House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's recent assertion that any disaster relief for Hurricane Irene would have to be offset with spending cuts elsewhere sparked a great deal of outrage, especially in the progressive sectors of the blogosphere.
On one level Cantor's position is no surprise. Paying for emergency disaster relief used to be standard operating procedure in Washington, because it would be inconceivable that the federal government would force the states and individuals to shoulder the burden alone. But with the new GOP House majority, Washington has new rules. Now when there's a policy objective that enjoys bipartisan support—avoiding a government shutdown or default, for example, or providing disaster relief—the GOP will use it as a hostage to extract their partisan policy objectives.
More broadly, people look askance at Cantor and the GOP for previously supporting (but not paying for) disaster relief, a pair of foreign wars, an expansion of Medicare, and the Bush tax cuts, and then finding their inner fiscal hawks when a Democrat entered the White House. (Robert's 10th Rule of Politics: A party's dedication to fiscal responsibility is inversely proportional to its political power.)
Of course the GOP still wants to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, at a cost of $4 trillion over 10 years. If pushing budget-busting tax cuts while carrying the banner of fiscal austerity on issues like disaster relief seems like cognitive dissonance, it is. But that's today's GOP.
Take taxes. Last month's Iowa GOP presidential debate provided a defining moment for the party. The assembled would-be nominees were asked if they would accept tax increases if there were $10 in spending cuts for every dollar of new revenues. To a person, they refused. This came days after the conclusion of the debt ceiling crisis, which had been deliberately manufactured by House Republicans, and which had turned on their flat refusal to accept any tax increase. And it came after months of pious declarations that one never, ever, ever raises taxes on a soft economy (the experiences of Presidents Reagan in 1982 and Clinton in 1993 apparently notwithstanding).
And yet the GOP now wants to raise taxes, both in the immediate term and as a broader matter of principle.
They oppose, for example, President Obama's call to prolong the payroll tax cut enacted last year when the (temporary) Bush tax cuts were extended. Ordinarily, American workers pay 6.2 percent of their wages in a tax that funds Social Security, with their employers matching the amount. For 2011, that rate was cut to 4.2 percent. The logic is simple: The poor and working class are most likely to pump extra disposable income back into the economy, making the tax cut a more efficient stimulant than, say, rate cuts for the wealthy. It's as broad-based a tax cut as can be imagined, as it benefits virtually everyone who works, even those who don't earn enough to pay income taxes. So of course Republicans oppose its extension, preferring to allow a broad-based tax hike to go into effect in the new year. "Not all tax relief is created equal," Rep. Jeb Hensarling, the House's fourth-ranking Republican, told the Associated Press, while others cited fiscal concerns. Extending the tax holiday, which cost $67.2 billion this year and a total of $111.7 billion over 10 years, would be fiscally irresponsible while extending the Bush tax cuts is sound policy? Not all tax cuts are created equal indeed.
And this isn't an isolated instance of the GOP breaking from its usual anti-tax orthodoxy. The truth is that many leading Republicans yearn to raise taxes on working-class and poor Americans.
"We're dismayed at the injustice that nearly half of all Americans don't even pay any income tax," Texas Gov. Rick Perry intoned last month when announcing for president. What to do? Here's Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann: "We need to broaden the base so that everybody pays something, even if it's a dollar." More recently, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman approvingly cited Florida Sen. Marco Rubio as saying we don't have enough people paying taxes in this country. The GOP as stalwart fighters against taxes? No more. That more Americans should pay taxes is, according to the Wall Street Journal, "the new Republican orthodoxy."
And who is it Republicans would like to raise taxes upon? According to the Tax Policy Center, 46 percent of U.S. households won't pay income taxes this year. The elderly (who are mostly retired, have a larger deduction, and often don't have their Social Security benefits taxed) make up a plurality of 44 percent of the nonpayers, while people whose income tax liability is wiped out by the child tax credit, child and dependent care tax credit, and the earned income tax credit—all of which were enacted with Republican support—make up an additional 30 percent of the group. (The rest of the nonpayers get a handful of smaller tax credits, including education credits, itemized deductions, and even capital gains benefits.)
Keep in mind that these people not having any income tax liability does not mean that they don't pay taxes (as is often implied in GOP talking points). They pay state and local taxes, not to mention federal payroll taxes, which of course the GOP wants to see rise.
So Republicans worry about the wealthy paying too much in taxes while fretting about freeloading lower classes. They talk a big deficit game but are more concerned about cutting government spending, specifically on programs that benefit the nonrich. Perhaps this isn't cognitive dissonance but the logical evolution of the modern GOP into an Ayn Rand-ian coalition explicitly focused on freeing a wealthy elite from the parasitical depredations of everyone else.
- Vote now: Who won the debt ceiling standoff?
- Read Rick Newman: 5 Economically Illiterate Campaign Themes
- Read Scott Galupo: The Roots of Reverse Class Warfare