There are probably few people more relieved that Congress reached a deal on the tax component of the so-called fiscal cliff than newly elected Ventura County Congresswoman Julia Brownley, who can now enjoy being sworn in tomorrow and hosting a little party in her new office afterward without having to worry about having to vote on a monumental tax bill in her first day or two on the job.
Instead, she and the 80 other new members of Congress will get six weeks or so to get their feet on the ground before being asked to help tackle the remaining fiscal obstacles that include a spending-cut approach less draconian than sequestration, the raising of the debt ceiling and a new appropriations bill that will be needed to avert a partial government shutdown. All of that, by the way, will have to get done by late February or early March.
A recent analysis by the New York Times data geek extraordinaire Nate Silver suggests that, politically speaking, Brownley might be more motivated than most of her colleagues to participate in a compromise.
Using presidential election results over the last 20 years as a barometer, Silver shows the degree to which the House of Representatives has become more polarized -- and why, based solely on their personal political interests, members are far less motivated to compromise. He notes that the number of what he refers to as "landslide districts" (in which the districtwide vote for president diverged 20 percentage points or more from the national popular vote) has grown from 123 to 242 over the last two decades. At the same time, the number of "swing districts" (defined as a districtwide presidential vote that was within 5 percentage points of the national popular vote) has declined from 103 to 35.
By that definition, Brownley's 26th District does not qualify as a "swing district." President Obama's winning vote margin in Ventura County's 26th District was 10 percentage points, or 7 percentage points above his nationwide popular vote victory of 50.8 percent to 47.5 percent.
Using Silver's construct, the 26th is a "leans Democratic" district -- but there are precious few districts these days that qualify only as "leaning" toward one party or the other. He counts 24 such Democratic districts and 29 such Republican districts.
Based solely on personal political motivation, those 35 members from swing districts and 53 members from "leaning" districts should be the most amenable to participating in a bipartisan deal. Arguably, the rest have more political motivation to hold fast to the party line no matter what -- because they are more in danger of being challenged in a primary election than in the general election.
And one more thought on the fiscal-cliff tax bill that received final passage in the House on New Year's Day. It's poetically appropriate that perhaps the most immediately significant piece of that bill is one that has been reported on the least over the last few days. The piece that will have the biggest impact on most Americans is the elimation of a tax cut that hardly anyone talked about when it was enacted -- President Obama's payroll tax holiday that was part of the federal stimulus package. That increased the takehome pay of all Americans who make less than $110,100 by 2 percent for the last three years.
That tax cut was so little reported on and so infrequently discussed that pre-election polls showed that a plurality of voters mistakenly believed that taxes had gone up, rather than down, during the Obama administration.
It was an unsustainable tax cut, since it reduced the amount of money going into the Social Security Trust Fund. But its elimination means that most folks' takehome pay will drop 2 percent this year -- and since most American workers pay more in Social Security taxes than they do in income taxes, that will have a bigger effect on them than if income tax rates had been allowed to go up across the board instead of just for the wealthy.