Bush Tax-Cut Votes All About November

Nancy Cook
National Journal

Wednesday’s House votes on the fate of the Bush-era tax cuts ran along expected party lines, nicely setting the stage for taxation to be a focal point in the presidential race.

House Republican hewed to their talking points, barreling toward their 2013 goal of tax reform. They argued that extending all of the Bush-era tax cuts for one year is a must. Not only does it give businesses and individuals “certainty,” they argued, but it also props up an otherwise fragile economy and leads to greater job creation. “Even Bill Clinton has called for it,” Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich., said about the one-year extension. “The burden that this tax code places on the economy is a wet blanket.”

The Democrats countered, as they have for the past several weeks, by invoking the middle class. Their refrain is in lockstep with President Obama’s rhetoric of taxing the rich to tackle income inequality and reduce the deficit. As House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said, this bill “provides fairness for the middle class.” Does that sound like something we’ve heard in swing states recently?

The votes were actually a yawn on Capitol Hill, a predictable dance between Democrats and Republicans.

But all this posturing will prove its worth on the campaign trail. Mitt Romney can hang the Democrats’ votes around the party’s collective neck. He will paint the Democrats as politicians willing to raise taxes on small-business owners. Never mind that a new analysis from the Tax Policy Center estimates that Romney’s tax plan, well informed by the House Republicans, would disproportionately raise taxes on middle- and lower-income people who rely on tax credits and deductions: the same benefits Romney has vaguely promised to clear from the code in favor of lowering marginal rates.

Not that President Obama’s tax message is any clearer or more sincere. His and the Democrats’ plan to temporarily keep the Bush-era tax cuts intact for households with annual income below $250,000 and on  individuals with incomes below $200,000 does not begin to clue the country in on the tough tax choices that the majority of Americans will face if and when the country ever embarks on a long-term deficit proposal.  Not only that, but top Democrats previously and very publicly disagreed with the president’s definition of rich. Until just a few weeks ago, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Pelosi were eager to only raise taxes on household income above $1 million.

The House votes, like so much congressional action these days, were one last walk down the runway before summer recess. Only this time, it will inform some debate outside of the Beltway rather than just rattle the halls of the Capitol.