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Obey's war surtax would cover 6% of war spending -- but Congress thinks even that's too much

PH2009113004070.jpgDavid Obey's effort to fund the expansion of the Afghanistan war with a surtax is running into some opposition. Evan Bayh, who generally presents himself as a paragon of fiscal rectitude, flatly said it's not going to happen. "National security comes first," he said, though it's not clear how paying for a war relegates it to coming second. Ben Nelson wants to sell war bonds, which is to say, he wants us to borrow.

But unlike on health care, Bayh and Nelson don't much matter. They are not the 59th and 60th vote you're going to need for this policy, because they aren't opposed to expanding the war. Liberals, conversely, are. In theory, the hawks should be the ones who need to make concessions here, because the liberals are presumably willing to let the war come to a quick end. Sadly, that may not prove the case: Laura Rozen reports that Obey's bill isn't likely to see the floor of the House, much less the president's desk.

This is, to put it simply, insane. As Annie Lowrey points out, Obey isn't trying to make the Iraq and Afghanistan wars deficit-neutral. He's not even trying to pay for the total 2010 spending on the two wars. The 1 percent surtax would fund one of the wars, for one year. And even that's proving too much. We're not just unwilling to pay for these wars. We're unwilling to pay for 6 percent of these wars. To put that number in context, the Senate health-care bill pays for 114 percent of itself. And people say that's not enough!

As Matt Yglesias comments, nobody seems to really think there are national interests at stake that are critical enough to be worth paying slightly higher taxes for. But if a war's not worth paying for, how can it be worth fighting? And if we don't pay for the war in the FY 2010 budget, we still need to pay back the loans."

On some level, I understand the congressional opposition. Taxes are unpopular. But this town is packed full of deficit hawks. Where are the editorial pages on this? Where's the Peterson Institute? David Walker? The Committee for a Responsible Budget? Politics might stop at the water's edge, but spending certainly doesn't, and nor does debt.

Photo credit: Lawrence Jackson/Associated Press .

By Ezra Klein  |  December 1, 2009; 3:39 PM ET
Categories:  Afghanistan  
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That combination of fiscal conservatism and war hawkishness is a scourge. It has crippled the economy for the whole decade. Every member of that club is a dangerous opportunist.

Posted by: GCReptile | December 1, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

All the Republicans who constantly harp on the HCR budget ramifications and how 114% isn't enough say... PEEP!

Posted by: MyrtleParker | December 1, 2009 4:16 PM | Report abuse

Where oh where is the MSM challenging the budget chicken-hawks on paying for an occupation that is unpopular with the american people? The tax legislation should be called "The Afghanistan Occupation Surtax of 2009" or something like that. Comparing this to Obama's first big legislation HCR that is paid for and does reduce the deficit seems like a natural thing to do, but I am not part of the village...

Posted by: srw3 | December 1, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

It's the machismo of war. All of us out in the public are the damas. We don't get to decide what to eat, and we don't get to help pay--even if it's still our money in the end.

Posted by: bmull | December 1, 2009 4:30 PM | Report abuse

Maybe Obama could pass a worthwhile healthcare reform if he declared war on Insurancecompanystan

Posted by: NS12345 | December 1, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

Oh and for what it's worth this is why many, many progressives are casting a jaundiced eye on this reform. It is very, very likely that the cost savings we achieve by skimping on subsidies, etc... will just go to funding the next Republican invasion.

Posted by: NS12345 | December 1, 2009 4:36 PM | Report abuse

Borrowing (through the deficit, meaning from other countries) to fund efforts to protect national security THREATENS national security. But thirty years of "no new taxes" and the ramifications that befall politicians at the election polls whenever sensible taxes are proposed (or accepted as part of a compromise on legislation) have left us with this legacy-- we will only borrow and spend, never tax and pay for our spending. I am surprised we have any taxes left at all. Hello inflation.

Posted by: brad251 | December 1, 2009 5:07 PM | Report abuse

See, this is a case where it's just completely impossible for Ezra and Matt to wring their hands and point to institutional barbarisms as the source of all liberal woes. At some point you have to acknowledge that our side's elected officials suffer from a chronic lack of balls, and that that is probably an easier problem to solve than the filibuster. (In fact, said practice can only be gotten rid of by a well-betesticled caucus.)

I would say Nancy Pelosi was an exception to the ball-less trend, but that could be construed as a diss.

Posted by: fumphis | December 1, 2009 5:25 PM | Report abuse

I'm sorry, but aren't you one of those people who regularly proclaim that opponents of the so-called stimulus package are nuts, and that in fact we should have more stimulus, deficits be damned, because otherwise we'll all soon die painful deaths?

Please reconcile those posts with this one, where you praise higher taxes in the name of deficit reduction.

Posted by: ostap666 | December 1, 2009 5:50 PM | Report abuse

I don't understand why we should raise taxes for the war in the middle of a major recession. It is stupid, frankly, and intellectually dishonest. We want to debt finance as much as possible to fight off deflation. The tax is a sop to the anti-war left who are being just as hypocritical about this as the deficit hawks. If you believe inflation is not a concern and deflation is, and you supported the stimulus you have to oppose this tax. Frankly Ezra I am disappointed you are beating this drum. You are usually so honest and fair minded.

Posted by: Robert82 | December 1, 2009 6:28 PM | Report abuse

ostap, Robert: the hypocrisy is on the Republican side. This is proof that Republicans will only then oppose debt-financed spending, and only then insist on "fiscal conservatism", when the spending actually benefits regular Americans, as opposed to the rich, the oil industry, or the military-industrial complex.

Republicans have NEVER in living memory opposed deficit-financed tax cuts, as long as they went to the very rich; NEVER opposed deficit-financed military adventures; NEVER opposed deficit-financed corporate welfare (including those billion dollar subsidies to, of all things, the oil industry).

The point of the war surtax, as I understand, is to make Americans understand that war isn't free. If they support it, they should be willing to pay for it. It is indicative of the complete moral corruption of our political system that this test - if you want it, pay for it - is applied to everything from local schools to Social Security to health care reform but NOT to the military. And voila, the result is that Americans spend more on the military than the rest of the world combined but have the shabbiest public education system, the least generous welfare network and the least accessible health care system in the developed world. As the economists say, incentives matter.

Posted by: carbonneutral | December 1, 2009 6:50 PM | Report abuse

We've come to a pretty pass if the best card the antiwar movement has to play is talking about the imposition of a new war tax. Time was when people who opposed wars out of conscience would characteristically *refuse* to pay such taxes. as in Henry David Thoreau going to jail for his unwillingness to fund the Mexican-American war, which he considered a war to expand slavery. Nowadays it's the reflexively pro-war folks whose consciences are shocked by the idea that their money should be taken away from them by the government and used to pay for a war... that they support! This is baffling. At what point in history did war taxes become a dovish policy, and outrage at the idea of such taxes the hawkish position? Cause that really seems backwards.

Posted by: jmcneil1 | December 1, 2009 7:32 PM | Report abuse

"At what point in history did war taxes become a dovish policy, and outrage at the idea of such taxes the hawkish position? Cause that really seems backwards."

There is method in this madness. It is not that we are not paying taxes for the military right now - it is just that people don't realize it. Of course we'll have to pay for this sooner or later. The difference is in making it explicit. By cutting taxes while starting deficit-financed wars, Bush was able to get much higher support for his policies than if he'd have had to raise revenue to pay for them. The other side of it is that by sending poor volunteers mostly from rural areas as cannon fodder, the outrage over the sacrifice of lives for frivolous reasons has not materialized. In this situation, maybe the most anti-militarist stance would be to call for a draft. Crazy but there is method in it.

Posted by: carbonneutral | December 1, 2009 8:35 PM | Report abuse

There is a pretty simple principle at work here: if you force someone to pay for something out of their own pocket, they will be less likely to support it. Tie new programs to new taxes, and suddenly voters and politicians will start having second thoughts about whether they REALLY want that war or REALLY want that new public benefit.

Pay-Go works better than "starve the beast" in the same way that forcing someone to pay in cash and get a second job if they want to spend more provides more restraints on spending than giving him a credit card.

Posted by: constans | December 2, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

bring the troops home, stop this absurd expansion of the existing US health care welfare state, and slash the budget of every department 5% across the board, and tell the cabinet heads to make it work.

are we going to get reduced this and reduced that? sure, but its all we can afford.

Posted by: dummypants | December 2, 2009 1:32 PM | Report abuse

If the circumstances were exactly reversed and Karl Rove was still in the WH, the war surcharge would already be on the floor of Congress.

When, oh, when are Dems going to learn?

Posted by: slowpoke132 | December 2, 2009 2:34 PM | Report abuse

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