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Originally published Saturday, December 1, 2012 at 8:03 PM

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I say: Let's dive off the fiscal cliff

Going over the fiscal cliff won't hurt as much as keeping the same failed tax and budget policies of the past decade, writes columnist Danny Westneat.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Sign me up for the Thelma and Louise caucus. I'm with Patty Murray. We should clasp hands and careen right off that fiscal cliff.

Well, Senator Murray isn't exactly cheerleading for a full kamikaze crash into the tax increases and spending cuts that may come at the end of the year.

"No one wants to go off any cliff or hill or slope," she says.

But she is one of the main voices saying this: Going over the cliff won't hurt as much as keeping the same failed tax and budget policies of the past decade.

"A worse idea is to accept a compromise that allows wealthy Americans to continue to not pay their fair share, because the result will be that middle-class families will bear the entire burden of the challenges this country faces," she told MSNBC.

What she's talking about is that she, like President Obama, wants to cancel the Bush-era tax cuts for income earned above $250,000. I would go further than that, to rescind most all of the Bush-era tax cuts.

We obviously need to cut back on federal spending, too. Maybe the only way to finally begin is to careen off that cliff.

Which is not a cliff, anyway, so much as the usual government hyperbole.

"Nothing's gonna happen on Jan. 2. The stock market may react poorly. I'm not even sure of that. But there's no cliff. This is just something that plays well on your radio show and in the newspapers."

That was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He knows a bit about business and government and how the former is not as fixated on the latter as the latter thinks.

It's important to recall the source of all this fiscal-cliff trouble. In 2001, and then more egregiously in 2003, Congress passed two big tax cuts, helping swamp a balanced budget with red ink.

To me, the 2003 tax cut stands as the most reckless, careless policy decision made in my lifetime, coming as it did just two months after America invaded Iraq. So not only did we go to war and refuse to pay for it. We took out a loan to mail ourselves rebate checks!

Also remember why Congress set up these tax cuts to expire. They couldn't get the votes unless they masked how irresponsible the cuts were. The tax cuts ballooned the deficit 10, 20 years out, so they just pretended they didn't. They had re-elections to worry about.

This "something for nothing" philosophy marked the era. Only now is anyone even considering paying the bills for the wars and all the rest.

I'm not happy about paying more, as you probably aren't. If we fall off the fiscal cliff, the rollback of the child-tax credit alone is going to cost me $1,000 next year.

But that credit could be a case study in how the tax code became a Swiss cheese of loopholes.

I was a reporter covering Congress in 1997 when the child credit was first conceived. (The Bush tax cuts later doubled it.) Know who put it in there? The Christian Coalition. The faith-based right was frustrated at its inability to change abortion and other social laws, so it came up with a pro-family plank it could persuade Congress to pass — a tax rebate for every kid.

Ever since, those of you with no kids have essentially been paying me for mine. Even I have to admit this makes no sense whatsoever. At tax time, though, as I rake in a few grand off the top, I do always say to myself: "Thanks, religious right!"

My point is: We all know we have to dial back on the special tax favors. And the spending.

But the most likely outcome of this showdown isn't some sensible bargain. It's that they'll punt while ballooning the debt even more. Obama already wants billions in new spending programs as part of his plan.

We're in a bad rut. Time to go all Thelma and Louise.

Murray's take is that the act of taking the plunge will finally change the terms of this worn-out debate. Congress won't have to stick with every one of the fiscal cliff's tax hikes or spending cuts.

But instead of being stuck in the religiously anti-tax mindset of the 2000s, which didn't work for either the budget or the economy, it'd be, suddenly, a little like 1999 all over again.

A chance for a do-over of sorts on our worst decade. That alone would be worth the jump.

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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