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Why a Handful of Progressive Lawmakers Opposed the Deal

Most progressives in the U.S. Senate and House voted in favor of the "Fiscal Cliff" deal worked out between Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. They did this despite the fact that the agreement compromised on what was supposed to be a hard-and-fast principle: that tax rates on Americans making $250,000 or more must go up to at least the rates that were in place when Bill Clinton was president. Instead, the deal only ends Bush-era tax cuts on those with incomes above $400,000. That rate, thoughtful progressives argue, "does not generate the revenue necessary for the country to meet its needs for everything from education for our children, to job training, to other critical supports for the middle class." 

True, there will be some restoration of tax fairness -- not to mention an extension of unemployment benefits and a delay in across-the-board cuts proposed as part of the so-called "sequester" scheme. That was enough for most congressional progressives, from Senators Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, to Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, and Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, in the House. They voiced their concerns but ultimately voted "yes." Many, like Senator Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, did so with considearble concern.  “Although it does not do as much as I want, this bill does ensure that the wealthy will be contributing more as we work to bring our deficits under control.  I far prefer that choice to further cuts to education, law enforcement, and investments in the infrastructure our economy depends on," Merkley said of the measure. “But let’s be clear: this deal carries great risks as well.  This deal sets up more cliffs in the near future, including the expiring debt ceiling and the sequestration, pre-planned cuts to programs essential to working families. And as before, there will be some who use these cliffs to launch renewed attacks on Medicare and Social Security. We cannot let those attacks succeed."

For a handful of progressives, however, the risks were too great to secure their support.

A few House stalwarts refused to go along with the 257-167 vote on New Year's Day. Among the objectors were Congressman Jim McDermott, D-Washington, and Congressman Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who has a history of breaking with his party's leadership when he deels it has compromised on tax fairness, economic justice and infrastructure investment. Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who chaired the party's platform drafting committee in 2004, said she voted "no" because the bill did not do enough to benefit working families. “I was hopeful that we would be voting on legislation that prioritized working families and the middle class over the wealthiest Americans in taking a balanced approach to the challenges we face as a nation," she explained. "However, the bill before the House of Representatives tonight is not that."

In the Senate, where the vote for the measure was a lopsided 89-8, the one progressive "no" vote was that of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who echoed the view of grassroots groups such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which argued that: "The president ran on and won on $250,000 twice. Voters across the country overwhelmingly agree with the $250,000 threshold (see here). And in real human costs, the billions lost by raising the threshold to $400,000 will come out of the pockets of grandparents and working families across the nation."

Harkin, an old-school populist who worked closely with former Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, outlined his opposition in a statement of principle. Issued at the time of the Senate vote, it read:

Tonight, at the 11th hour, we find ourselves considering legislation to address a manufactured ‘fiscal cliff.’  Much of this could have been avoided had the U.S. House taken up the Senate-passed legislation to avert tax hikes on 98 percent of Americans.

Instead, we find ourselves voting on an agreement that fails to address our number one priority – creating good, middle class jobs in Iowa and throughout the country.  Further, it does not generate the revenue necessary for the country to meet its needs for everything from education for our children, to job training, to other critical supports for the middle class. 

The deal also makes tax benefits for high income earners permanent, while tax benefits designed to help those of modest means and the middle class are only extended for five years.  In essence, this agreement locks in a tax structure that is grossly unfair to middle class Americans, one which provides permanent tax assistance to wealthy Americans, and only temporary relief to everyone else.

Every dollar that wealthy taxpayers do not pay under this deal, we will eventually ask Americans of modest means to forgo in Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid benefits.  It is shortsighted to look at these issues in isolation from one another, especially when Congressional Republicans have been crystal clear that they intend to seek spending cuts to programs like Social Security just two months from now, using the debt limit as leverage.

I am all for compromise, but a compromise that sets a new tax threshold for the wealthiest Americans while neglecting the very backbone of our country – the middle class – is a compromise I simply cannot support. This is the wrong direction for Iowa and our country, and at a time when our fragile economy cannot sustain further damage.