Bargaining vs. Hostage Taking

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When it comes to the temporary Bush tax cuts on the rich, Republicans insist that allowing them to expire would be a tax increase that they’re flatly unwilling to even consider. However, when it comes to the temporary Obama payroll tax cut on the middle class, they say that letting it expire is OK. It’s not a tax increase in this case, and our looming budget deficit is so critical that we can’t afford to keep it in place. Steve Benen comments:

If I had to guess, I’d say Republicans probably support an extension of the payroll tax cut, but just aren’t willing to say so. Why not? Because then they lose leverage — GOP officials know the White House wants this, and if they simply agree to pass the measure, they won’t get anything extra out of the deal. Hostage strategies have become an instinctual norm for Republicans.

I think I’d take issue with this in two ways. First, I’m honestly not sure Republicans do support an extension of the payroll tax cut. Historically, their focus has always been on upper-income marginal rates, and they’ve never brought quite the same fervor to middle class levies like the payroll tax or the gasoline tax as they have to things like capital gains taxes and estate taxes. They’re just really, really focused on keeping taxes on the rich low.

But even if this is just a bargaining ploy, it’s not fair to call it a “hostage strategy.” In the case of the debt ceiling fight, that was appropriate language because Republicans were genuinely threatening fiscal Armageddon if they didn’t get their way. That’s hostage taking. The payroll tax debate, conversely, is just garden variety politics. Presidents and members of Congress have bargained over stuff like this forever, and it’s perfectly normal to play hardball in order to seek the strongest advantage for your own side. This is logrolling and dealmaking and favor trading, not hostage taking.

What’s more, it’s a good thing. Frankly, we could use a little more logrolling and dealmaking and favor trading, not less. The fact that Republicans these days are so unwilling to make compromises of any kind is a major cause of our current legislative paralysis. I’d like to see more of it, not less, no matter how shrewdly the game is played.

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