The media/political Establishment feigned outrage recently over supposedly "new" revelations that the Bush administration was warned about the potential for disaster along the Gulf Coast before Hurricane Katrina. I say "feigned" and "supposedly new" because this was something both political parties knew was coming down the pike, but did nothing about. If you don't believe me, just read this article that details how the administration regularly siphoned money away from flood/hurricane infrastructure improvements, away from the Gulf Coast and into massive tax cuts for the wealthy - all while being warned of dire consequences.
Sadly, even after the hurricane, both parties refused to talk about tax cuts and their very real impact in draining away resources from the most critical priorities. As I discuss in my upcoming book Hostile Takeover, it is this bipartisan complicity in ignoring the critical economic issues that limits the overall political debate only to issues that do not offend Big Money interests. There was no talk of repealing tax cuts for the wealthy after Hurricane Katrina because to talk about that would be to open up the possibility that the same people who fund politicians' campaigns would have to actually give back something to their country.
Particularly on taxes, this hostile takeover of our political system is devastating. The preventable destruction along the Gulf Coast is only one example of that. If there can be no real debate over taxes because politicians are too afraid to offend fat cats and corporate America, there can be no real possibility America will ever have enough money to fund the things most Americans say they support. For instance, polls show Americans support universal, government-sponsored health care, more affordable college education and lower drug prices. Instead, we regularly get what we got yesterday in the House of Representatives: A bill, according to the Washington Post, that means:
"Women on welfare are likely to face longer hours of work, education or community service to qualify for their checks. Recipients of Medicaid can expect to face higher co-payments and deductibles, especially on expensive prescription drugs and emergency room visits for non-emergency care; seniors will find it far more difficult to qualify for Medicaid-covered nursing care...college students could face higher interest rates when their banks get squeezed by the federal government...and state-led efforts to force deadbeat parents to pay their child support may also have to be curtailed."
So how do we break this cycle? How do we start having a real debate again about taxes and, more broadly, our society's priorities? It will be difficult, to be sure. Right-wing power brokers like Grover Norquist have used a massive amount of corporate cash to buy off scores of lawmakers and prevent any tax debate from ever happening. But there is hope in the heartland.
In two recent but little-noticed stories, we can see the renewed possibility of fight against the hostile takeover of the tax debate. The first comes from Wyoming. As the Bush administration has allowed extractive industries to get out of paying their fair share in taxes for the taxpayer-owned natural resources they are using, some Wyoming Republicans are considering raising their state taxes on these hugely wealthy industries so as to build up more public resources for public priorities.
The second comes from Montana, where the Billings Gazette reports that Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) yesterday "put in a pitch with business leaders for his administration's efforts to crack down on tax cheats." The story notes that "Last year, the chamber opposed some Schweitzer bills aimed at businesses and individuals that avoid paying their fair share of Montana taxes."
What's particularly important is Schweitzer's framing of the issue. He doesn't allow conservatives to own the tax debate - instead he puts it in populist terms, noting that unless tax loopholes are closed and the tax code is tightened, other Montanans are going to have to foot the bill. Check out this excerpt:
"Instead of raising taxes, Schweitzer said he favors making all taxpayers pay what they rightfully owe. Some people who buy farms and ranches in Montana and later sell them and buy property out of state under Internal Revenue Service 1031 land exchanges fail to pay capital gains taxes they owe Montana, although they do pay federal taxes, he said. 'Some states like Montana don't track it and we don't get any of the revenue,' Schweitzer said. 'We propose to close that tax loophole.' He also wants to close a couple of other tax loopholes. 'If those out-of-staters don't pay (their taxes), you do,' Schweitzer said. 'It's not anti-business. It's pro Montana and I hope you can be with us.'"
These examples show us the policies and the language we need to use to push those policies in order to fight back against the hostile takeover. The tax debate is of utmost importance - it touches every other priority. And unless we have the guts to force conservatives to defend their out-of-the-mainstream views on taxes, we will forever be fighting battles on Big Money's tilted playing field.