Did I miss something, or did Angus King just promise to raise our taxes?
Last weekend, the former governor and current candidate for the U.S. Senate held a town hall–style campaign event in Portland that featured Erskine Bowles, a former chief of staff in the Clinton White House and past president of the University of North Carolina. The subject was the national debt, an issue Bowles, a Democrat, tackled two years ago as co-chairman of a bipartisan commission charged with figuring out how to reduce the deficit.
As is typical of King’s campaign, ambiguities abounded. For example, it was unclear which politician was trying to use the other to further his cause. The King campaign was eager to trumpet Bowles’ endorsement of King’s candidacy, but Bowles seemed equally eager to use King to rescue his own political reputation.
“I could use a bridge like this guy who could go between parties,” Bowles said, referring to the dubious idea that King, as neither a Democrat nor a Republican, could convince partisan lawmakers to pass the deficit-reduction measures Bowles put forward with the commission’s other chairman, former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson.
Bowles’ own efforts to bridge the partisan divide failed miserably. In fact, he and Simpson could not even convince their own commission to endorse their ideas. Nearly half of its 18 members — including House Republicans led by party standard-bearer, and now vice-presidential candidate, Paul Ryan — rejected the plan. When the plan was introduced in the House of Representatives, it was trounced by a vote of 38 to 382.
Undeterred, Bowles and Simpson are now turning their ideas into legislation for the next Congress to consider. Some of their suggestions are no-brainers: increase the efficiency of government agencies, end congressional earmarks, sell off underused federal properties. Others are, politically, non-starters: end popular tax deductions for home mortgage interest, health care benefits and charitable giving, slash spending on domestic programs and raise the federal tax on gas by 15 cents per gallon.
So, we can expect a Sen. King to support the Bowles-Simpson plan, right? Not exactly. King says he supports some parts of the plan and opposes others.
Like what? That’s anybody’s guess. King refused to say what specific parts of the plan he supports and opposes, but he did make a point of saying he likes some elements of it that voters will hate. Addressing the deficit “fits into the category of ‘Sometimes you’ve just got to do the right thing,’ and understand that people aren’t going to be happy about it,” King told this newspaper.
King apparently endorses the broad outlines of the Bowles-Simpson approach, which BDN reporter Seth Koenig paraphrased as “cut spending and close tax loopholes.” Trouble is, those “tax loopholes” include the aforementioned tax deductions so many Americans use to help balance their own books.
Eliminating those popular deductions would net the government more revenue, but the plan proposes to use most of that money not to reduce debt, but to reduce tax rates across the board, which is the antithesis of a deficit-reduction strategy.
Not surprisingly, rich guys like Bowles and King would benefit the most from the changes envisioned in the plan. King’s already on record as an opponent of letting the Bush-era tax cuts expire for fellow millionaires. Is he now on record as a supporter of nixing the tax deductions middle-class families rely upon? It would appear so, but again, the details are missing.
An analysis of the Bowles-Simpson plan by the Tax Policy Center found that the rich would pay a lower rate than they paid when Bowles was in the Clinton White House. The Center’s findings confirmed economist Paul Krugman’s criticism of the plan, that it “redistributes income upward: the bottom 80 percent of families would pay higher taxes than they did in the Clinton years, while the top 20 percent — and especially the top 5 percent — would pay less,” he wrote on his New York Times blog.
Perhaps the parts of the Bowles-Simpson plan King likes all pertain to spending cuts, but that’s neither believable (given King’s record as governor) nor reassuring (given the damage non-military spending cuts would inflict on the economy).
The biggest mystery may be why the King campaign thinks Bowles’ endorsement is a political positive. The plan he’s pushing has been rejected from all sides, and Bowles’ own campaigns to become a senator, in 2004 and 2006, both failed, as well. Now he’s counting on King to put his unpopular ideas into action?
Good luck with that.
Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. His column appears here weekly.