When Kevin McCarthy was just a handful of votes from becoming House Speaker, he promised a lot of wacky stuff to right-wing holdouts, from investigatory rabbit holes to rules changes to votes on legislation so bad or unpopular it would normally never see the light of day. In that last category, McCarthy promised Georgia congressman Earl “Buddy” Carter that he would hold a floor vote on a version of the “Fair Tax” proposal that has been kicking around the conservative fever swamps since the early aughts, when Atlanta talk-show host Neal Boortz popularized the concept and talked some politicians into promoting it. Carter loyally backed McCarthy, and all of the Speaker-vote holdouts joined in his call for a floor vote on his bill, reflecting its popularity in the House Freedom Caucus.
The basic idea is to replace today’s federal taxes — income taxes, estate taxes, Social Security payroll taxes, corporate taxes, even gift taxes — with a single federal sales tax. It would obviously have to be set at very high rates, at least 30 percent, by most estimates, to offset the revenue lost from ending the other taxes. Carter’s proposal would include “prebates,” i.e. federal payments to low-income households, to reduce the impact of a high tax on living essentials. But there’s no way to make this sort of tax system anything other than a large boon to people with income and wealth far beyond what they need to live on, which if saved or invested would remain tax free. That’s why the Fair Tax has a perpetual fan base among consumers of right-wing talk and grassroots conservative activists. Because of Boortz’s role in promoting the scheme, it has become something of a Pet Rock for Georgia Republicans in the House, where Carter has picked up the torch originally carried by veteran conservative lawmaker John Linder.
Proponents of the Fair Tax boast that it would lead to the abolition of most of the federal tax code and of the Internal Revenue Service, making April 15 just another day (albeit another day of very high taxes on sales). But there’s another wrinkle that makes the Fair Tax not just wildly regressive but extremely risky in the unlikely event it were ever enacted, as The Bulwark’s Jim Swift explains:
To ensure that the legislation actually replaces rather than adds to existing taxes, [Carter’s] bill includes a provision that the new tax would expire in seven years if the Sixteenth Amendment, which allows for federal income taxes, is not repealed. (Keen-eyed readers will notice that this creates the bizarre possibility of federal tax revenue going down to zero after seven years, if income taxes are not collected but the Sixteenth Amendment remains on the books.)
Anyone familiar with how hard it is to enact constitutional amendments will be alarmed at this provision. Then again, for all its popularity among regular folks who think of themselves as virtuous tightwads, the Fair Tax has never been taken very seriously in Washington, even among conservatives. Yes, 2008 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee campaigned on it, and it has always hung around the margins of public policy like a recurring nightmare. But the more moderate Republicans hate it as a seductive but unworkable scheme that would brand the GOP as the party of high sales taxes rather than the party that wants to keep all taxes as low as possible.
Democrats, of course, are eager to hear a lot more about Republican support for the Fair Tax, as Joseph Zeballos-Roig of Semafor observes:
Outside the deepest trenches of conservatism, a 30 percent sales tax is mostly seen as an obvious political loser. Democrats, for their part, can hardly seem to believe their luck that their opponents might attach themselves to it.
“Great idea,” Biden deadpanned during a speech Monday. “It would raise taxes on the middle class by taxing thousands of everyday items from groceries to gas, while cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans.”
You’d normally figure the Fair Tax chestnut would get buried in the Ways and Means Committee with a lot of other tax-policy proposals that won’t see the light of day in the Senate. But McCarthy promised Carter and his friends a floor vote. The question is how long he can delay the fulfillment of that promise and whether putting it on the back burner risks a grassroots rebellion from the kind of people who consider progressive taxation deeply immoral. It’s one of many calculations McCarthy will have to make to get through the next two years without losing his gavel to a motion to vacate the chair and without creating too much campaign fodder for Democrats.
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