Meme Watch: A Unified Theory of Bush Lies?

Why did Bush’s tax cut exclude so many low-income families?

On April 26, President Bush said in his weekly radio address, “My jobs and growth plan would reduce tax rates for everyone who pays income tax.”

That turned out not to be true. According to the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an unspecified number of low- and middle-income families received no tax cut at all because they’d been excluded from an expansion of the child-care tax credit.

A Republican spokesperson for the House Ways and Means Committee told the New York Times that the benefit had not been extended to these low- and middle-income families because $30 billion in tax cuts had to be taken out of the bill to suit Sen. George Voinovich, a Republican deficit hawk.

That was obviously not true. As the Times reported, extending the benefit would have cost a mere $3.5 billion. It could have been put back in had Congress been willing to lower the top income tax rate to 35.3 percent rather than 35 percent, according to the CBPP. Or, if that had been too controversial, $3.5 billion in tax shelters could have been shut down.

Asked about the exclusion of the child-care credit for low- and middle-income families, White House press spokesman Ari Fleischer reaffirmed that all taxpayers would receive tax cuts, because the people affected by the exclusion weren’t taxpayers. They were folks who received public assistance via the Earned Income Tax Credit, a program to help the working poor, who would merely have to settle for a little less cash than they would have received had there been no exclusion. But any low-income folks who earned enough to pay taxes would henceforth pay less.

That turned out not to be true. Researchers at the Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center found 8.1 million tax filers would receive no tax cuts.

Fleischer had specifically stated, “People in the 10 percent bracket, they benefit the most from” the Bush tax cut.

That turned out not to be true. Crunching the Tax Policy Center numbers, CBPP found that 89 percent of all single taxpayers (as opposed to “head of household” taxpayers) in the 10 percent bracket would receive no tax relief. It said some “head of household” taxpayers in the 10 percent bracket were left out, too.

When people give many different explanations about why they did something, and all of them turn out not to be true, chances are they don’t want to talk about the real explanation. Why did the Bush administration allow Congress to take tax breaks away from the poor? A possible hint can be found in this remark by Fleischer:

[F]or people who have had their entire income tax burden forgiven, I think they’re very appreciative of the fact that they pay no income taxes in America and still benefit from a national defense, which is paid from income taxes; they still benefit from school programs that are paid at the federal level income taxes. They still benefit from a host of programs that income taxes help them in their daily lives; yet they pay zero income taxes. In fact, they get back money from the Treasury which is in the form of public assistance, above and beyond income taxes.

Chatterbox detects a note of pique here, as if Fleischer, in saying these subsidized free riders were “very appreciative” of their status, really meant to say that they damn well ought to be “very appreciative.” Whence this resentment of housekeepers and janitors? Perhaps from the conviction that poor people ought to pay more in taxes, or at least ought to receive less from the Earned Income Tax Credit, because otherwise they will never learn to appreciate that the government services they crave cost money. Perhaps what Fleischer and others in the Bush administration long to say, and yet can’t, is that taxing the poor, far from being a regrettable byproduct of lowering taxes on the rich, is a good in and of itself.

As Chatterbox has noted previously, this tax-the-poor meme has acquired some respectability inside the conservative think tanks and on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. Fox commentator Tony Snow endorsed it on television, and, shockingly, even conservative-but-sensible Newsweek economics columnist Robert Samuelson made a pitch for it. The Bush administration rolled it around on the back of its tongue and then spat it out, no doubt realizing its incompatibility with Bush’s now-laughable slogan, “compassionate conservatism.” Maybe, though, it’s back.

Meme Watch archive:
Jan. 20, 2003: “Return of the Lucky Duckies
Jan. 16, 2003: “Tony Snow Says Tax the Poor!
Jan. 14, 2003: “A Payroll Tax Rise?
Jan. 2, 2003: “Bushies Get Cold Feet
Dec. 16, 2002: “Bushies Take the Bait
Nov. 27, 2002: “Introducing the Meme Watch