Ending Tax Increases As We Know Them

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Never go to the grocery store when you're really hungry; you'll find yourself spending a whole lot more than you planned. Similarly, Congress should never address tax issues when the public coffers are empty, and for the same reason: it will find itself spending a whole lot more than it planned.

Fortunately the coffers are full this tax time. A strong economy and a prudent Republican Congress have created a budget surplus this year, and perhaps for several years to come. That means it is a perfect time to consider one of the most important pieces of legislation before Congress: the Tax Limitation Amendment.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) has been pushing this constitutional amendment for years. It would require a two-thirds vote of Congress, rather than a simple majority, on any legislation that would increase taxes. Simply put, it would make it harder for Congress to raise taxes on the American people.

Barton has managed to gain bipartisan support for his amendment, including 167 cosponsors of his bill. Nevertheless, he has consistently fallen short of the two-thirds vote needed to pass a constitutional amendment and send it to the states for ratification.

Last year's vote in the House was 238 for and 186 against, 47 votes shy of the two-thirds needed. Indeed, the difficulty in getting the amendment passed, because it requires a two-thirds vote, demonstrates how effective it would be in keeping Congress from raising taxes. It is very hard to get two-thirds of the Congress to agree on anything.

Fortunately, the looming budget surplus has lowered Congress' chronic need for more tax dollars, which makes it a perfect time to consider making it harder to raise taxes in the future.

More importantly, making it harder to raise taxes is the single most important step we can take to ensure a strong economy - and therefore budget surpluses - for years to come. When Congress raises taxes, it takes money out of your pockets. That means you have less to spend on food, housing, transportation and other family wants and needs.

When consumers cut back on spending, economic growth slows and government revenues go down. That's when Congress feels the pressure to raise taxes - which only starts the process all over again. Call it the taxation death spiral.

But if it were more difficult for Congress to raise taxes, those occasional economic downturns would play themselves out quickly as the economy began to grow again.

Currently, 14 states - including California and my home state of Delaware when I was governor - have passed some form of tax limitation amendment, though they vary from state to state. And some eight to 10 states - including heavily populated states such as Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania and Texas - will consider the legislation this year.

Most states impose the limitation on all taxes, and most states require a two-thirds vote, although some require three-fourths or three-fifths. But while the specifics vary, the key is to ensure that there is widespread commitment from both parties before taxes are increased.

What difference would a tax limitation amendment make? Four of the last five major federal tax increases passed with less than a two-thirds majority. Three passed by 2 percent or less, meaning that Congress was almost evenly divided on the legislation. Those four bills sought collectively to raise $666 billion, or roughly $6,600 per household.

Tax limitation amendments are very popular with the public, and they are popular with most members of Congress. However, there are some who simply don't want to say no to new taxes. They have an addiction, and while they are willing to refrain from raising taxes while there is a surplus - although it requires immense self-restraint - they aren't willing to burn that bridge behind them. They want to have the ability to retreat to their old tax-and-spend ways if the surpluses diminish, or if the voters aren't looking.

We can't let them do that. Requiring a supermajority - that is, more than a majority - is the only way to help Congress break its spending and taxing addictions. Maybe we need a slogan to let them know how we feel. We might borrow from New Hampshire: "Two-thirds, or die."

The National Center for Policy Analysis is a public policy research institute founded in 1983 and internationally known for its studies on public policy issues.

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