"Read my lips: No new taxes," George H. W. Bush famously said on the occasion of receiving the Republican nomination for president in 1988. It was a six-word pledge that rallied the party and excited the electorate, and the party has been trying to reclaim it since Bush reneged to get a budget through a Democratically controlled Congress in 1990.
Bush's backtracking helped spark an ideological crusader mentality in the GOP, which holds that taxes are repugnant and compromise is even worse. A huge majority of Republicans running for high office sign an absolutist no-new-taxes pledge drafted by super lobbyist Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform. They kept their promise of "Read my lips: No new taxes, and this time we mean it!" after they took over Congress in 1994, throughout the deficit-engorging presidency of the second President Bush and into the recent tax-cut extension and debt ceiling hostage crises. But they're breaking their oath now — or at least modifying it into "Read my lips: No new taxes on the rich!"
The party that launched a procedural jihad when President Obama suggested ending tax breaks on corporate jets is trying to block an extension of a cut on payroll taxes for those who filed a tax return last year but did not owe anything. That's 76 million people, but who, due to mostly low incomes and/or financial burdens that resulted in exemptions, were off the hook for federal income taxes. U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) explained to the Associated Press, "[N]ot all tax relief is created equal for the purposes of helping to get the economy moving again."
Recently, the party has gone hard-ass on those whose pay is too low to owe. Said Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the current presidential frontrunner, "We're dismayed at the injustice that nearly half of all Americans don't even pay any income tax." Said U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, his goggly-eyed competitor, "Part of the problem is today, only 53 percent pay any federal income tax at all; 47 percent pay nothing. We need to broaden the base so that everybody pays something, even if it's a dollar."
These comments aren't exactly correct. Perry and Bachmann mean half of all tax-return filers. It's actually three quarters of the total population that do not pay any net federal income taxes. Take all 316 million people in the U.S. Half earn between $0 and $10,000 a year and thus do not have to file a return. They include children, retirees, stay-at-home parents, the hardcore un-and-underemployed and other non-earners (or near non-earners). Of the half that have to file, the tax code demands something from 53 percent and lets off 47 percent (who aren't exempt from all sorts of other taxes, like sales and property taxes). It's that 47 percent of a half — 76 million highly-burdened and/or low-income people — the GOP wants to raise a tax on. But as they simultaneously target the deficit and bow to the rich, Republicans will probably broaden the tax base to include the homeless, grade-schoolers and people in comas.
The hypocrisy and feudalistic cruelty of only supporting tax increases on the poor aside, it's bad fiscal policy. Hensarling is right: Not all economic relief equally boosts the economy — assisting the poor is better. Last year, the Congressional Budget Office ranked 11 public policy options for the benefit of creating economic momentum. Number 11 was extending George W. Bush's tax breaks for the rich. Number 1 was extending unemployment benefits to the poor. The reason is simple: Put money in the hands of the wealthy and they can spend it, save it, invest it in a foreign country or bathe in it like Scrooge McDuck. Give it to the poor and they get the holes in their roof patched or start buying cans of food without dents in them. That money goes into the economy because it has nowhere else to go. Further hamper those required spenders and you further hamper the economy. Besides, we already tried to sustain our entire society by siphoning money from the poor. It was called the subprime mortgage crisis.
George H.W. Bush broke his word to raise taxes on gasoline and on the incomes of the richest 2 percent. It arguably cost him his reelection. Republicans better hope Americans are more forgiving of breaking a no-new-taxes pledge next year. They need to make up for the 76 million votes they just lost.