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Originally published December 4, 2010 at 3:13 PM | Page modified December 4, 2010 at 3:13 PM

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Danny Westneat

Simple math: No tax hikes, more debt

When it comes to putting off tough decisions, nobody does a better job than Congress. The big story out of Washington, D.C., in this era of supposed fiscal rectitude and pledges to reign in the deficit, was the widespread bipartisan agreement to add trillions more to the national debt. That's the bottom line in the big tax-cut fight over whether Bush-era tax cuts should expire.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Never put off to tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.

I think it was Mark Twain who said that. Or Winnie the Pooh. Whoever, I'm pretty sure they were not actually suggesting a congressional work plan.

But it sure fits Congress. The big story out of Washington, D.C., last week, in this era of supposed fiscal rectitude, was that there was widespread bipartisan agreement to add trillions more to the national debt.

Oh, you didn't see the story reported quite that way? Me neither. But that's the bottom line in the big tax-cut fight, a showdown over whether Bush-era tax cuts from 2001 and 2003 should expire, be continued temporarily or be continued only for some.

Everyone seems to agree we should keep those tax cuts for the first $250,000 of your income. Obama is for that. Left-wingers like Seattle Congressman Jim McDermott voted for it. And the entirety of the Republican Party would rather be forced to attend a Michael Moore movie than even think about not doing it.

Yet it will add a projected $2.2 trillion to the national debt during the next decade. That's nearly three times the amount put on the national credit card by the stimulus and bank bailouts combined.

So what this means is we are kicking off what is supposed to be the biggest policy challenge of our times — how to get the budget back in balance — by agreeing to go in hock a couple more trillion to the Chinese.

Some want to borrow even more. At issue is whether we should also keep the lower tax rates on income you make in excess of $250,000 (and I do mean "you," because, sadly, nothing in this particular paragraph is ever likely to apply to me).

Republicans want the lower rates for the well-off — and retreating Democrats probably will agree to it — putting another $700 billion on the credit-card bill for later.

Take that, debt! Now you know who's in charge around here.

Really, the events of last week proved beyond a doubt how dysfunctional our politics has become. The president's deficit commission, after nine months of work, adjourned without agreeing, or even voting, on a plan to try to stanch $3 trillion to $4 trillion from the tide of red ink.

They declared symbolic victory anyway. They were pleased they had "started a conversation." Even though at the same time — in the same building — Congress was busy talking about how to drive the debt higher by nearly as much as the commission had proposed to cut it.

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I get that the deficit is not the only thing that matters. There are jobs to worry about. But Bush the Elder, in 1990, and Clinton, in 1993, both raised taxes (and cut spending) to try to balance the budget. I recall things worked out just fine for the economy back then. Certainly better than when Bush the Younger cut taxes.

I get that you might want to go easy on tax hikes in tough times. Fine: Phase them in. A 2 or 3 percentage-point change in income-tax rates — which is what we're talking about here — isn't going to have much effect on the economy one way or another (as it didn't when Clinton put in those tax rates in the first place).

But when are we going to start paying the generational bill — either through tax hikes or cuts or both — for the now nearly decade-old wars, the costly prescription-drug plan of 2003, the stimulus and all the rest of our epic borrowing jag?

Clearly not today. Tomorrow's not looking good. Maybe the day after tomorrow.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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