Buffett Rule Heads to a Vote, Nears End of Its Legislative Life

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The proposal will likely die quickly and quietly on the Senate floor on Monday, but the idea of taxing the rich will continue to dominate the campaign.

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Kevin Dietsch / UPI

Though the Buffett Rule should die quickly and quietly on the Senate floor on Monday, fear not: The political idea of taxing the rich will continue to dominate the campaign trail.

The Buffett Rule, after all, gives President Obama the chance to sharpen his image as a candidate, while simultaneously showcasing the stark differences between the Republicans and the Democrats this election cycle.

It highlights the Democrats' desire and willingness to raise revenues to reduce the deficit, as the Republicans, including Romney, continue to adhere to their no-new-taxes orthodoxy.

And, perhaps, most importantly, the Buffett Rules puts Romney on the defensive about his own wealth. It reminds voters that Romney wants to cut taxes for guys like him--guys who earn millions in income from carried interest, capital gains, and dividends. These types of investments provide income for one-third of top earners, according to Donald Marron of the Tax Policy Center, but across the economic spectrum, just 6 percent of Americans' income comes from such investments. Try explaining that in a swing state.

Critics of the Buffett Rule on both the right and the left can offer up a litany of reasons as to why the Buffett Rule is bad policy.

It does not delve deeply enough into the real issues of comprehensive tax reform, they say. Conservatives argue it unfairly asks wealthy people to pay even higher taxes when low-income people pay no federal taxes thanks to deductions such as the earned income tax credit. And, many scoff at the estimated $47 billion that the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates the Buffett Rule would collect for the federal government over the next 10 years--as if $47 billion is chump change, the price of a bad cup of coffee.

None of this matters, though, to voters outside of the beltway. Have they ever cared about the deep intricacies of tax policy, apart from the rate of taxes they pay?

The Buffett Rule gives President Obama a clear, distinct talking point for the campaign trail: a rallying cry for swing states hard hit by job losses and by a generation invigorated by Occupy Wall Street's idea of the 99 percent. It gives Obama an opening bid and a marker, if re-elected, for whatever tax debates occur during the lame-duck session, when Congress and the president will decide the fate of trillions of dollars of expiring tax provisions.

The Romney camp has responded to the Buffett Rule by dismissing it and using it as an opportunity to pivot to Obama's and Romney's previous job creation records: also, worthy topics.

But, Americans aren't going to turn away from the Buffett Rule just yet, even if it's a political gimmick. A Gallup poll from Friday showed that 60 percent of Americans support the concept, and among independents, that number rose even higher, to 63 percent. Who cares in the short run if the Buffett Rule is mediocre policy, if it's captured the imagination of Americans outside of Washington and if it keeps inspiring those who care about economic fairness, enough so that they go to the polls? Voters, right now, are the real prize through November 2012.

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Nancy Cook is a correspondent for National Journal.

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