Monday, September 17, 2012

Paul Ryan on why the Romney campaign won't offer any tax reform details

Today Congressman Ryan reiterated that the Romney campaign does not plan to discuss what specific tax breaks it would eliminate in order to fund dramatic rate reduction and maintain existing high-end tax burdens. Unfortunately, his explanation is deceptive rather than credible, and relies on deliberate up-is-downism.

Ryan starts out by saying: “I’m very familiar with how to make successful tax reforms take place. Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil did it in 1986 but we haven’t done it since 1986 for lots of reasons, which is we don’t want to presume to say, ‘Here’s exactly our way or the highway take it or leave it Congress.’”

Note, however, that “exactly our way” versus being willing to negotiate is simply not the issue here. All the Romney campaign needs to do, in order to add credibility and permit better-informed assessment (by both voters and experts) of its supposed tax reform plan, is to offer a hit list of things that it views as on the table. For example: home mortgage interest deductions, the exclusion for employer-provided health insurance, charitable contributions, etc.  (And, by the way, everyone knows these items have got to be on the list - all that's really going on here is the effort to preserve deniability and prevent the Obama campaign from accurately describing the plan in order to attack it.)

By contrast, the Reagan Administration, in the run-up to the 1986 tax reform, issued a detailed plan (the famous “Treasury I” plan, which came out in December 1984), while acknowledging from the start that it knew Congress would do what it wanted rather than rubberstamp the plan. Reagan publicly laid out a few broad principles, such as protecting the home mortgage interest and charitable deductions but little else.

True, the Treasury I plan only came out after the 1984 presidential election, and that was no accident. Obviously, they weren’t going to let the Mondale campaign have a go at the list of items that they were prepared to repeal.  But Reagan's 1984 reelection campaign did not rest on the promise that he would push for the Treasury I rate cuts.

Romney, by contrast, is expressly campaigning on the basis that he will enact substantial rate cuts, which he claims he will fully finance in such a way as to preserve existing high-end progressivity.  This makes it far more disingenuous to decline to offer any details whatsoever.

Ryan then adds: “… [W]e have to be able to work with Congress on those details, on how to fill it in and, more to the point, we don’t want to cut some backroom deal that they did with Obamacare where we hatched some plan behind the scenes and they spring it on the country.

“We want to do this in front, in the public, through congressional hearings with Congress so that we can get to the best conclusion with a public participation. That’s the process that works the best to ultimate success gets this done. That’s why we’re doing it this way.”

Here is where the up-is-downism becomes quite bald.  He calls the Romney campaign's offering absolutely no guidance regarding what tax items it has in mind an example of doing things "in public" and not "spring[ing] it on the country."  As the saying goes, that takes a bit of "brass."

The plan, after all, insofar as there is one, is to ram things through on a strict party-line basis and hope to survive the unpopularity of what they've done, in the 2014 Congressionals, based on macroeconomic improvement that they are hoping will take place in any event.

I would likely have sympathy with much of the base-broadening in the Romney tax reform plan, if they were willing to say what it is, although I oppose the rate cuts and thus the plan as a whole.  Anyone who supports such base-broadening, but who realizes that it is politically unpopular, is naturally drawn to think about how one could surmount or finesse public opinion.  But I hope that I would view what they are doing as a bridge too far away from democratic deliberation and public political accountability, even if I liked their overall policies much better than I do.

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