If some Republicans have their way, the party soon will make history for all the wrong reasons.
In the past 100 years, since the authority of Congress to tax income was enumerated in the 16th Amendment, marginal income tax rates have never been raised when Republicans have held the majority in the House of Representatives. For nearly a century, Republican-controlled Houses held the line on tax rates, a Republican coup de pointe to Democratic tax-increase parries. Here's the question for my fellow Republicans: Do we want to be the first-ever GOP House majority to raise federal marginal income tax rates?
The federal power to tax income was made part of the U.S. Constitution with the ratification of the 16th Amendment in February 1913. What you may not know is that it was a Republican-controlled Congress that passed the 16th Amendment in 1909. It did so as an act of political posturing that backfired. A year later, Republicans were crushed in the elections of 1910. They lost control of the House and lost 12 seats in the Senate.
Since the federal power to tax income became part of the Constitution, Republicans have controlled the House for a total of 30 years, including 18 of the past 22. Throughout those 30 years, federal taxpayers have been safe. Income tax rates either have held steady or have been lowered.
Tax increases that occurred during World War I came under Democratic control of the House. Later, in 1932, a Republican president colluded with the House Democratic majority to take the top marginal rate from 25 percent to 63 percent. Despite those tax increases, revenue to the U.S. Treasury dropped, and the economy, struggling to recover from the Great Depression, slipped back into a recession.
Over the years, both Republican and Democratic presidents have schemed with Democrat-controlled Houses to raise tax rates, but not once have we seen the converse.
Historically, Republicans have stood firm in their opposition to tax hikes, refusing to increase the federal government's burden on taxpayers. We've understood that Washington's problem is not a lack of revenue. The federal government took in nearly $2.5 trillion over the past year. That was enough money just a short seven years ago to have a balanced budget.
The so-called fiscal cliff is less than three weeks away, but I'm afraid an increasing number of my Republican colleagues are turning away from the historic principles that served our country and our party over the past century. I am stunned to hear leading voices in my party willing to put tax increases on the table. Can anyone ever recall a core Democratic principle being laid on the table in order to reach a deal with Republicans?
Republicans don't need to raise the white flag of surrender. We have leverage, if we're courageous enough to use it. The House controls each and every appropriations bill, and the House is the only body empowered to initiate a tax bill. Then, of course, there's the debt ceiling.
The president desperately needs an increase in the debt ceiling to sustain his spending. The federal government will hit the current ceiling of nearly $16.4 trillion in just a couple of months. At the current rate of spending, the ceiling will need to be increased by another trillion dollars in 2013. While the president would love to be able to raise the debt ceiling himself, he can't. That's why I introduced a resolution last week to say that Congress must not surrender that authority to the president (H.R. 826). We need to put the House on record opposing Mr. Obama's desire to unilaterally raise the limit of how much the government can borrow.
For years, members of both parties have given lip service to the need for entitlement reform and spending cuts, but the president and Democrats are giving increasing signals that entitlement spending should continue unabated. It's time for Republicans to hold their ground and do what's best for the American people.
If Republicans really believe in the principles of smaller government and economic liberty -- as we have over the past 100 years, and as many of us still do -- we should be far more concerned about getting principle right instead of worrying about polls and re-election.
Abraham Lincoln reminded us to "adhere to your purpose, and you will soon feel as well as you ever did. On the contrary, if you falter, and give up, you will lose the power of keeping any resolution, and will regret it all your life."
Republicans, I fear, are setting themselves up for a lot of regret. If we intend to leave a legacy for the American people and for our party, we must not become the first House Republican majority to raise federal marginal income tax rates. Allowing rates to rise is just as bad as proposing them to rise. Americans ultimately will appreciate our steadfastness, and the Republican Party will be better for it if we stand on the historic principles that we've fought for over so many decades.
Rep. John Fleming, M.D., is a Louisiana Republican.
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