The Most Delicious of Privileges

GEORGE F. WILL

March 22, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, is a man of unquenchable spirit who, because of his zest for lost causes, needs all that spirit. He survived five and a half years in a Hanoi prison, where he made himself useful to America by being a nuisance to the people who ran the prison. Recently he has done that in the Senate.

Last week he annoyed it by forcing a vote on a measure that would have required a ''supermajority'' -- 60 senators -- to pass a tax increase. He lost, of course, 58-37. But it was a constructive defeat because it was an essentially party-line vote.

On Mr. McCain's side, 35 Republicans were joined by two Democrats, Ernest Hollings of South Carolina and Richard Shelby of Alabama. Of the 58 against him, 52 were Democrats. Such votes build a record that sharpens differences between the parties.

Senator McCain's measure would have reversed a perverse super-majority requirement now in place. How many Americans know that under the 1990 budget agreement of which President Bush is so fond, a super-majority of 60 senators is required to pass a tax cut? That's right: It takes 60 votes to cut taxes but only 51 to raise them. Mr. McCain would reverse this distribution of burdens.

Seven states have experience with provisions similar to Mr. McCain's -- and in those states spending and tax revenues per capita rose slower than the national average during the 1980s. Mr. McCain argued that his measure would increase the likelihood that any tax increase would be backed by a broad national consensus.

There is nothing novel or undemocratic about super-majority requirements. They are as American as the Constitution, which has ten of them (for overriding vetoes, ratifying treaties, amending the Constitution, etc.).

Such requirements say that some decisions are especially grave and should be made only on the basis of special support.

As Jefferson said, great decisions should not be taken on slender majorities. Because, as Chief Justice John Marshall said, the power to tax is the power to destroy, tax increases are a suitable subject for special majority requirement.

Recently Oklahoma taxpayers took the law -- or lawmaking -- into their own hands. They passed by initiative a measure that says any revenue measure that the state legislature passes by less than a three-quarters vote in each house must be submitted to the voters at the next general election. This gives one-quarter plus one of the members of either house the power to put revenue-raising measures before the public.

That prejudices the measures' chances in two ways. The public is sensibly inclined to vote ''no'' on any complex subject encountered in the voting booth, and the public is generally inclined to say ''no'' to tax increases.

But this may be less than the clear victory that Oklahoma's anti-taxation forces suppose. By crippling the ability of the state government to raise revenues, this measure will cripple the ability of the state government to provide money for local governments. They may be driven to rely more on, and increase, local taxes, especially the most hated ones -- property taxes.

But, then, such hatred will inhibit moves to increase local taxes to compensate for cuts in state aid. So the net effect of all this may indeed be to put the public sector on a diet.

Given the ferocity of today's only nationwide political passion -- taxaphobia -- perhaps a super-majority requirement for raising taxes is not only unnecessary, it could be harmful. Arguably, the starvation of the public sector is a clear and present danger.

But it is at least as arguable that a measure like Senator McCain's is necessary because of the power of public-employee unions and other special interests, and because of incumbency-protection spending by legislatures not operating under term limits. (There are such limits in Oklahoma.)

John Randolph of Roanoke (1773-1833) was witty, caustic, dyspeptic and intermittently insane, but he also was a congressman and a senator who knew whereof he spoke when he warned against ''the most delicious of privileges,'' that of spending other people's money. That deliciousness, combined with the incumbents' unsleeping attempts to buy votes, is why legislatures have an inherent bent toward increasing taxation.

When term limits are imposed on Congress and all state legislatures, there will be a chance that revenues will be spent more rationally than now -- more sensibly than as lubrication for the incumbency-protection machine. Until then, Senator McCain's measure is a needed inhibition.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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