Tax Talk Goes Orwellian
Published: February 4, 2006
President Bush had it exactly backwards in his speech Tuesday night when he exhorted lawmakers to keep cutting taxes. He noted that when the going gets tough, leaders are tempted to take stands that are crowd pleasing yet counterproductive, like championing protectionism in the face of global competition. Fair enough.
But then he warned that in today's uncertain times, lawmakers might even be tempted to do something as weak-kneed as "increasing taxes."
If Mr. Bush is trying to say that tax cutting is politically courageous, that ignores reality. Politicians cut taxes to please the crowd, and they are always and understandably reluctant to vote against a cut or — gasp — vote for a tax increase because that could make them unpopular. Mr. Bush knows that. He was basically warning the assembled lawmakers, actually the Republicans, that they would never make the cheerleading squad if they didn't extend his temporary tax cuts.
We hope Congress will realize that extending the tax cuts would be an act of political cowardice, not courage. The country is already deep in debt, and the tax cuts are largely to blame. In the next two weeks, the administration expects to hit the nation's legal debt limit — $8,184,000,000,000 — and has told Congress it needs to vote to raise the debt ceiling to nearly $9 trillion, a 51 percent increase since 2001, when Mr. Bush took office. Congress must raise the limit or the government will default. But Congressional leaders are looking for ways to downplay the vote, precisely because it's a disgrace.
Casting the tax cuts in stone now would be particularly craven because they don't expire for another three to five years. But Mr. Bush and his supporters in Congress are hot to act now. That is because the cuts they want to extend the most — special low tax rates for investment income — overwhelmingly enrich the rich and will be even harder to justify in the years to come, when, by all reasonable estimates, the country's financial outlook will have deteriorated further. The tax cutters are not being brave. They are afraid they won't get their way if they wait.