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.

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