At the start of the year, Barack Obama’s team announced, to some significant fanfare, that the president wanted 40 percent of the stimulus package, or about $300 billion, to come in the form of tax cuts.
On Friday, the Congressional Budget Office scored the bill passed out of the House last week. It contains only $182.3 billion of tax cuts, or about 22 percent of the total cost. A previous CBO review of the bill, when it was introduced days earlier in the House, had a slightly larger figure for tax cuts, $211.8 billion, or about 26 percent. A week before that, on January 15, the top tax writer in the House, Democratic Rep. Charlie Rangel, announced that the stimulus bill would include $275 billion in tax cuts. This is what mathematicians, accountants and your local dive bar bookie would call a trend: 300 –> 275 –> 212 –> 182. [Updated Correction (2/3): This trend is, it turns out, misleading, since the CBO, the White House, and Rangel all use different accounting procedures to estimate the size of the tax cut provisions in the bill. For further explanation of the differences, click here.]
Now the White House says correctly that the House-passed bill is just an imperfect first step, and the stimulus package will be changed as it goes through the Senate and then gets renegotiated in the conference committee. (White House spokesman Robert Gibbs is still non-committal about how much Obama will be involved in this process.) So it’s too early to know whether these latest figures — 22 percent, $182 billion — will have any meaning in the end.
Maybe they are just opening gambits by House Democratic appropriators like Rep. David Obey and tax writers like Rangel to show who is boss when it comes to the U.S. Treasury. Maybe they give Obama room to ride in on his bipartisan white horse in the final hours to make peace with tax cut-hungry Republicans. Or maybe, just maybe, they are the first clear sign of just how hard Obama is going to find his task of controlling his own party’s Congressional leadership, a problem that always dogged and eventually damaged President George W. Bush. We shall find out soon enough.