Republican disingenuousness about the so-called Buffett Rule may play to the party's amen corner, but it does so at the cost of tax fairness, deficit reduction and basic honesty. It's a loser in every important way.
The Buffett Rule -- named for Warren Buffett, one of the world's richest men and chairman of The Buffalo News -- says that wealthy Americans shouldn't pay a smaller share of their income in taxes than the staff members who work for them. That has been Buffett's refrain for several years, now: He complains that he is undertaxed compared with his secretary. Not only is he right, but he is plainly, inarguably right. The rich pay a lower percentage because much of their income is from investments, and taxed at a lower rate.
Yet the Republicans argue. Rich people should be taxed less than other Americans, they insist. It's a head-spinning position, the kind on which elections can turn.
But let's start with one of the two points that defenders of the indefensible do have: Raising taxes on the wealthy won't substantially decrease the federal budget deficit. That's correct, as far as it goes. Which, of course, is the problem: It simultaneously misses the point and misstates the case.
Note that supporters of these tax laws don't try to argue that they are fair. They simply argue that they are necessary or that they are justified or, most preposterously, that those who advocate changing them are waging "class warfare." No. Class warfare is when the richest people pay less than the middle class. Here is the big problem with the political right's intransigence on this issue. The federal deficit, just about everyone agrees, is a critical problem and both parties' fingerprints are all over it. It will take all hands to solve the problem in any broadly accepted way. Budget cuts alone won't do it, Republican fantasies notwithstanding, nor will tax increases alone. To get a grip on this problem in a way that a significant majority of Americans will buy into will require compromise.
That's a dirty word in Washington these days, even though it is the foundation on which our form of government was built. What is more, it's fair to say, Republicans are the big problem. Held in the sway of tea party purists, they have refused to compromise where Democrats have offered. It's a prescription for continued high deficits. Democrats cannot rally their base to accept cuts in programs like Medicare and Social Security unless Republicans are willing to give up something, too.
The second fair point -- again made out of context -- that opponents of the Buffett Rule make is that it is generally a poor idea to raise taxes. They are right. But there is more to that thought. It is also a poor idea to diminish the quality of health care for American seniors or to make it more difficult for students to attend college, or for children to attend preschool or for many of the other areas that Republicans would cheerfully cut.
We have to make choices and there can be no doubt they will be difficult. In a large and pluralistic country, that requires compromise. Budget cuts are going to have to be accompanied by higher taxes, and a fair place to start is with the wealthiest Americans who are, by any reasonable definition, underperforming in this area.
That's why the Buffett Rule is important. It is neither class warfare nor a cure-all. It's a critical piece of a puzzle that our government has to assemble if Americans have any hope of reining in our runaway deficit.