If the Democrats are really in charge of Congress, then why are they having such a blue Christmas? The majority party limped home for the holidays on Wednesday night, but not before caving in to President Bush and the Republicans for $70 billion more in war funding, with no strings attached. And not before acquiescing to a version of the alternative-minimum-tax adjustment that Republicans wanted, an adjustment that will cost the treasury $50 billion and break the Democrats’ pledge not to add to the federal deficit.
It’s enough to prompt the question: Did the Democrats really win control of Congress last year, or was it an illusion? Asked to evaluate the first session of the 110th Congress, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., told the Washington Post, “I’m not going to let a lot of hard work go unnoticed, but I’m not going to hand out party hats either.”
The party’s technical problem seems to be its slim margin in the Senate, too slim to overcome a Bush veto or a GOP filibuster — and Republicans resorted to a record number of filibusters last year.
But there’s more to the Democrats’ problem. Republicans have a simpler line to sell to the American people, and they’re not afraid to push it. The Democrats’ fear of being cast as not “supporting the troops” or not “cutting taxes” seems to trump even the public’s broad desire to end the country’s entanglement in Iraq or to shift more tax burden up the income scale.
Bush’s dismal standing in the polls and his lame duck status may actually make him a tougher negotiator with Congress and add to the Democrats’ problem. Bush is a man with little to lose. “He’s impossible to work with,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told The New York Times this week. “There are times I say: ‘Is there something more I can do? Have I done something wrong?’ But even his own people tell me he won’t compromise.”
The frosty relationship between Bush and Reid, also a difficult man, has set a nasty partisan tone. All in all, the Democrats may simply lack the political audacity required of congressional leadership. Take Bush’s comments of Thursday, for example. When asked about the destruction of CIA tapes that presumably showed U.S. agents torturing terror suspects, he turned quickly to attack his critics as isolationists who would rather not “aggressively pursue freedom.” He also criticized Congress for its addiction to earmarks — as if Republicans don’t employ them. Bush made no such comments on earmarks when the GOP ran Capitol Hill.
Battle over AMT
The fuss over the alternative minimum tax has been particularly frustrating for Democrats. Both parties see the problem. As explained in this New York Times primer, the tax was created in 1969 to prevent the very rich from using the many loopholes then available to avoid all federal income taxes. But it was not indexed to inflation. So gradually over the years it has bled down into the middle class, affecting some taxpayers earning as little as $30,000 to $50,000 a year. While Congress has enacted a number of “patches” to blunt its effect, the AMT’s power to raise revenue has made a permanent solution difficult. Repealing the tax entirely would cost the treasury about $70 billion.
This year, the Democrats wanted to offset the AMT’s effect by raising taxes on the very wealthy, particularly on hedge fund managers. Republicans fought that and won, forcing instead a $50 billion increase in the national debt and allowing them to take credit for cutting taxes for 25 million Americans subject to the AMT.
The Washington Post pointed out that former Fed chief Alan Greenspan had credited the Democrats with having the more responsible approach on the AMT. An editorial said, “Republicans have made such a fetish of avoiding tax increases, no matter whose taxes are being increased, no matter for what purpose, that they have lost all sight of the kind of discipline that Mr. Greenspan urges.”
The editorial continued: “For their part, Democrats are so scared of being blamed for letting the AMT hit millions of taxpayers that they’re unwilling to stand up against this irresponsible intransigence. So a group of relatively well-off taxpayers will avoid a tax hike that everyone understood was coming when they received a tax cut six years ago. And their grandchildren can foot the bill.”
A few victories
To be fair, the Democrats didn’t go home this week entirely empty-handed. As the Post pointed out, they sent five of their top six agenda items to the White House this year and got the president’s signature on four of them: a minimum-wage hike, implementation of the 9/11 Commission’s security recommendations, a college cost reduction and an expanded role for alternative energy sources. Bush vetoed federal funding for stem cell research.
Democrats also boosted veterans’ benefits, passed significant ethics and gun control bills, got more money for math and science teachers, added funding cleaning up the devastated Gulf Coast, boosted basic research and got tax relief for those caught in the mortgage crisis.
But they failed on children’s health care and on the biggest item on their six-point agenda — forcing an end to the war in Iraq.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said the failure stemmed from expecting “more Republicans to take an independent stance” on the war. Instead most of them stayed with Bush. Durbin added, perhaps to boost his own Christmas sprit, that many Republicans “will have to carry that with them into [next year’s] election.”
Steve Berg, a former Washington Bureau reporter, national correspondent and editorial writer for the Star Tribune, reports on urban design, transportation and national politics. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.