Just the (Tax) Facts: GOP Candidates Parade Terrible Tax Ideas, Huntsman Bucks Grover Norquist


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On Wednesday night, the GOP presidential candidates gathered at the Reagan Library for a particularly spirited debate in which candidates repeatedly turned back to tax policy. As with past debates, the GOP candidates attempted to rewrite tax history and reinforce their complete intransience on raising revenue, though there were a few glimmers of moderation.

Here are the highlights:

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, in the most striking moment of the debate, called out the other candidates for signing Grover Norquist’s No-Tax Pledge, saying that he would “love to get everybody to sign a pledge to take no pledges,” noting that taking such pledges “jeopardizes your ability to lead.”

Unfortunately, he followed up this statement by pointing to his record of tax cuts in Utah, which Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ) has called this a case study in bad tax policy. Adding to this, Huntsman’s recently released tax plan is regressive and is best characterized as tax loophole consolidation for the rich. He starts with a simplified tax system recommended by the Bowles Simpson commission, then adds huge loopholes for the rich by eliminating taxes on capital gains and stock dividends.

Texas Governor Rick Perry sought to make a name for himself at his first debate appearance by supporting the radical balanced budget amendment (BBA) promoted by Congressional Republicans, calling it a way to “start getting the snake’s head cut off.” Rather than killing some metaphoric government snake however, it is much more likely that a BBA would tie the hands of lawmakers to react to changing economic conditions and force immediate catastrophic cuts to critical government programs like Social Security, food inspection, and housing. Although Perry is one of the BBA’s most outspoken advocates, all of the GOP presidential candidates have voiced their support for it in principle.

Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann rewrote the legacy of Ronald Reagan in claiming that, like the entirely of the Republican field, Reagan would not embrace a deal involving $10 in spending cuts for every $1 increase in tax revenues. Her reasoning is that Reagan’s own 1982 3-to-1 deficit reduction deal failed because the spending cuts did not fully materialize (which is disputed). Bachmann’s logic break downs, however, when you consider that Reagan did not support increasing taxes just this one time, but actually increased taxes 10 more times after the 1982 deal. If anything, the lesson is that Reagan was more willing to compromise, as shown by his willingness to embrace much less lopsided deals than the candidates today reject outright.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney did reject the claim that 47% of Americans pay no federal income taxes (a popular conservative talking point) when prompted by the moderator. Instead, Romney rightfully noted that every American feels that they are contributing “through the income tax or through other tax vehicles” and that he does not want “to raise taxes on the American people,” presumably even on those on low end who pay very little. 

Americans are, in fact, justified in feeling they contribute to government, and CTJ has provided estimates showing that all Americans pay taxes. Although Romney signaled his intention to not raise taxes on the poor, his recently released economic plan provides insignificant token relief for lower income Americans and heavily favors tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations.

Former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza Herman Cain was asked a fantastic question by the moderator on whether General Electric’s infamously low tax bill is fair. He answered that “the government needs to get out of the business of trying to figure out who gets a tax break here, who get’s a tax break there.” Though he started off well, Cain then pivoted into promoting his rather ridiculous “9-9-9” plan to replace the entire federal tax system with a 9% national sales tax, 9% income tax, and 9% corporate income tax rate. Needless to say, any plan advocating a national sales tax, a flat tax, and a 75% cut in the corporate income rate would be extremely regressive and almost certainly not raise enough revenue to fund basic government functions.

Former Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich must not have read Bob McIntyre’s piece debunking the former House Speaker’s claims that he balanced the federal budget. Gingrich claimed during the debate that, as Speaker of the House, he “balanced the budget four straight years.” The problem, of course, is that economic growth and the 1993 repeal of the Reagan tax cuts (which every Republican including Gingrich opposed at the time) were what really led to the balanced budgets.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum added his name to the long list of supporters of a repatriation amnesty, noting that such a provision is included in his plan to create jobs. In advocating for a repatriation amnesty, Santorum is following the leadership of the Republican Party and Cain, who has been the proposal’s most vocal proponent during the GOP debates.

Texas Rep. Ron Paul took his anti-government and anti-tax beliefs to their logical extreme in defending a letter he wrote during the Reagan administration informing the President that he was leaving the Republican Party. Whereas the rest of the Republican field admires Reagan without reservation, Paul called Reagan’s fiscal record during the 1980’s “a bad scene,” explaining that Reagan taxed and spent too much, leading to massive deficits. Though it’s absurd to claim Reagan taxed too much, Paul is right to point out that Reagan presided over such massive deficits that by the end of his tenure the national debt had tripled.

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