Back in early October, I wrote about how President Obama unveiled a new piece of legislation known as the “Buffet Rule.” It went away for a bit, and now it’s back, kind of. A procedural vote took place in the Senate Monday evening, but there were not enough votes to end the filibuster. It is unlikely any decisive vote will ever be taken on the Bill this year, but I think it is important to discuss because it defines the parties goals. The Bill is formally called the ‘Paying a Fair Share Act of 2012’, and its stated purpose is “[t]o reduce the deficit by imposing a minimum effective tax rate for high-income taxpayers.”
The street name for the Bill, the Buffett Rule, is named for the billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who advocates higher taxes on the very wealthy. The Bill would require that taxpayers with at least $2 million in adjusted gross income pay a minimum rate of 30%. Those earning between $1 million and $2 million would pay a higher rate on a sliding scale, but not necessarily a 30% minimum.
When I first wrote about the Bill I said that it would not pass both houses, not much money would be raised, and that it was effectively about politics and nothing else. This is all still true, but I neglected to emphasize that symbolic legislation is sometimes important legislation.
Republican pundits have trashed the Buffet Rule as a joke and a gimmick. Republican National Committee Chairman, Reince Priebus, characterized the proposal as smoke and mirrors. Charles Krauthammer, Pulitzer Prize winning syndicated columnist, political commentator, and physician wrote an article called the “Buffett Rule redistributes chairs on Titanic.” He says the rule is a farce, counterproductive and politically toxic. An editorial by InvestmentNews says the “rule is a stinker.”
U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said the Buffet Rule will not hurt the economy by stifling investment and growth. President Obama explains that the measure is about fairness, deficit reduction and economic growth. However, the Wall Street Journal reports that a new congressional estimate says many millionaires would be able to avoid the tax even if it does pass. Nonetheless, even if the Bill does what it is intended to do, it will ‘only’ raise $47 billion over ten years.
Many economists think the only way we can get our fiscal house in order is through a combination of new revenues and spending cuts – which demands breaking the GOP’s unrelenting opposition to even consider new taxes. Perhaps the only way to fix our budget is to make this continued political opposition unsustainable. 60% of Americans support a minimum 30% tax rate for Americans with a household income of $1 million or more per year. A public duel over the Buffet Rule might expose Republican extremism to an absurd length.
The Republican position is simple: raising taxes is a job killer. I consider myself a moderate, though I think the taxes = job killing is a weak argument. Nonetheless, wherever you sit, voters deserve to hear both sides. The Buffet Rule is representative of a larger debate – one that has to be resolved one way or another as a crippling deficit is a threat to American civilization.
Pundits who ridicule the rule as ‘political’ or ‘class warfare’ should explain why 270 members of Congress swore a pledge from Grover Norquist never to raise taxes and how they expect to keep their seats without looking absurd in a battle like this. We need to fix our deficit, and while the Buffet Rule might be just political, if anything, it underscores the need for both sides to work together.