- The Washington Times - Monday, February 10, 2003

How would you react to those Democrats who are denouncing President Bush's tax cuts if you knew they once voted to cut income tax rates for the richest Americans even more than Mr. Bush has proposed?
It's true, which raises questions about the political motivations of Mr. Bush's fiercest critics and the unfairness of an overly progressive tax code that lops off almost 40 percent of the income from those in the top tax brackets.
In 1993, President Clinton proposed and signed a tax increase that shoved the top income tax rate up to 38.6 percent. With Medicare and other taxes, the marginal tax rate on people making $200,000 was effectively more than 40 percent.
Mr. Bush's tax cuts, which Congress passed in 2001 and which would cut tax rates for every American, would lower the top rate to its pre-Clinton-tax-boost level. Under Mr. Bush's new stimulus plan, the current top rates 27, 30, 35 and 38.6 percent would drop to 25, 28, 33 and 35 percent, respectively.
Democrats like Sens. Tom Daschle, Edward Kennedy, Tom Harkin and others say Mr. Bush's lower top rates are unconscionable giveaways to the rich and want them frozen where they are, if not raised even higher. After all, they voted for Mr. Clinton's tax increases in the first place.
Yet, 16 years ago, many of these very same Democrats voted to cut the tax rates across the board, including lowering the top rate to 28 percent. They did it under the well-founded belief that lower tax rates stimulate work, savings, investments, job creation and a stronger economy.
This 1986 tax rate reduction bill also broadened the tax base by eliminating several tax deductions, credits and loopholes. It was an idea championed by President Reagan, who campaigned for re-election on a promise to simplify the system by further lowering the rates in his second term. He triumphed in a 49-state landslide.
Two prominent Democrats also crusaded for the idea: Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri and then-Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey. Much of their Bradley-Gephardt bill went into the new tax law.
The result? Many House and Senate Democrats such as Sens. Kennedy, Harkin, Joseph Biden of Delaware, Paul Sarbanes of Maryland, Ernest Hollings of South Carolina and Patrick Leahy of Vermont voted for Mr. Reagan's vision on Sept. 25, 1986.
That bill lowered the top rate by a whopping 7 percentage points below the higher 35 percent top rate Mr. Bush wants to implement this year.
Now these same Democrats are saying Mr. Bush's 35 percent top rate cut is too extreme and that, if it passes, the wealthiest Americans would be the primary financial beneficiaries. Actually, the U.S. Treasury's distributional tables show that, in percentage terms, most of Mr. Bush's tax cuts go to middle- and lower-income workers.
When he voted for the 1986 law, Mr. Harkin argued that a 28 percent top rate would be good for everybody. Now he says a higher 35 percent top rate only benefits "the wealthiest Americans."
This flip-flop strikes many tax-cutters as a tad dishonest, to say the least. "It is hypocritical of these people to argue that taking the top rate down to 35 percent is a monstrosity, after voting for a much lower income top tax rate in 1986," said veteran tax cut crusader Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform and a leading conservative strategist.
"This is further evidence of the leftward march of the Democratic Party, because 15 years ago even they acknowledged that taking 40 percent of someone's earnings was confiscatory, but today it feels about right to them," says Republican strategist Ed Gillespie, a Bush adviser.
When I asked Kennedy and Harkin aides how they reconciled the two positions, they replied that these were different circumstances. Besides, the 1986 bill was revenue neutral, because it closed a number of tax loopholes, they say.
Would the senators support the president's tax cuts for the top brackets if similar loopholes were eliminated from the tax code? They declined to say.
But who knows? Maybe they'll change their tune after the next elections.
"Don't forget, these Democrats voted for the tax cuts in 1986 after their party had been trounced by Reagan in 1984," Mr. Norquist says. "They will look more kindly on a 28 percent rate after the 2004 Bush landslide."

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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