Some conservatives oppose Republicans cutting a deal to avert the "fiscal cliff" because they are convinced that the GOP would be in a better bargaining position if America went over it. Some of them would oppose cutting a deal, even if it means the outcome could be worse in the new year. According to this strain of thinking, Republicans made a commitment to voters not to raise taxes, defining a tax increase as any legislation that does not extend all current tax rates. They don't want to break this pledge under any circumstances.
It's this thought process that drove a critical mass of conservative members of the House of Representatives -- many fearing potential primary challenges -- to reject Speaker John Boehner's "Plan B" approach, which would have protected all income below $1 million from a tax increase. These conservatives object to allowing taxes to go up for income beyond that.
As the nation enters the new year, conservatives are grappling with some uncomfortable realities. President Obama was re-elected, and Democrats maintained control of the Senate. They're determined to see taxes go up on higher-income earners. Obama and his Democratic allies are aided further by a quirk in the Bush-era tax cuts that made them only temporary. If no deal is struck, it would mean a $4.5 trillion tax hike for all Americans, which compares with the $300 billion to $400 billion in higher taxes for less than 1 percent of Americans under Boehner's Plan B.
But here's the rub. If Republicans had voted for Plan B on Thursday, many conservative activists would have attacked them for agreeing to raise taxes. But after Jan. 1, once taxes go up, Republicans could strike a deal with Obama that would raise revenue by double or triple the amount of Plan B, and it wouldn't technically break any promise. In other words, this whole debate is being driven not by whether conservatives could get a better deal before or after the new year, but by the technicality that the same piece of legislation that would be construed as a tax hike on Dec. 31 would be considered a tax cut on Jan. 1.
This is a short-sighted way of approaching legislation. Conservatives should not slavishly bow to technicalities, but rather keep taxes as low as possible for as many people as possible under difficult circumstances. Conservatives want Americans to keep more of their earnings, rather than give more money to government. And from a longer-term policy perspective, they should want the Congressional Budget Office's baseline revenue projections to come out of this fight as low as possible, so that future tax reform can be based around a lower revenue target.
It is important that politicians honor campaign commitments, but they should first heed the principles behind those commitments. The entire point of having pledges not to raise taxes is to keep the tax burden on Americans as low as possible. Given the current inevitability of a tax increase, with or without Republican cooperation, that principle should trump any technicality.