Striking Down the Buffett Rule Will Make It More Powerful

Photograph by Everett Collection

The big event on Capitol Hill today is the Senate’s vote on the Buffett Rule, the doomed effort to impose a minimum tax rate of 30 percent on high earners. The bill, of course, is named for famed investor Warren Buffett, whose remark that rich investors like himself ought not pay a lower rate of tax than their secretary does has been seized on by Democrats to frame the tax debate.

The Buffett Rule (formally Senate bill 2230) doesn’t have a prayer of passing, or even getting an up-down vote. Republicans are going to filibuster the “motion to proceed,” and Democrats don’t have the 60 votes to move forward. Legislatively speaking, that means the bill will die a swift death. But the Buffett Rule will probably be more powerful in death than it was in life, because Republicans will have to cast a politically unpopular vote to strike it down—they’ll have to put themselves on record as favoring a tax system where the Mitt Romneys of the world pay a rate of only 13.9 percent (eventually, that is … after they get an extension).

In this way, the Buffett Rule more closely resembles another grizzled old icon of probity and honor, Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars. Remember the ending? “You can’t win, Darth,” Obi-Wan says, when he finally comes face to face with his enemy, Darth Vader. “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.”

Here’s why: If the Buffett Rule were to pass, the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates that it would raise about $47 billion over the next decade. That’s not peanuts, but it wouldn’t do much to reduce the federal budget deficit, which is $1.2 trillion this year. And passage would, politically speaking, take the issue off the table. There’d still be a big budget deficit, and Democrats would lose their most effective cudgel against Romney and congressional Republicans.

In a saner world, where Republicans didn’t consider any tax increase an apostasy, they might agree to something for just this reason. But such a world, if it exists, could only be located in a galaxy far, far away. Because in this world, Republicans are certain to use their legislative light saber—the filibuster—to strike down the Buffett Rule. Polls say that’s a deeply unpopular move. Last week, Gallup reported that Americans favor the rule, by 60 percent to 37 percent.

With the Buffett Rule dead, Democrats will still have their favorite talking point and a powerful framing device, not only for Mitt Romney but for the whole 2012 election. It will be more powerful for the fact that Republicans have gone on record opposing something that an overwhelming majority of Americans support. And it will allow Democrats and the Obama campaign to keep on hounding Romney to release his tax returns, and keep waging the fight they prefer against the Empire.

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