Commentary

Action to Tame the Tax Hike Monster

By Peter J. Ferrara
This article appeared in the Washington Times.

Today, while you are scrambling to pay your taxes, Congress will be taking a historic vote. Scheduled on congressional calendars that day is the Tax Limitation Amendment (TLA), which would amend the Constitution to require a two-thirds vote of each House of Congress before taxes could be raised.

The amendment was introduced in the House by Reps. Joe Barton, Texas Republican, and John Shadegg, Arizona Republican, and in the Senate by John Kyl, Arizona Republican. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott both support it. In a House vote last April 15, an astounding 243 members voted for the amendment, including many Democrats as well as almost all of the Republicans. As a result, the amendment was just 47 votes short of passage by the House.

Such taxpayer protection is long overdue. Taxes at all levels of government now take at least 40 percent of the income of the average American family. That average family now spends more on taxes than on food, clothing and shelter combined.

Moreover, our current system has a bias in favor of higher taxes and government spending. Special interests gain greatly from a government handout concentrated narrowly on them. So they can spend great amounts of time and resources fighting for their government freebies and the taxes to pay for them. The taxes, however, are spread broadly across honest, hard-working people all over the country, busy raising families, holding down their jobs, keeping up the house, etc. They don’t have the time and resources to take on the organized special interests in a fight against each government handout.

Collectively, however, these special interest claims are bankrupting our government and the working people who pay for it. This dysfunction of our system is a key insight of the prestigious public choice school of economics, for which founder James Buchanan won the Nobel Prize.

A two-thirds supermajority requirement for tax increases would counter this problem. Taxes could then be raised only when there was a broad consensus throughout the country that the extra revenue was justified. The special interests would face a generally insurmountable obstacle to overwhelming the general public interest when trying to raise taxes and spending.

Such a supermajority requirement is hardly unprecedented. The Constitution requires supermajorities for congressional action in 10 instances, including to override a veto, to ratify a treaty, to propose a constitutional amendment and to impeach the president. The Senate has long had a rule requiring a supermajority to end debate on a bill, which gives rise to the filibuster. Another Senate rule requires a two-thirds vote to depart from budget procedures and requirements. The House has long had supermajority requirements to suspend different rules.

Moreover, 12 states have already adopted a supermajority requirement before their legislature can raise taxes. These include Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota and Washington. Most of these states require a two-thirds majority or more. Last fall, 70 percent of voters in Florida voted to require a two-thirds supermajority of all voters in a special referendum before taxes could be raised. More than one-third of all Americans live in one of these states.

In addition, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, South Carolina, Utah and Washington mandate a two-thirds vote of their legislatures on various budget and tax issues. Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Nebraska and Rhode Island require supermajorities for the approval of a budget or other appropriations.

Studies show that in states with a supermajority requirement for tax increases, both taxes and government spending are lower. That reduced government burden in turn means higher economic growth, more jobs, and more rapidly increasing wages.

In running up a $5 million debt and subjecting citizens to a crushing tax burden, Congress has clearly shown it is not capable of protecting the interests of the American people over the long run without constitutional help. A supermajority requirement for tax increases would return power to the people over taxes, rather than the narrow special interests that now dominate Washington.

But the special interests are counting on the average person not paying much attention to what is going on in Washington, leaving them free rein to do their will. Let your representatives know you will by watching their vote on April 15, and it will affect how you vote the next chance you get.

Peter Ferrara is chief economist and general counsel for Americans for Tax Reform and an associate policy analyst with the Cato Institute.