP on behalf of the EU, is however acutely aware of these concerns and is mindful of its legal responsibility to uphold, and not to in any way weaken, the agreed legal standards to which the EU adheres. A concern has been expressed that irrespective of what European law may say, TTIP could undermine those standards. This I find difficult to accept because the ‘rule of law’ is absolutely central to the negotiations and the adoption of the final agreement.

But the EU is mindful of this concern and has brought forward measures which have sought to address these fears. The latest proposals from the Commission clearly set out that it is the right of individual governments to take measures to achieve public policy objectives on the level that they deem appropriate. As the Commission’s proposal states, the Agreement shall not affect the right of the parties to regulate within their own territories in order to achieve policy objectives including “the protection of public health, safety, environmental or public morals, social or consumer protection or promotion and protection of cultural diversity”.

Of course, this is not to suggest that there should not be vigilance, but equally I believe it would be wrong to assume the theoretical problems would inevitably become reality.

The main area of concern which has been expressed in Britain about TTIP relates to the NHS and the role of the private sector. Under the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions investors would be able to bring proceedings against a foreign government that is party to the treaty. This would be done in tribunals outside the domestic legal system. If a Government is found to be in breach of its treaty obligations the investor who has been harmed could receive monetary compensation or other forms of redress.

The concern is that the ISDS arrangements will undermine the ability of democratically elected governments to act on behalf of their citizens. Some have maintained that measures to open up the NHS to competition could be made irreversible if US companies had to be compensated when there is a change of policy from a future Labour Government.

In response to these concerns the European Commission has proposed an Investor Court System. This would be based on judgements being made by publicly appointed and experienced judges and that cases would only be brought forward if they were precisely defined. Specifically, it is proposed that cases would be limited to targeted discrimination on the basis of gender, race or religion, or nationality, expropriation without compensation or the denial of justice.

Why, you might ask, is there a need at all for a trans-national Investor Court System? The reason in part lies in the parlous state of the judicial systems in some of the relatively recent EU accession countries in Eastern Europe. To be frank, it is sadly the case that there are significant shortcomings in the judiciary of some countries and the rule of law is, in these cases, more apparent than real. It is therefore not unreasonable for investors to have an international framework and structure which will give them confidence to invest. It should also be noted that there is nothing proposed in TTIP which contradicts anything which is already in UK law.

We need to remember too that this is not only about US investment in Europe, it is also about European investment in the US. No US-wide law prohibits discrimination against foreign investors, and international law, such as free trade and investment agreements like TTIP, cannot be invoked in US courts. The Investor Court System would therefore benefit European companies, especially Small and Medium Sized Enterprises. 

It is of course impossible to come to a definitive conclusion about these provisions because the negotiations are ongoing. But it would surely be unwise to assume that the final agreement would inevitably be problematic.

This is especially true regarding the NHS. Last year Unite the Union commissioned Michael Bowsher QC to provide an opinion. His opinion was that “TTIP does pose a threat to a future government wishing to take back control of health services”. The opinion does not express a view on whether TTIP will “force” the privatisation of the health service (as some have claimed) and Bowsher admits that much of the debate is “conducted at a rather speculative level” and he has been unable to produce any tangible evidence to support his contention about future problems. On the other hand, it is the case that there is nothing in the proposed agreement which would alter existing arrangements for compensation. There are of course many legal opinions which underpin the view that existing legal arrangements would continue. While I accept that it is theoretically possible for the Bowsher scenario to occur, it is nevertheless extremely improbable. That is not to say that there ought not to be watertight safeguards in the agreement, but let us not elevate the extremely improbable to the highly likely.

A frequently heard criticism of TTIP is that the negotiations between the US and the EU are being conducted in ‘secret’.  Greenpeace, for example, has strongly sought to make this a central part of their campaign.  Although the Commission publishes EU position papers and negotiating proposals soon after they are tabled, it is impossible to see how complex negotiations of this kind can be practically conducted in public.  However, I believe that the draft agreement should be made public well before the final decisions are taken.

Once the negotiations have been concluded, the draft agreement will be presented to the European Council and the European Parliament, both of which have to agree the text. The European Council is, of course, made up of representatives of the governments of the EU and the European Parliament is democratically elected. Both Houses of the British Parliament will also debate the draft and there will need to be parliamentary approval of the agreement.

Transparency and democratic scrutiny are two things which there cannot be too much of. But, in practical terms, it is difficult to see how there could be more of either without making it nigh on impossible to secure such a complex agreement. Unite, of which I am a member, and others are quite right to express their concerns about TTIP, but let’s not exaggerate the potential difficulties and let’s not assume that the worst case scenario will always come about. TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US, and we should therefore at least keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Wayne David is the Labour MP for Caerphilly and is Shadow Minister for Political Reform and Justice. He is a former Shadow Europe Minister and was a junior minister in the last Labour government.