SUNDAY, DEC. 4, 2011

Smart Bombs: A hill you can’t take

The press wants to know the real reason U.S. Rep. Barney Frank is leaving, but I’m more interested in why incumbents want to stay. With Congress’ approval rating at a record low, partisanship at an all-time high and progress at a standstill, what’s the point?

Can’t be that much fun raising money for the next race.

Legislating on Capitol Hill is like conducting trench warfare. Both sides lob talking points while waiting for the other to make a move. When one side pops out of its trench to run a bill, they’re easily cut down. To explain why both sides are increasingly entrenched, I’ll need to move the metaphor from trench warfare to fake wrestling. Fortunately, this doesn’t require a vote.

You’ve seen those masked marauders on TV wrestling, right? They’re the bad guys who conceal their identities, distract the referees, and apply secret holds. Well, the U.S. Senate also had secret holds up until last January. This allowed any single senator to anonymously block a bill. The fact that this egregious practice went on for years tells you all you need to know about the Senate’s respect for the electorate and transparency.

The Senate also tried to reform the modern filibuster, but to no avail. A while back, Democrats and Republicans struck a deal of convenience, so they wouldn’t have to expend any energy during filibusters. Now they just need to start one, and then pop up on TV, or go golfing until 60 votes are rounded up to force a vote.

It’s not the kind of role Jimmy Stewart would’ve ever considered.

So to control Congress, a party needs to capture a majority of seats in the House and at least 60 seats in the Senate. Now, I understand the arguments about how the founders wanted the Senate to be the deliberative body that would temper the passions of the day. But I sort of doubt they wanted 41 out of 535 congressional representatives to run the show.

For instance, a Senate filibuster that lasted more than a year – let’s see you talk that long, Mr. Smith! – has resulted in the resignation of Dr. Donald Berwick as the administrator for the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services. Berwick was granted a recess appointment by President Barack Obama, but he could never get a confirmation vote in the Senate.

In 2009 and 2010, Republican senators launched a record number of filibusters, claiming they had no choice because Senate Democrats wouldn’t let them file amendments to bills. When Republicans last controlled the Senate, Democrats uttered the same complaint.

As a result, very little of substance can get done without corralling three-fifths of the Senate. Can’t blame anyone for quitting and reaching for a fifth of booze instead.

Here we go again. Idaho has the 36th-largest tax burden, says an economist with the Tax Foundation. Mark Robyn relayed this statistic on Thursday at a gathering of the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho. The Tax Foundation is the group that invented Tax Freedom Day, which purportedly marks the point when the average taxpayer stops financing the government and starts keeping their money.

By the same measure, Washington state has the fifth-highest tax burden, which is a figure Tim Eyman will soon be typing IN ALL CAPS in emails to donors. However, this is all quite meaningless. There is no “average taxpayer,” because each person has different circumstances. My tax bill and that of Bill Gates aren’t remotely alike. Averaging them produces no meaningful information.

Furthermore, the Tax Freedom calculation includes all sources of taxation, including federal. Governors and legislatures have no control over federal taxation. Nonetheless, the first online comment on the Tax Freedom article at on our website noted: “Washington ranks 5th in the nation for tax burden? Well isn’t that special. Madam Governor wants to raise the sales tax again?”

Argh! What’s especially frustrating is that the Tax Foundation does calculate state-by-state tax burdens based solely on state and local taxes. The latest rankings, from 2009, are: Idaho 28th, Washington 29th.

Washington shoots up the rankings when all taxes are calculated because the federal income tax is progressive. The more you make, the higher the rate. In relative terms, the state has a lot of high earners. They’d pay the same amount in federal taxes regardless of where they lived.

Even Idaho – provided they could get high-paying jobs there.

Associate Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at garyc@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.

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