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November 30, 2009

A BLAST FROM THE PAST: Why I Oppose A War Surtax

A little over two years ago, I wrote on the issue of a "war surtax" being proposed by Representative David Obey and trumpeted by the reliably liberal EJ Dionne. Well, David Obey and his allies are at it again, now that it appears that President Obama is going to send more troops to Afghanistan rather than concede victory to the Taliban. Since the Obey proposal is back in the news, I'd like to bring that previous post back front and center for folks to access -- and to continue to show why the idea is no better today than it was the last time Obey tried to bring it forward.

* * *

Left-wing columnist EJ Dionne comes out in favor of the DOA proposal to impose a surtax to pay for the war in Iraq.

Would conservatives and Republicans support the war in Iraq if they had to pay for it?

That is the immensely useful question that Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, put on the table this week by calling for a temporary war tax to cover President Bush's request for $145 billion in supplemental spending for Iraq.

Uh, Mr. Dionne, we already are paying for it. Unlike large parts of the Democrat constituency, we actually do pay taxes.

The proposal is a magnificent way to test the seriousness of those who claim that the Iraq war is an essential part of the "global war on terror." If the war's backers believe in it so much, it should be easy for them to ask taxpayers to put up the money for such an important endeavor.

See the point above -- we are already paying taxes to support the military and to fight the war in Iraq.

Obey makes the case pointedly. "Some people are being asked to pay with their lives or their faces or their hands or their arms or their legs," he said in an interview this week. "If you're going to ask for that, it doesn't seem too much to ask an average taxpayer to pay 30 bucks for the cost of the war so we don't have to shove it off on our kids."

Or as Obey said in a statement, "I'm tired of seeing that only military families are asked to sacrifice in this war."

Congressman -- some people volunteered to be a member of the military. It isn't like they were shanghaied off the streets of America, only to wake up with a drug-induced hangover to find themselves in desert camos in the middle of a desert with a weapon in their hand. Using your argument, though, we should actually be adopting THAT as policy as well -- or a draft, which morally amounts to the same thing. You ready to advocate for the draft, Senator? Or better yet, mandatory military service for every adult, no exceptions permitted?

And I remind you, Congressman, we taxpayers are already paying for the war. Maybe you could cover the cost of the war by undoing the Bush tax cut that took the percentage of Americans paying income taxes to under 50%. But you won't do that -- after all, those net consumers of government largesse are more likely to be Democrats, and you certainly wouldn't want to expect them to shoulder any of the citizenship obligation to pay for national defense.

And as one who grew up as a part of one of those military families, I find your statements of concern for military families today to be uninspiring. After all, I remember being told my father was a war criminal when I was a kid because he was off in Vietnam -- and your side of the debate on the war continues to make such claims today.

Unfortunately, the Democratic leadership ran away from this idea as fast as you can say the words "Republican majority." That, of course, is what Democrats are afraid of. "Just as I have opposed the war from the outset," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, "I am opposed to a war surtax."

Obey doesn't hold this against his leadership. "They don't want to be demagogued by the White House when they have other fish to fry," he said.

Well that was a wise decision on their part. It would be really bad to argue that we need to impose an extra tax to pay for national security and defense -- a core function of the federal government under the US Constitution -- so we don't have to scrimp on entitlement programs and transfer payments that would cause the authors of that document to whirl dervishly in their mausoleums.

I mean it does seem rather freakish to argue that we need to pay an extra tax for the military so that we can continue farm subsidies that jack up food prices and create an entitlement program for middle class and wealthy children out of general revenues. Why not impose a surtax for those programs instead -- how many Americans would be prepare to pay extra for those programs?

But it's a shame that Democrats remain so defensive on the tax issue that they aren't willing to bring this proposal to the floor. What if the price for passing President Bush's supplemental appropriation were a tax to cover its costs? What if opponents of the war voted no because they are against Bush's policy and Republicans voted no because they think low taxes are more important than national security as they define it?

That's an aggressive way to frame any such antitax "no" votes, but it's also accurate. If a war appropriations bill with a tax included went down to overwhelming defeat, wouldn't that tell us something about the depth of commitment to this war?

Again, this could be argues with any social program. Why not a surtax for AFDC or WIC? Why not a surtax to pay for the subprime mortgage bailout program Democrats want? Why not one for Medicaid? Why not one for the Earned Income Credit that gives a refund to Americans of withholding taxes they never paid? And since you folks now oppose the Bush tax cuts, why not recover that money by repealing the elements of those cuts that took Americans off the tax rolls, on the grounds that national defense and national security mandate that more Americans begin paying taxes. Indeed, why not require every American earning above the poverty line begin paying taxes -- especially since they are the net consumers of the social services that you want to pay for with general revenue instead of defense and national security?

The Obey surtax, co-sponsored by Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and John Murtha (D-Pa.), envisions a sliding scale running from roughly 2 percent on the taxes paid by lower-income Americans to 15 percent on upper-income Americans. Since wars are waged, in principle, on behalf of the entire country, this is the rare Democratic tax proposal that does not put the entire burden on the rich.

But yes it does, EJ -- it puts the burden on less than 50% of Americans. Why not advocate placing that burden of taxes upon every single American?

The plan does not ask for a tax to cover the $45 billion in Bush's supplemental request to pay for the war in Afghanistan. "There are legitimate expenditures on which we don't mind sharing the costs with future generations," Obey says, noting that there is a broad consensus that the fight in Afghanistan is in the long-term interest of the country. It might be less gimmicky to pay for both wars now, but some revenue is better than none.

Well let's pay for it now -- tax the untaxed now!

Ah, you say, but this is just symbolic politics. I don't think so, but let's assume it is. This idea is far more serious than the utterly empty fight Bush is about to pick with Congress over a $21 billion to $23 billion difference in spending in a federal budget that totals some $2.7 trillion.

But EJ -- are you and the Democrats saying that we have money for additional discretionary spending in all these other areas, but not for national security and national defense? And why are you trying to shift the burden for these unnecessary programs on to future generations? Why not a surcharge to pay for them? Could it be that this plan to treat the core federal function of national security and defense as the equivalent of supersizing a fast food value meal is simply a gimmick intended to abandon our troops in the field or snatch defeat from the jaws of victory for political purposes?

Here is a president who signed one bloated spending bill after another -- as long as they were passed by a Republican Congress -- posing as a fiscal conservative now that Democrats are in the majority. He's so tough and determined that he's also drawn the line on . . . children's health care.

Bush has often let it be known that he hates "small ball" politics. But there is nothing smaller or more trivial than a budget fight over a difference that any responsible president could easily resolve in negotiations with Congress. War spending aside, Obey says it would take no more than a week to reach a reasonable compromise on the overall budget if the White House would just engage.

And if the president believes in this war so much and doesn't want to raise taxes, let him propose the deep spending cuts it would take to cover the costs. Then Bush would show how much of a priority he believes this war is -- and he wouldn't be playing small ball.

Hey, I'm all for big cuts in spending -- and I find it interesting that you and the Democrats don't find a single dollar to trim anywhere, but instead propose a new surtax.

But then again, we know from experience what happens to such surtaxes. Americans were paying one imposed to cover the costs of the Spanish-American War, which occurred at the end of the 19th century, into the early years of the 21st century. This is really a stealth permanent increase in taxes, disguised as an anti-war measure. I'm sure that you already have your column written offering proposals on how to spend the money it raises once the Democrats have forced a withdrawal after the surtax has been collected.





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