Why are Republicans suddenly complaining about what should, by their logic, be a success story for them? Why have Mitt Romney and all the other GOP pearl-clutchers gotten the vapors over the 47 per cent of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes? After all, if you follow Republican dogma all the way through to its logical conclusion, Republicans are supposed to be working hard every day to reduce taxes on everybody, all of the time. “Reducing” taxes is one thing, but the ultimate in reduction is complete elimination, right? Republicans really do believe that America would be better off if everyone’s taxes got as close to zero as possible. So why aren’t they ecstatic that they’ve achieved half their goal?
Think about it. At the heart of Mitt Romney’s new argument is a complete disconnect with the core, unshakeable tenet of the Republican faith — “lower taxes for all.” What Mitt Romney is arguing, when stripped of heated rhetoric, is that it is a bad thing that 47 per cent don’t pay federal income taxes, and that it would be a good thing if those people actually did pay federal income taxes — thus arguing for raising taxes on half of the country. There is no way to escape this — you are either for raising taxes, or you are for lowering taxes. Mitt Romney is now, apparently, for raising taxes on tens of millions of people. He really can’t have it both ways.
One might argue that Mitt Romney and the Republicans are upset over the 47 per cent because they’re really only about lowering taxes on the very wealthy, and don’t really care about anyone else’s tax burden. It’s certainly a valid argument to attempt.
But when Ronald Reagan passed his signature tax reform in 1986, two groups stood to receive most of the benefits: the very poor, and the very wealthy. The Washington Post reported this at the time: “Congress and President Reagan began the process with a commitment to remove from the tax rolls virtually all people living below the poverty line. In the bill approved last weekend, almost half of the $120 billion in individual tax relief over six years would go to people earning less than $20,000.” The widely-reported figure for how many would drop off the tax rolls back then was 6.5 million people who didn’t make much money and would now pay zero federal income taxes.
President Reagan had a Democratic Congress to work with, it is worth remembering. Politics played a key part in the negotiations. Reagan and the Republicans got a large reduction in the top income tax rates by balancing it with large reductions in the tax rolls at the very bottom of the scale. The middle class didn’t get much out of the deal, it also bears pointing out.
Since then, Republicans have almost always tossed into the tax reform mix this relief at the bottom. Again, politically, it made sense — because it served to counter Democratic complaints that most of the benefits of Republican tax reform always went to the ultra-wealthy. Republicans could point to the bottom and say “See, all these people who don’t make much won’t have to pay any tax at all under our plan.”
Reagan knew it was good politics, and the Washington Post reported that he even campaigned on it to groups that would be the first to see the effects:
White House officials said Reagan plans to stress the tax measure during the next few weeks in speeches devoted to the theme that administration policies are especially beneficial to young Americans, a target group for Republicans in this year’s elections.
A senior official said that Reagan is doing this because he wants to be “associated with the new and the productive, the youth of America” and that this emphasis on youth dovetails with promoting the tax bill.
There are two gut-busting, knee-slapping ironies in hearing Mitt Romney and his fellow Republicans complain now about the 47 per cent. The first, as mentioned, is the fact that Republicans seem to be positioning themselves as champions of raising taxes on tens of millions of working Americans.
The second grand irony is that Republicans are complaining about it in the first place. Republican policies — Republican tax cuts and tax reforms over the years — are the largest force which has expanded the number of people who pay no federal income taxes. To put it another way, this is how it was supposed to work. So why aren’t Republicans touting their “success” to the skies now? Why aren’t they bragging that Republicans have cut federal income taxes to zero for almost half of Americans, and that they’ll be redoubling their efforts to raise that number substantially in the days ahead?
What passes for Republican logic is awfully hard to figure out, at times. Tax cuts are always supposed to be good, and the ultimate tax cut is to not have to pay taxes at all. Which, again, should be a good thing in Republicanland. In fact, their own policies — dating back to Ronald Reagan himself — have created this situation. So why are they complaining about it now?
[Note: My apologies for not providing links with this article, but I did my research on a database site with a paywall. The first Washington Post quote comes from the article “For Tax-Overhaul Conferees, Major Task Was Defining ‘Middle America’ ” (August 24, 1986), and the longer quote was from “To Tax Bill’s Passage; President Urges Congress to Rebuff Lobbyists’ Attempts To Amend Senate Proposal” (May 15, 1986).]
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