Opinions varied on Bush tax cuts

Md. delegation in Congress debates $1.6 trillion plan

March 04, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The national debate over President Bush's proposed income tax cut is producing sharply different views among Maryland's 10-mem- ber delegation to Congress - and not all along predictable lines.

The range is financially broad - from conservative Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett's view that Bush's $1.6 trillion plan is too small to Baltimore Democrat Elijah E. Cumming's beliefs that it's far too large and that lower taxes are less important than issues such as helping seniors pay for their prescription drugs. Democrats have proposed a $750 million alternative plan.

Most congressional Democrats and Republicans are party loyalists, but not all, and they have voiced varied opinions on how to proceed.

Rep. Constance A. Morella, a moderate Republican from Montgomery County, and Eastern Shore Republican Wayne T. Gilchrest are cases in point.

"I'm very cautious about the $1.6 trillion. I think it's too high in such an uncertain [economic] climate," said Morella, whose vote could be important in such an evenly divided Congress. Gilchrest said he hasn't made up his mind, although he favors estate and capital gains tax reductions, higher tax credits for children and a college savings plan.

"I think we should look at what America's priorities are and what the projected revenue sources for those are and then match that with Bush's proposals and see how reasonable they are," he said.

Gilchrest said that "the silliest and saddest thing about Congress is when you listen to a member spout off the party rhetoric. That's so tragic."

And no rhetoric is more tragic, he said, than the Democrats' speeches about how they are for the poor and middle class while Republicans cater to the ultra-wealthy. He derided Democratic criticism that the GOP plan would pay for a Lexus luxury car while leaving only enough tax relief for working families to buy a muffler.

"I drive a Ford Ranger" pickup, Gilchrest said. "If somebody gave me a Lexus, I'd probably give it to the Salvation Army."

Still, Cummings said his practice of talking to people at local stores tells him his constituents have more on their minds than paying less in taxes.

"I can't go to the prescription counter without people telling me about their [prescription drug and health] problems. Seniors are asking me, `What are you guys going to do?' My concern is Medicare and social programs," he said.

Members from both parties seem to agree that some kind of tax cut is needed- though Republicans say that means Bush was right all along and is politically dragging Democrats with him. Democrats said conditions have changed - higher surpluses and more economic bad news - since last year's presidential campaign.

"I think a tax cut makes sense, but I'm very much opposed to the size of the Bush tax cut," said Baltimore Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin, who helped craft the smaller Democratic plan.

Cardin said he believes the Bush plan would cost more than advertised - as much as $1.9 trillion - and that would "consume way too much of the surplus."

With every member of Congress trying to add a pet cause or project, "the only thing that's certain is that the tax bill will grow," Cardin said.

That's a characteristic of Congress recognized for decades, as evidenced by a comment made by President Calvin Coolidge in 1925.

"Nothing is easier than spending the public money. It does not appear to belong to anybody. The temptation is overwhelming to bestow it on somebody," Coolidge said.

But Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich, a Republican representing Baltimore and Harford counties, doesn't view a tax cut as spending, and he said Republicans differ philosophically from Democrats on the use of public money.

"Many Republicans view this as a power issue. For Republicans, it's the ability to move money out of Washington, which means less power in Washington. Many folks on the left equate power with money," he said.

Ehrlich says the Bush tax cut is not too large and will leave plenty of money for retiring the deficit.

Bartlett, who according to his press secretary declines to speak to reporters from The Sun, said at a Rotary Club luncheon at the Cumberland Holiday Inn last month that the tax cut should be even larger than what Bush has proposed because people would use the extra income in ways that would create new business investments and economic growth. Too much money left for debt reduction would merely fuel bigger government, he told the crowd, according to a Rotary member, Allegany County Chamber of Commerce director Bud Willetts.

At the other end of the spectrum is Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Democrat from Prince George's County, who backs his party's plan, calling it "the working man's tax cut. "

Wynn said Democrats have adopted what used to be traditional Republican positions. "Democrats are going to come to be associated with fiscal responsibility," he said.

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