The biggest challenge facing Democrats in Congress this year is probably also the most boring. They're going to have to deal with taxes.
I'm not the only one obsessed with this. Really, I'm not. Edmund L. Andrews got into it in the New York Times on Jan. 4, noting that the new Democratic leadership is utterly ducking the question of how to handle some of the major fiscal headaches that are going to rear their ugly heads.
Bear with me while we run some numbers.
The Iraq War is going to cost $100 billion in 2007, maybe more if Bush gets his troop "surge." Fixing the problem that causes more and more middle-class people to shoulder an extra tax burden under the alternative minimum tax will cost $50 billion. The Bush tax cuts which the president wants to make permanent are another huge-ticket item, maybe $170 billion a year (based on estimates from the Brookings Institution).
So that's $320 billion to deal with even before the Democrats spend a penny on any new initiatives or so much as talk about making Social Security solvent.
And, of course, there's a $340 billion budget deficit, which keeps adding to the federal debt, which is a number so big that nobody can really comprehend it, so I won't bother here except to say that the interest payments alone are $400 billion a year.
The Democrats have already announced they want to see any new spending come with a revenue source and any new tax cut proposals identify reductions in existing spending that would pay for them. All well and good except that the Iraq War isn't part of the federal budget. Bush just keeps coming back for money every few months, and Democrats who don't want to be accused of refusing to support the troops in the field wind up voting to give him all of it.
Now let's go to the political calculus, which is even uglier.
The only major politician I know of in the last electoral cycle who talked honestly about taxes and government spending was Phil Angelides, who (as some of you may remember) ran for governor of California. He was slaughtered.
That's why the Times reports the following:
"Even as Democratic leaders continue to accuse Mr. Bush of having a reckless fiscal policy, they have refused to discuss dismantling his tax cuts or even to engage in a debate with him about the best way to stimulate economic growth.
" 'It's always the same old tired line with them "Tax and spend, tax and spend, tax and spend," ' said Senator Kent Conrad, the North Dakota Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. 'We're not going there.' "
No, so far they're not. They're just moving ahead, making promises and proposing policy, without saying either that spending on Iraq has to be cut dramatically or that somebody has to pay more taxes to fund it.
Even by Bush's most optimistic projections, the national budget will be in the red until 2012. By then he and his crew will all be safe on the golf course, their retirements secure.
And apparently, the Democratic leaders are willing to continue to duck, continue to go into debt, continue to screw up the economy, and continue to burden our kids with the results of our greed, fear, and stupidity.