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Contentions

Mr. Obama’s Planet

Saul Bellow used to joke that while the unexamined life is not worth living, the examined life will make you wish you were dead. The political equivalent might be that we can’t live with taxation without representation, but taxation with representation is going to kill us. 

By “us,” I mean those of us who like to find out what’s in a bill before Congress passes it; who would like our representatives to read bills before they vote on them; who want to see hearings on legislation before it is brought to a vote; and who would like to have it posted on a website for a few days before it is signed into law–just in case we have some questions after we find out what’s in it. For such people, Senator Rand Paul’s description of the Senate’s action in passing a $600 billion tax increase this week will be discouraging: 

I think it was 2:00 in the morning, and everybody kind of wanted to go home. And so I think nobody had a chance really to read the bill. I’m not sure the bill really was even around for anybody to read at 2:00 in the morning. It certainly defied all of the rules that we have in the Senate. We have one specific rule that says bills have to be online for 48 hours. So when things get thrown together hurriedly in the night, people have no idea what’s in these bills. 

At least the tax increase was called a tax increase. In 2010, President Obama pushed through Congress (at the last moment, with no hearings) a new 3.8 percent tax on investment income, calling it a “Medicare contribution.” But it was not a “contribution” and it had nothing to do with Medicare: it had no effect on the Medicare benefits of the person making the “contribution;” it had no effect on the Medicare benefits of anyone else; the revenue from the “contribution” did not go to the Medicare Trust Fund, but rather straight to the Treasury’s general fund, to be spent on things other than Medicare. 

The individual mandate under Obamacare will be enforced by what the legislation called a “shared responsibility payment.” None dared call it a “tax” while it was being considered, but when it got to the Supreme Court, the Obama administration argued a tax is what it was. Chief Justice John Roberts upheld it as a new kind of tax–a tax for not doing something. It used to be that taxes were levied on income earned or things done. Now we have “shared responsibility payments” for not doing what Congress wants us to do (although the chief justice agreed Congress had no power to require us to do it). Undoubtedly there will be more “failure-to-do-it” taxes in the future, now that they have been constitutionally blessed.

It would take an extraordinary novelist to come up with concepts like these–“shared responsibility payments” that are not “taxes” when they are considered but become new kinds of “taxes” after they’re passed; new “Medicare contributions” that don’t go to Medicare or its “trust fund;” $600 billion tax increases considered by the world’s greatest deliberative body at two in the morning, without the benefit of hearings or public comment or even a text. The resulting novel wouldn’t sell as fiction–no one would willingly suspend disbelief. But as non-fiction it might do quite well.



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