White House photo
Warren Buffett and President Obama in the Oval Office.
The U.S. House of Representatives has a lengthy to-do list. Among the measures the chamber has to tackle before the end of the year is the farm bill, the Violence Against Women Act, postal reform, the soon-to-expire wind tax credit, and trying to avoid a dangerous fiscal cliff. Instead of rolling up their sleeves, however, House Republicans have decided to wrap up early and go home.
But before they go, the GOP majority has a couple of cheap stunts to vote on instead of real work.
The House on Wednesday passed Republicans' own version of the Buffett Rule, which allows wealthy Americans to voluntarily pony up to reduce the deficit.
The bill, labeled the Buffett Rule Act, passed by voice vote, meaning Democrats and Republicans agreed with it. Under the legislation, which would still need Senate approval, taxpayers could check a box on their taxes and send in a check for more than they owe to the IRS.
"If Warren Buffett and others like him truly feel they're not paying enough in taxes, they can use the Buffett Rule Act to put their money where their mouth is and voluntarily send in more to pay down the national debt, rather than changing the entire tax code to inflict more job-killing tax hikes on hard-working Americans," said Rep. Steve Scalise, the Louisiana Republican who wrote the bill.
It's worth emphasizing a nagging detail: the law already allows Americans to send the Treasury extra money to pay down the debt. Yesterday's stunt made Republicans feel better about themselves, but instead of real work, they tackled a symbolic gesture to create an opportunity that already exists.
But the larger problem is just as annoying. Republicans, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R), keep pushing this notion that the very wealthy who support measures like the Buffett Rule in the interest of tax fairness should just "shut up" and donate to the debt if they so choose.
Let's not lose sight of how deeply foolish this is.
It's not that complicated, but GOP policymakers are still struggling with the basics.
The problem that Buffett and other wealthy people are trying to solve by calling for higher taxes on their class isn't simply that they as individuals would like to be contributing more towards the tax burden, but can't. Rather, the problem as they've identified it is a society-wide one: We need a massive boost in revenues to keep society functioning at acceptable levels and to address profound and intractable fiscal problems that threaten the country's future.
This problem will not be solved if Warren Buffett writes a check. Buffett's point is that the scale of the problem requires his class as a whole to chip in a bit more to solve it.
We're a massive, modern nation with a vast economy, a large debt, and by modern standards, low taxes. We face real challenges, but they're not the kind of challenges individuals can hope to resolve on their own, piecemeal. Whether Republicans understand this or not, we need cooperative solutions built around shared action.
Making additional tax contributions voluntarily -- in other words, asking for a little more only from those willing to pay a little more -- is ridiculous. The wealthy can afford modest tax increases, which in turn can help pay down the debt Republicans pretend to care about, while shielding many of those who can least afford to take another hit.