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Editorial: Looking past the fiscal cliff

The nation escaped what was more a bunny slope than a fiscal cliff on Tuesday with a compromise that raised taxes on virtually all Americans through a reversion of the payroll tax to its pre-recession rate and a bump from 36 percent to 39.6 percent in income tax rates for the truly wealthy. As unsatisfying as the deal was, it does mean that some 2 million Americans, including about 2,000 in New Hampshire, will see their unemployment checks continue for a while longer. And since the bill postponed the massive spending cuts slated to begin this week until March 1, defense industry workers and others whose jobs depend on federal contracts won’t be laid off.

What the deal doesn’t mean – can’t be allowed to mean – is that this week’s compromise made the great bulk of the George W. Bush tax cuts permanent. They are only permanent to the extent that the bill carried no sunset provision. President Obama and Congress should now launch a Manhattan Project level effort to reform the nation’s unfair and absurdly complicated tax code and reduce the $16 trillion debt with an attack on three fronts: a reduction in entitlement and defense spending; efforts to spur economic growth that would of itself go a long way toward reducing the deficit; and, as the economy improves, raising taxes on the middle class.

Republicans intent on shrinking the size of government, and the corporate lobbing groups backing them, intend once again to hold raising the debt limit hostage to their demand for major cuts in Medicare and other entitlement spending. The president has warned that he won’t negotiate with the hostage-takers again. He hasn’t said what he would do, but Obama has several options open to him. They include unilaterally raising the debt ceiling on the grounds that the 14th Amendment forbids a president from defaulting on his nation’s financial obligations. That’s an option that a president facing reelection couldn’t be expected to take, but one a president in his or her second term should strongly consider.

Compromising to avoid massive automatic spending cuts and across-the-board tax increases was an unfortunate necessity in an economy that’s only beginning to show steady growth, as both parties saw. But a new Congress takes office today. While Republicans still control the House by a 234-201 margin, they have eight fewer seats, including those once held by New Hampshire Reps. Charlie Bass and Frank Guinta. Republicans also lost two Senate seats, but the 55-45 split there means that unless Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and her allies succeed in changing the compromise-killing filibuster rules, that body could also block progress. That’s a sad reality that must change. We urge Obama and congressional Democrats to make ever effort to sweep aside the obstacles made the 112th Congress one of the least productive in history.

Time wasted on debt ceiling increases that for more than a generation were automatic and obstruction to the detriment of the nation must end. Tax reform is overdue. So are major investments in education and the nation’s infrastructure. And hanging over us all is the reality that climate change will require a major change in how this nation is powered and how best to protect coastal cities from rising seas.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and House Speaker John Boehner, leaders of the Republican effort to thwart progress on tax reform, climate change and just about everything else, are now unpopular in their home states and up for reelection in 2014. To us that means that in coming months, it’s the president who should be calling the tune.

"39.6 percent" is only half 79% the top bracket 50 year average rate prior to the huge tax cut for the wealthy under Reagan, back when the debt began to snowball. We couldn't, and still can't, afford the Reagan or Bush tax cuts or the $trillions it took, and still takes, to finance them. The Tea Party elephants are stomping around in Congress with no clue about where all this debt came from or how to fix the problem - too distracted by counting all their Koch money to do the math.

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