George Bush, Tax Hiker

Kerry raised taxes 98 times over 20 years? That's nothing. Bush is about to do the same 63 times in a single day.

Jonathan Chait

Los Angeles Times

October 15, 2004

He voted 98 times to raise taxes. I mean, these aren't make-up figures. — George W. Bush

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If there's a single piece of data President Bush wants to bring to your attention, it's that John Kerry, during his 20 years in the Senate, voted to raise taxes 98 times. Bush repeats this often, usually in a tone of incredulity. But Kerry is a piker. When Bush signs the big corporate tax bill passed this week by the Republican Congress, he will be approving 63 different tax increases with a single stroke of the pen.

Revenue provision B 8, for example — "Disallowance of certain partnership loss transfers with partner loss limits for transfer of interest in electing investment partnerships" — might not be great fodder for a Kerry campaign commercial, but a tax increase it most definitely is.

You may be thinking, "Wait. I thought that bill was a huge giveaway of tax cuts to special interests." And you're right — it is. The point is that any tax bill, ev en a big giveaway, is going to be a rococo combination of tax increases and decreases. That's one reason Bush's "98 tax increases" jab at Kerry is so dishonest.

Just last spring, Bush was claiming Kerry had voted for higher taxes 350 times. That number has now been scaled back to 98. In fact, depending on how you define it, you can come up with almost any number you want.

The 350 included different tax increases in the same bill. Today's 98 figure avoids that trick, but still counts each of the many procedural votes on any bill as a separate hike.

What precisely is the import of Kerry's 98 tax increases supposed to be?

Scanning through newspaper articles and television transcripts, I have yet to find a member of the Bush campaign explain the meaning of this number they keep repeating. The closest thing I could find was a line from Bush himself. I will reprint here his argument in toto, with all relevant context included: "He's voted in the United States Senate to increase tax es 98 times. That's a lot." So there you have it.

The Bush campaign gleefully sends out an annotated list of all 98 votes. You know, just in case you forgot his "1993 Vote To Raise Taxes By $790 Million By Taxing Diesel Fuel Used By Barges." Or his "1987 Vote To Increase Taxes by $300 Million on Poultry Industry and Cattle Feeding Companies." Or the fact that "In 1985, Kerry Voted To Limit Amount of Farm Losses That Could Be Deducted From Non-Farm Income." I doubt diesel barge owners, the poultry industry or extremely unprofitable part-time farmers need reminding.

One of the tricks of the methodology is that it not only counts even tiny or undeniably beneficent tax hikes, it counts any vote that could conceivably lead to higher taxes. That includes the procedural votes — cloture votes, motions to proceed and other arcane hurdles — often required to pass a single tax hike. Kerry's support for Bill Clinton's 1993 tax hike alone accounted for 16 of the 98 votes. Another 43 were merely Kerry approving a broad goal to reduce the deficit to a given level. Three more of Kerry's votes came from his opposition to imposing a requirement that tax hikes receive a three-fifths supermajority.

If Republicans really believe in the strategy of saddling their opponents with huge numbers of anti-tax-cut votes, they could start holding votes on tax cuts, or tax cut-related procedural motions, multiple times a day, every day. (George P. Bush, in 2044: "My opponent voted to increase your taxes 3 million times! That's a lot.")

But let us take the 98 votes at face value. Does this prove Bush's contention that Kerry sits far outside the mainstream? You can't answer that without some basis of comparison. In 1992, George H.W. Bush painted Bill Clinton as a hopeless liberal, the primary evidence for this claim being the fact that Clinton allegedly raised taxes 128 times as governor of Arkansas. So that would make Kerry, with his 98 tax hikes, some … let's see, 23% less liberal than Clinton, who is viewed (outside conservative circles) as a moderate.

Meanwhile, Kerry's campaign has a detailed list of 642 Kerry votes to reduce taxes. (Maybe Bush should be painting Kerry as a crazed tax-cutting zealot totally unconcerned about fiscal responsibility.)

Meanwhile, Dick Cheney as a member of Congress from Wyoming voted to raise taxes 144 times. If 98 tax-hike votes make Kerry a far-out liberal, than Cheney would have to be placed somewhere in the ideological vicinity of Che Guevara.

If Bush had merely said that Kerry was more likely to raise your taxes, at least the accusation would be meaningful and plausible. After all, Kerry did vote for the last two major tax increases, in 1990 and 1993, and he openly plans to restore the top tax bracket to where it stood under Clinton.

But the Bush philosophy seems to be: Why level an honest accusation when a dishonest one is nearer to hand?