The Dumb Question That Reporters Need To Ask Republicans About the “Fiscal Cliff”

Sometimes political reporters’ sophistication and knowledge of American politics becomes an impediment to audience understanding. For example, news coverage these days is dominated by the debate between the White House and House Speaker John Boehner over the looming expiration of the Bush tax cuts.

But these articles almost never explain why the Bush tax cuts are expiring. The answer is pretty obvious—they’re expiring because the law was written with a sunset provision in place. But why do that? It seems like an obvious question to ask. But reporters tend not to ask it because everyone who follows American politics closely thinks that we already know. The tax cuts were written with a sunset in place in order to disguise their true cost in a 10-year budget window. But as far as I know, the authors never actually said that on the record and still haven’t said it today. But it seems like a natural issue to raise. After all, if the tax cuts only looked prudent because of scoring window games that constitutes a strong prima facie case for scaling them down.

Even if you don’t buy that, it’s an interesting process story. Suppose that Bush and congressional Republicans had settled for a smaller tax cut without a sunset provision. If they’d done that, President Obama would have low leverage today and no realistic shot of raising taxes. So do Republicans think, in retrospect, that they made a tactical error? Shouldn’t they have locked the low rates into place?