On Wednesday, October 21, Citizens for Tax Justice was joined by lawmakers, progressive advocates, policy experts and labor leaders in celebrating its thirty years of fighting for tax fairness. The speakers included four current and former members of Congress and two journalists who've covered tax issues extensively for several years.
The first to speak, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, told the crowd:
"CTJ is a voice for real fairness, for justice, in our tax system, a voice for those who believe in closing special-interest loopholes and enforcing compliance with the tax code. CTJ is there every day and every week, with detailed analysis of tax proposals, alternative ideas, and good suggestions. Bob McIntyre, CTJ’s longtime and tireless leader, is one of its driving forces and a terrific public servant who has dedicated his life to tax justice. Washington would be a much poorer place and even more skewed to the powerful interests without Citizens for Tax Justice..."
Senator Levin went on to discuss the debate over financing health care reform. He called on his colleagues to consider the measure he and Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas have introduced (to crack down on tax havens) as a way to help pay for health care reform, and he also argued in favor of a surtax on high-income taxpayers.
"As we contemplate health-care reform, Congress needs to decide whether to put ourselves in a straight-jacket when it comes to revenues – and risk that health coverage remains unaffordable for many middle-class Americans. Or, will we do the right thing when it comes to taxes and healthcare, close some of these loopholes that allow people, for instance, to stash assets overseas or avoid taxes on massive investment earnings, and use the revenue to provide long overdue and badly needed health-care reform? Will we leave middle-class families locked out of affordable coverage while we refuse to consider a 'millionaire’s tax' on our wealthiest citizens?"
Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon discussed how roughly 10,000 tax breaks have been added to the tax code since the 1986 tax reform that swept away most loopholes. He spoke of the book Showdown at Gucci Gulch, which chronicles the battle over the 1986 tax reform, and said that CTJ director Bob McIntyre was the "sheriff" of that story.
"Twenty years ago," Wyden said, "after Bob got in there and cleaned up Dodge, Bill Bradley and Ronald Reagan came together and got all the credit." But for the next round of tax reform, Wyden predicted that CTJ would once again lead the charge against the special interest lobbyists who will attempt to protect their loopholes.
"We have the good fortune of knowing that Bob McIntyre and Citizens for Tax Justice are going to be on the side of the typical working person, the person without the lobbyist, and even though the odds-makers say it can't be done, we are going to get tax reform next Congress. We are going to start it now, we're going as far as we can, and with Bob in the lead, we are going to prosecute it until we go back to what we know makes sense, a fairer tax system, one that isn't rigged against the typical working person, and you're going to be leading the charge, Bob."
Representative Lloyd Doggett of Texas noted that his colleagues need to get serious about tax reform.
"Electing Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress, to be sure, does not assure us tax justice, it only assures us an opportunity to seek tax justice and to overcome the many entrenched interests who, each year, make our tax code more complex and more unjust. I have not perceived, in 33 months of Democratic control of Congress, much greater appetite on the part of my colleagues to go in and take on the major corporate tax breaks that are in the code than I did in Republican years. But I think we're not going backwards anymore, and if we have a concerted effort led through Citizens for Tax Justice, we have the chance to get after some of the most abusive practices in the code."
Rep. Doggett also criticized Congress's annual practice of enacting "tax extenders," which refer to extensions of tax cuts that are ostensibly temporary and are almost entirely targeted to business interests.
"Each year, corporate lobbyists who only reluctantly knock on the front door of Congress and say, 'Write my corporate client a big fat check,' do not have the slightest hesitancy to come to the side door of Congress and deplete our resources in order to accomplish the very same thing [through the tax code]. And they know once they've done that, they have an entitlement to come back, year after year, in the ritual that is called renewal of the 'extenders.'"
He went on to criticize other tax cuts that are promoted as ways to help the economy even though they are obvious give-aways to corporate interests and have no hope of helping the economy as a whole. The example he cited is the net operating loss (NOL) carryback provisions which are in the America Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and which several lawmakers now want to expand. He explained that "corporations that paid so little in the past now not only want to pay nothing, but to get a check back as if they were entitled to the Earned Income Tax Credit."
Former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt told the crowd that during every debate over taxes, "the only ally we had was this guy and this organization," meaning Bob McIntyre and Citizens for Tax Justice.
"And the commitment was always to a simple idea: fairness. What's fair for everyone and what's fair for ordinary Americans who don't have much of a voice in our country and in our capitol, certainly on tax matters, which are usually esoteric, complicated issues that nobody quite understands."
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David Cay Johnston explained that, "with this little, tiny budget and a great entrepreneurial approach, Bob has found ways again and again to make issues come to life, to get people to understand fundamental unfairness and policies that are hurting the economy instead of helping, but are sold under a different guise... There are a whole host of people... who want to loot our pockets with the tax system or... rig the system. And on the other side, there's a handful of people led by Bob."
Finally, the author and journalist Jonathan Chait spoke of how he first encountered Bob McIntyre when both wrote for the American Prospect.
He also spoke of an episode that he believes shows the how much influence CTJ actually has and how much fear it inspires in its opponents. The episode took place in 1999, when the presidential campaign of George W. Bush told the Washington Post it could write an exclusive story about candidate Bush's tax plan only on the condition that the paper not show the plan to any outside experts before writing and publishing their story.
Amazingly, the Post agreed to these terms, and wrote a story about the tax plan that seemed to reinforce the image of Bush as a "compassionate conservative" that the campaign was trying to hard to project. Of course, CTJ did an analysis in the days following the publication of that article and showed that the Bush tax plan was very regressive and that there was nothing compassionate about it.
Chait said the incident is remarkable because the Bush campaign "crafted an entire media strategy around Citizens for Tax Justice. It was, 'Don't show this to Citizens for Tax Justice before we put it out or we're sunk.' And I think they were right."