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The Truth About Taxes and Spending

The Truth About Taxes and Spending

Marie Cocco - April 16, 2009

 WASHINGTON -- There's nothing like tax-filing season to remind Americans that the only things certain in life are death and taxes -- or that few public outcries are considered more patriotic than grousing about paying up.

     What's an ornery tax filer to do? Have a tea party, of course.

     With all the simplistic bombast that we've come to expect from partisans who are locked out of power and floundering with low public approval, conservative and Republican activists around the country have staged quite a number of these media events over the past few days, and already have begun organizing for more on July 4. The nation, they claim with straight -- if angry -- faces, is being strangled by high taxes, heavy-handed government and profligate spending. If only we could sweep away all this excess, we'd return to the shining prosperity we enjoyed ... when?

     Well, they don't say.

     There is little anyone can do about these rants except worry they will be believed by a wider public. So, on the theory that the truth may one day -- some day -- set us free, it is worth examining exactly what we're all paying, and what for.

     The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office keeps track of this sort of thing. Just days ago, it released an updated analysis of the effective federal tax rate -- that is, what individuals and businesses pay after they take exemptions, deductions, credits and so forth. And it turns out that the effective federal tax rate that households across the income spectrum pay is lower now than it was 30 years ago, with an average rate of 20.7 percent. That encompasses all federal taxes, including excise and payroll taxes.

     The effective rate is now lower than it was during Ronald Reagan's second term, lower than during George H.W. Bush's term, and lower than it was during Bill Clinton's tenure -- which is a period most Americans remember pretty fondly as one of robust economic growth. By the time Clinton left office, the deficit had been eliminated and Congress was debating whether it would be beneficial to pay off every dollar of the public debt.

     You would think it would logically follow that the tax-and-spending protesters would embrace Clintonomics. But of course, they did not then and they do not now.

     They continue to let out a primal scream against high taxes and wasteful spending, without ever identifying whose taxes should be cut further: The wealthy? Or the working and middle-class people whose taxes President Obama wants to keep reducing?

     The tea party folks come up with incendiary examples of wasteful spending that this congressman or that slipped into the federal budget. Trouble is, this type of spending is such a small part of the budget that you could eliminate every penny of it and still not have nicked the deficit.

     So what do we really spend all this tax money on? About two-thirds of it goes toward defense programs and health expenditures, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

     Defense spending accounted for 21 percent of the budget last year, including the cost of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- military operations that I've heard exactly no one on the right say we should stop paying for. Nor has there been a hint, just yet, of conservative enthusiasm for the deep cuts in Cold War-era weapons programs that the Obama administration recently proposed.

     Social Security accounts for another 21 percent of spending and big health programs -- Medicare, Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program -- another 20 percent. Do the tax protesters want to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and insurance for children whose parents work, but who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid? OK, maybe they do.

     But the last time this was tried was in the mid-1990s, after the Republican takeover of Congress and the attempt at implementing its Contract with America. The public did, indeed, rise up in revolt -- against the idea of cutting the health care safety net for the elderly, the disabled and the poor.

     Is it just a coincidence that former House Republican leader Dick Armey, one of the architects of the Contract with America -- leads one of the groups that's been promoting the tea parties? Or that, with the 2008 presidential election over, the Fox News network has found in the tea parties a media moment for its conservative audience? 

     The din grows louder only because it must drown out the facts. But the facts still speak, firmly and correctly, for themselves.

mariecocco@washpost.com

     (c) 2009, Washington Post Writers Group

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