Amid ‘fiscal cliff,’ different shades of meaning prevail in defining country’s challenges

WASHINGTON — House Speaker John Boehner earlier this week proclaimed his willingness to talk about “new revenues,” a sign many interpreted to mean he would be open to raising taxes — and perhaps to raising income tax rates on the wealthy.

A day later, he seemed to quash that talk, saying that “raising tax rates is unacceptable.”

In the nuanced world of politics, where every word is parsed, the same language can sometimes take on different meanings, depending on from which side of the aisle it is spoken. Such notions as what constitutes a tax increase or budget cut is muddled in politics.


“There’s a massive amount of confusion out there,” said David Gergen of the Harvard Kennedy School, who notes misunderstanding about what Boehner has said.

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Both sides have talked about overhauling the tax code and entitlements, using the word “reform,” Gergen said, as a euphemism for either spending cuts or raising taxes.

But defining what that means exactly has been difficult, mainly because neither side is yet willing to show its cards — even as both sides say they want to put everything on the table.

“At this point, I don’t know what Speaker Boehner was talking about when he was saying he was open to increases in revenue,” said Philip Joyce, a public policy professor at the University of Maryland and former staffer of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

There are many ways to generate new streams of cash, and only broad outlines have been mentioned. Proponents of supply-side economics contend that cuts in tax rates spur economic growth and thus yield “new revenues” for government coffers.


Some Democrats had seized on Boehner’s earlier comments as a willingness by the Republican speaker to raise rates on income taxes on the wealthy, as President Obama has proposed.

The speaker’s press secretary, Michael Steel, said there should be no confusion: Boehner wants tax rates to come down.

“The speaker is probably the most straightforward person in Washington, D.C.,” Steel said. “All you have to do is listen to understand what he means.”

At a news conference on Friday, Boehner was purposefully vague about how a cleaner tax code could raise revenue. He talked generally about closing loopholes and streamlining the tax rules, but has yet to define how he would do so.

“I don’t want to box myself in. I don’t want to box anybody else in,” Boehner said, adding that he did not “want to limit the options that would be available to me or limit the options that might be available to the White House.


“There are a lot of ways to get there, and I don’t really want to preclude anyone with a good idea on how we move forward.”

‘There’s a massive amount of confusion out there.’

On Friday, the president himself sounded unequivocal: “We can’t just cut our way to prosperity.  If we’re serious about reducing the deficit, we have to combine spending cuts with revenue — and that means asking the wealthiest Americans to pay a little more in taxes.” But he stopped short of saying how much more.

Democrats have yet to define the extent to which they will agree to cut spending, particularly expensive entitlements such as Medicare.

During the presidential campaign, there were repeated charges from Mitt Romney that Obama “robbed Medicare” by cutting $716 billion from the program’s providers and insurers during 10 years.

Obama termed the reduction a cost savings — as did Representative Paul Ryan in describing his own Medicare spending reductions.

With the election over, however, there were new battles.

Obama in his White House speech praised Boehner for the speaker’s willingness to “agree that tax revenue has to be part of this equation.”

In the end, Americans, the president said, “won’t tolerate politicians who view compromise as a dirty word.”

But, soon, even the meaning of “compromise” could be open to debate.

Bobby Caina Calvan can be reached at bobby.calvan@globe.com. Follow him on twitter @GlobeCalvan.