Strap In, We're Heading Over the Fiscal Cliff

Illustration by 731

(Update: House Republicans killed Speaker John Boehner’s ‘Plan B’ on Thursday night, throwing the fate of the U.S. fiscal-cliff talks into confusion.)

Last year, budget talks between President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner fell apart because House conservatives wouldn’t vote for a big tax increase. On Monday, budget talks between Obama and Boehner that had seemed headed for a swift and happy resolution fell apart because House conservatives don’t want to vote for a big tax increase.

Today, House conservatives are agonizing over whether to vote for a small tax increase in Boehner’s “Plan B.” But even if it passes, Plan B isn’t going anywhere. To avoid the cliff, House conservatives will still have to vote for a big tax increase. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that House conservatives won’t vote for a big tax increase. We’re almost certainly headed over the cliff.

The clearest sign of this is Plan B itself. Regardless of whether it passes or fails, it doesn’t avoid the cliff. In its original conception, Plan B was simply going to increase taxes on those making $1 million a year or more—touching only 0.19 percent of American taxpayers, by Boehner’s math. It wouldn’t undo the budget sequester. Its purpose was supposedly to give Republicans negotiating leverage by scaring Obama and Democrats into thinking they’d be blamed if they refused it and then we went over the cliff. And that would induce Obama to cave.

The first problem with Plan B is that Obama doesn’t look like he’s caving. He has vowed to veto it—if the scheme were to somehow make it through the Senate—so it doesn’t appear to have given Boehner any leverage.

The second problem with Plan B is that it requires Republicans to violate what has become the central tenet of their ideology: their refusal to support tax increases. Conservative groups such as Heritage Action and FreedomWorks rebelled, as did some House members, which forced Boehner to produce a new version of Plan B with spending cuts (it’s actually two bills—one with cuts to replace the sequester—and late this afternoon, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said at a press conference that Republicans had the necessary votes). That may or may not be enough to get Plan B through the House on a vote late Thursday. But either way, it doesn’t remove the fundamental impediment to a deal: House Republicans’ unwillingness to vote for a big tax increase.

If the small tax increase in Plan B fails, it will be clear that a big tax increase would, too. If the small tax increase succeeds, there’s no reason to think that a larger one would—ornery conservatives who’ve just violated first principles by voting to increase taxes may be harder, not easier, to corral for an even larger tax increase.

In reality, Plan B is best thought of as an attempt to inoculate Republicans from blame after the U.S. goes over the fiscal cliff, because—if it passes—they’ll be able to rebut the Democrats’ charge that they’ve plunged the country into chaos sheerly out of pique that Democrats insist on higher taxes for “millionaires and billionaires.”

Will it work? I doubt it. Polls show that the public overwhelmingly will blame Republicans for a cliff dive. Obama’s job approval rating just hit 56 percent in the Gallup poll—the highest it’s been since October 2009. And given the confusion surrounding Plan B, not just among the public but among politicians, it’s far from clear that anyone will understand it.

In the meantime, the biggest cause for pessimism is the same one that’s been there all along. Unless Obama turns into Neville Chamberlain, the House will have to pass a big tax increase if we’re to avoid going over the cliff. With 11 days to go, and despite all the drama, posturing, and negotiation, there’s no sign that’s any more likely to happen now than it was a year ago.

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