This recent fight over extending the George W. Bush tax cuts is a reminder that, from a long-term policy perspective, hyper-partisan legislative overreach is extremely effective. Instead of trying to create a great bipartisan concession before doing something, you are often more likely to get broad consensus post facto once you force the system to accept a changed reality.
The part of the Bush tax cuts passed in 2003–the “Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003″–was perhaps the best example in the last decade of hyper-partisan “legislative overreach.”
The bill passed both chambers on nearly party-line votes. The Senate voted 50-50 on the bill and it only passed when Vice President Dick Cheney cast the tie-breaking vote.
Passing the massive tax cuts required Republicans to disregard decades of Senate rules and tradition. The budget reconciliation procedure was meant to only be used to reduce the deficit, yet Republicans bent the process to their will to avoid a filibuster on massive, deficit-increasing tax cuts.
It was pure hyper partisan legislative hardball. It was the total antithesis of consensus and centrism.
If ever there were a law that should have been unpopular under the weird interpretation of politics that popularly spawns centrism, bipartisanship, and consensus, it was the Bush tax cuts. No law was more completely “jammed down our throats” in an act of partisan overreach.
Yet, with everyone in the system quickly forced to face the changed conditions, it rapidly won a de facto broad bipartisan consensus. By the 2008 campaign, then-candidate Barack Obama effectively said the tax cuts opposed by almost all Democrats five years earlier were mostly really good, except a handful for the richest one percent.
When almost every Democrat thought in 2003 it would be better if none of these tax cuts were enacted, it is now considered by the media a radical, left-wing position to say they should all expire. Even in the House, the “liberal” alternative to the estate tax, which didn’t have sufficient support, was to only keep the estate tax at the lowest Bush level instead of lowering it further. What were once moderate Democratic positions on tax rates are now painted as radically leftist.
This is even more amazing given the nature of the tax cuts’ design. Our system traditionally has a very strong status quo bias because there are so many veto points to stop an attempt to change existing law, but, in this case, it is the exact opposite. The tax cuts are set to expire so all it would take to end them is a mere 41 senators standing against them, a majority in the House voting no, or a presidential veto.
In politics, you don’t need to negotiate a grand compromise beforehand to achieve broad consensus in the long run.
If you simply change reality as quickly as possible, by any means, regardless how partisan, you will likely soon create a new “moderate” position around maintaining this new status quo you created.
In the long run, tangible reality is what matters in politics, not whether voters think a party followed the arcane and nonsensical rules of the Senate, or the eventual roll call vote that less than one percent of the country would ever remember.