The GOP's taxing situation

August 02, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Congressional Republican leaders, in moving inexorably toward a presidential veto of their plan for a tax cut of $800 billion over 10 years, are once again displaying their tin political ear.

At a time when a humming economy has undercut the old GOP mantra against big government that worked for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, they are continuing to rail at intrusive Washington and lamenting the lot of the long-suffering taxpayer.

The huge projected budget surplus of $3 trillion has them salivating for their once highly popular argument that Americans know better than federal bureaucrats how to spend their money. But now there's no public groundswell for the kind of tax cut the GOP wants.

President Clinton has effectively countered the old Republican tax-cut talk with his argument not only that Social Security and Medicare must be preserved first, but also that the federal debt be paid down before such a cut should be considered.

At the same time, Mr. Clinton, in suggesting a more modest $300 billion cut, is insulating himself against Republican charges that he has turned his back on taxpayers.

In the old days, when the Democrats were on a 40-year winning streak in control of Congress, Republicans on the outside looking in perennially argued for tax cuts on grounds that they were needed to spur the economy.

But the economy from all signs needs no spurring right now, as the high commissioner of economic matters, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, has just testified. "We would probably be better off holding off on a tax cut."

In the GOP plea for giving the taxpayer a break, the likes of House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott are like fish in a barrel for Mr. Clinton and the congressional Democratic leaders to shoot at.

The Democrats offer up not only Mr. Greenspan's remarks, but also Treasury Department analyses saying that the chief beneficiaries of the huge Republican tax cut will be the wealthiest Americans. The Republican leaders reply, in effect, "What do you expect? They pay the most taxes, don't they?" It is an argument that may sound fair on Wall Street, but probably not to low- and middle-income listeners on Main Street.

After the House recently approved its version of the Republican tax cut basically along party lines, Mr. Clinton had a field day casting the House Republicans as insensitive curs who, by voting down his proposal for Medicare prescription drug benefits, couldn't care less for ailing elderly Americans who would have to choose between food and their medicine.

Although the best the Republican congressional leaders can hope for after expected Senate passage of their legislation is a compromise with the president that will be closer to his much smaller tax cut, they nevertheless are pressing on with their figure. Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton will continue to harangue them as "irresponsible" while painting himself as the voice of moderation and compassion for the poor and elderly.

If the end result is no tax cut at all, or only Mr. Clinton's offer of about $300 billion, the Republicans stand to be the clear political loser. Even if they are somehow able to pass a bigger tax cut, they have no chance of overriding the presidential veto they would be inviting with it.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 8/02/99

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