$1.2 trillion in automatic cuts might kick in

Remember the “sequester,” the automatic budget cuts that were supposed to go into effect on January 2 but were kicked down the road to March 1?  The result of last year’s agreement on the national debt and the recent “fiscal cliff” deliberations?  Since the cuts would hit Republican causes (the Pentagon) and Democratic causes (social programs) alike, it was assumed that Congress would get rid of them.  Well, it looks like they may go into effect after all. [Read more...]

The federal program that wouldn’t die

There is a line item in the budget that costs nearly a half million dollars.  Republicans oppose it.  Democrats oppose it.  President Obama wants to kill it.  The House Republican leadership wants to kill it.  And yet, this program has gone on for twenty years and NO ONE CAN END IT. [Read more...]

Republicans go along with raising debt limit

House Republicans decided to adopt a “no drama” policy in regards to raising the debt ceiling:

A measure to suspend the nation’s legal limit on borrowing for nearly four months cleared a key vote in the House Wednesday, as Republicans broadly endorsed a new tactic that would temporarily remove the threat of a potentially calamitous government default from their ongoing fight with Democrats over government spending.

The measure, which would set aside the legal debt ceiling and allow the government to borrow as needed to meet spending obligations through May 18, was adopted on a 285 to 144 vote. [Read more...]

What all is in the Fiscal Cliff bill

The Fiscal Cliff bill did more than extend the Bush tax cuts for everyone except those who make $450,000.  Here is a useful summary of what’s in the new law:

— Tax rates will permanently rise to Clinton-era levels for families with income above $450,000 and individuals above $400,000. All income below the threshold will permanently be taxed at Bush-era rates.

— The tax on capital gains and dividends will be permanently set at 20 percent for those with income above the $450,000/$400,000 threshold. It will remain at 15 percent for everyone else. (Clinton-era rates were 20 percent for capital gains and taxed dividends as ordinary income, with a top rate of 39.6 percent.)

— The estate tax will be set at 40 percent for those at the $450,000/$400,000 threshold, with a $5 million exemption. That threshold will be indexed to inflation, as a concession to Republicans and some Democrats in rural areas like Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mt.).

— The sequester will be delayed for two months. Half of the delay will be offset by discretionary cuts, split between defense and non-defense. The other half will be offset by revenue raised by the voluntary transfer of traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs, which would tax retirement savings when they’re moved over.

— The pay freeze on members of Congress, which Obama had lifted this week, will be re-imposed.

— The 2009 expansion of tax breaks for low-income Americans: the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and the American Opportunity Tax Credit will be extended for five years.

— The Alternative Minimum Tax will be permanently patched to avoid raising taxes on the middle-class.

— The deal will not address the debt-ceiling, and the payroll tax holiday will be allowed to expire.

— Two limits on tax exemptions and deductions for higher-income Americans will be reimposed: Personal Exemption Phaseout (PEP) will be set at $250,000 and the itemized deduction limitation (Pease) kicks in at $300,000.

—The full package of temporary business tax breaks — benefiting everything from R&D and wind energy to race-car track owners — will be extended for another year.

— Scheduled cuts to doctors under Medicare would be avoided for a year through spending cuts that haven’t been specified.

— Federal unemployment insurance will be extended for another year, benefiting those unemployed for longer than 26 weeks. This $30 billion provision won’t be offset.

— A nine-month farm bill fix will be attached to the deal, Sen. Debbie Stabenow told reporters, averting the newly dubbed milk cliff.

via Wonkbook: Everything you need to know about the fiscal cliff deal.

Congress scrambles back up the cliff

Congress stayed up late last night and at 10:35 p.m. voted 257 to 167 to approve the Fiscal Cliff compromise.  And the good thing is that since taxes automatically went up for everyone when the day began, with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts, Congressmen could keep their no-tax-hike pledges because their action was now a tax cut; that is, for everyone except those who make over $450,000. Also, people making over $250,000 may no longer claim the personal exemptions on their tax forms, so their taxes will go up slightly, allowing President Obama to keep his campaign promise.

The bill that had already been approved by the Senate also extended the Farm Bill, backing us away from the Dairy Cliff that would have doubled milk milk prices.  The automatic spending cuts that were scheduled to go into effect when the Bush tax rates expired were postponed for two months.  Nor does it raise the debt ceiling.  Nor does it do much for the deficit.  So the battles and brinkmanship will continue.

via Congress approves ‘fiscal cliff’ measure – The Washington Post.

We have jumped off the cliff

The good news is that the Republican and Democratic leadership seems to have come to an agreement about renewing the Bush tax cuts.  The bad news is that it was impossible logistically to pass a bill before midnight on New Year’s Eve when the cuts expire and automatic spending cuts kicked in.  So we have jumped off the fiscal cliff, though there is hope that Congress will clamber back up it with a retroactive action.  From CNBC:

With no vote likely on Monday night, the U.S. will technically be going over the “fiscal cliff” at midnight, sources told CNBC.

The emerging deal with the Senate would raise tax rates on family income over $450,000 a year, increase the estate tax rate and extend unemployment benefits for one year.

The parties were at an impasse over whether to put off the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts set to begin taking effect at midnight, and if so, how to pay for that. One official said talks were focused on a two-month delay in the across-the-board cuts but negotiators had yet to agree on about $24 billion in savings from elsewhere in the budget.

“Today it appears that an agreement to prevent this middle class tax hike is in sight,” Obama said in an early afternoon appearance from the White House, where he stood in front of cheering supporters.

“Over the next 12 hours, let’s see if we can get this done,” Obama said.

Obama expressed regret that the work of the administration and lawmakers won’t produce a “grand bargain” on tax-and-spend issues, but said that “with this Congress, it couldn’t happen at that time.”

Before he spoke, details of the emerging deal emerged. It would raise $600 billion in revenue over the next 10 years by increasing tax rates for individuals making more than $400,000 and households making above $450,000 annually, officials familiar with the talks said.

The deal would also delay a series of spending cuts known as the “sequester,” though a sticking point remains on how long that delay would last. McConnell said action on the sequester could continue in coming months. “Let’s pass the tax relief portion now, let’s take what’s been agreed to and get moving,” McConnell said.

Other details included increasing the estate tax rate, extending unemployment benefits for one year, officials familiar with the negotiations said. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said an agreement would shield Medicare doctors from a 27 percent cut in fees and extend tax credits for research and development, as well as renewable energy.

The deal also would extend for five years a series of tax credits meant to lessen the financial burden on poorer and middle-class families, including one credit that helps people pay for college.

via Going Over the ‘Cliff,’ but Tax Agreement ‘in Sight’.

We are also going off the Dairy Cliff.   The Farm Bill has also expired when the crystal ball touched down in Times Square.  As a result, a price support mechanism devised in 1949 kicked in, whereby the U.S. government has to buy milk for $7-$8 per gallon in today’s money.  This would more than double the price of milk in the supermarket.  Reportedly, an agreement has been struck that would renew the Farm Bill, though, again, it remains for Congress to act.

The wild card in all of this is whether the party leaders can deliver the votes from their members.  Some Congressional Republicans are said to be upset that spending cuts are not being included, with some Congressional Democrats incensed at the cutoff for higher taxes being raised to $450,000 rather than the $250,000 that President Obama campaigned on.


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