We've been batting around this fiscal cliff debate for months, and now with just a couple days left until the deadline, senators say they remain "apart on some pretty big issues." The Senate remains divided on Sunday night, well past the 3 p.m. deadline that Senate Majority Leader and his Republican counterpart Mitch McConnell had set for negotiations. The upper house will reconvene at 11 a.m. on Monday to discuss the so far irreconcilable differences between the two parties' visions for how the nation can avoid what's been described as an economic disaster.
What are these differences, though? And what's it going to take to get come to an agreement? There is no simple answer to that question, but there are a series of hypotheses that will help you better understand what the heck is going on in Washington.
Before we get into that, though, let's just reiterate that there will be some very unwelcome consequences if Congress can't come to an agreement about averting the fiscal cliff. Taxes will rise for pretty much everyone. Spending will be cut across the board and affect everything from national defense to healthcare. Worst of all, the nation could tumble into another recession. Pretty bad! What issues are so important then that our well heeled lawmakers on Capitol Hill can't come to an agreement?
Tax Hikes for the Wealthy
This is a big one. You might remember a week or so ago, when House Speaker John Boehner and Barack Obama were tossing numbers back and forth about the threshold for taxing the wealthy. That is, at what point do we start raise taxes on the wealthiest of Americans to help cover the costs of running the nation. After much in-fighting, the Republicans have agreed to raise taxes on the wealthy but their definition of "wealthy" is a little bit different than the Democrats'.
Most recently, Republicans have said they would raise taxes on households that make $550,000 a year and individuals that make $450,000 a year. Democrats by (slight) contrast set that threshold at $450,000 per household and $360,000 for individuals. Being optimistic about the whole thing, it feels like they'll be able to split the difference, somehow. So said Republican Senator Bob Corker from Tennessee, "We understand taxes are going up on the wealthy, baked in the cake, that's going to happen."
Inheritance Taxes for Everybody (but Mostly the Wealthy)
In recent years, the inheritance tax -- or, as some like the call it, the "death tax" -- has been on its way out since Bush took office in 2001. As the name implies, the tax applies to estates passed on to relatives or others through a deceased person's will. Like many things money-related, it's most significant when applied to large fortunes, say those over $500,000. The top rate of inheritance tax dropped from 55 percent during the Clinton years to 35 percent during the Bush years. If Congress does let us fall off the fiscal cliff, those rates will surge again.
Democrats are willing to limit that surge to around 45 percent with an exemption of $3.5 billion. Republicans would like those rates to remain the same. "Hill aides say Democrats are likely to make concessions on the estate tax to Republicans -- who loath high rates on what they've dubbed the 'death tax' -- in exchange for keeping the Bush tax cuts at the president's preferred threshold of $250,000," The Washington Post's Suzy Khimm explains. "Only a small handful of Americans would benefit from the more generous estate tax that Republicans are pushing for: Just 7,450 more estates -- 0.3 percent of the country's total -- have benefited from the rates that were cut in 2010." This is really important to Republicans, while others realize that it's another line item that stands to benefit the wealthiest Americans. Either way, it's holding up the process.
Spending Cuts for Important Government Programs
This is the real tricky bit. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have programs that they'd like to see remain decently funded or, in some cases, simply funded. However, avoiding the fiscal cliff necessarily means cutting spending as well as raising revenue. (Trust those that know: Falling off the fiscal cliff would be bad for everybody.) While tax hikes have dominated much of the debate around the fiscal cliff, spending cuts are the other side of the same coin. Republicans, generally speaking, are okay with leaving the predetermined spending cuts in place, which would slash defense spending by $110 billion, among other things. President Obama, who says he's already made $1 trillion in spending cuts and is ready to make another $1 trillion, would like to find some middle ground that would leave more of our government intact. Still, at least one senator in the GOP calls him the "Spender in Chief."
The trouble with massive spending cuts, inevitably, is the economic impact. We're not necessarily talking about the Army getting flimsier boots here. We're talking about thousands and thousands of people losing their jobs, a consequence that economists say will sling us back into the depths of a recession. In hard numbers, falling off the fiscal cliff would amount to $500 billion in tax hikes and spending cuts. That's a lot of jobs and a lot of income that Americans will never see. However, for every dollar raised by increasing revenue (a.k.a. raising taxes), the government can avoid cutting a dollar from federal budgets like Social Security, Medicare and national security. Obama says that raising taxes for the wealthy alone could save the average, middle-class American family $2,000 next year. "If we can get that done, that takes a big bite out of the fiscal cliff," the president said on Meet the Press Sunday morning. "It avoids the worst outcomes."
We don't even know what that term means. It's just a way to say that either side will have to deal with a lot complaints if the final fiscal cliff deal -- if there even is one -- is not the one they fought for. Nevertheless, this has been and continues to be a tremendously frustrating process for all Americans to watch, one that will have political consequences for both sides.
It's kind of like trying to watch a game of cricket, if you're an American. You're not really sure what the rules are. It's unclear what position anyone is playing with the exception of the batter and the pitcher. Excuse us, the bowler. The games can last for days, but it feels like weeks. And along the way, seriously nobody really truly knows what's going on. You can read as many explainers as you want -- explainers that you're obviously speed-reading while trying to watch the confusing game -- but it doesn't help.
Honestly, the best thing you can do is if you're watching this fiscal cliff game is call a good friend, find a bar and drink away the last few hours of this match. At this point, we all just want to know who the winner's going to be.