WASHINGTON — To be deemed a serious analyst at the moment seems to require a lot of hand-wringing and sneering over how awful Congress looked over the last few days as it rushed a fiscal cliff deal into law.
So permit me to burn my membership card in the League of Commentators and Pundits.
Of course, there was much wrong about how Congress, particularly the House of Representatives, dealt with the best-known deadline in recent political history. A better deal was available weeks ago. But in the end, some very important and positive things happened.
Democracy, in its messy way, worked. An election had a real impact on public policy, moving it in a more progressive direction. Thus, for the first time since 1990, a significant number of Republicans voted to raise taxes — and they raised them most on the very rich. House Speaker John Boehner allowed a bill to become law on a vote in which far more Democrats (172) than Republicans (85) said “aye.” The old rule that Republicans would only allow floor action on bills that could pass with GOP votes was swept away, at least this time.
The cliff deal made our tax code more progressive. The top income tax rate is back up to 39.6 percent. Capital gains taxes, cut repeatedly since the 1970s, were raised. Consider: The provisions enacted Tuesday night combined with the tax hike in the Affordable Care Act mean that capital gains taxes will now be 18.8 percent for couples with annual incomes of more than $250,000 and 23.8 percent for couples earning over $450,000.
True, Democrats caved in by failing to tax dividends as ordinary income, as they used to be. Capital gains should also be taxed as ordinary income, or, at the least, at around 30 percent. But is this progress? The answer is yes.
There are other pieces of good news in the bill, including an extension of unemployment benefits and the various refundable tax credits that are especially helpful to lower-income people. The estate tax rises to 40 percent on fortunes of more than $5 million. Yes, it’s still too low. But at the end of George W. Bush’s term, we were looking at a complete repeal of the estate tax. Isn’t 40 percent better than zero?