What Are We Still Doing Here?

It’s looking an awful lot like Congress won’t pass any fiscal cliff legislation tonight and the Bush tax rates will expire as scheduled at midnight. And yet the Senate is still buzzing and both parties seem to be charging ahead as if nothing changes in six and a half hours.

I’ll admit I’m a bit mystified by this.Just a few days ago, for instance, House Republicans were incapable of passing John Boehner’s Plan B — to lock in all the Bush tax rates except for income above $1 million. He failed, by his own admission, because many in his conference were convinced that voting for Plan B meant voting for a tax increase.

That all changes at midnight. This isn’t just a question of silly legislative baseline games or technical issues for a bill writers. The law really will change at midnight. If Congress never passes another tax bill, the Treasury will collect several trillion more dollars in revenue this coming decade than it would under any fiscal cliff plan either party has offered.

At midnight, a resurrected (and purely hypothetical) Plan B becomes a tax cut, full stop. More importantly, after midnight Democrats will have to ask themselves whether they have any interest in accepting the deal Mitch McConnell negotiated with the White House — which after all was premised on the need to prevent all of the Bush tax cuts from expiring.

Shouldn’t that change the parties’ strategic thinking?

There’s still a chance, I suppose, that the Senate could pass a bill in the next few hours and the House could take it up right away. But it’s the thinnest of chances.

Still, let’s assume for the sake of argument that neither Democrats nor Republicans have a problem with stumbling past the New Year’s Eve deadline and will agree to the spirit of the White House/McConnell deal in January. The question remains, what’s the point of passing anything at all tonight?

For one thing the law changes at midnight and the House will be altering a different legislative backdrop than the one the Senate is working with as I write this. That presumably creates a technical problem for bill writers that disappear next year (though aides aren’t certain of that). But even ignoring the arcane requirements of bill writing, if the same White House/McConnell deal we’ve all been hearing about will be just as good tomorrow as it is today, then why burn the midnight oil?