What Happened to Tax Reform at Mitt Romney’s Convention?

Yes, political conventions are costly anachronisms. But, with patience and time, one can learn quite a lot about a political party by watching, or reading, what the confab produces. Thus, a few thoughts about the GOP and fiscal policy as Republicans decamp from Tampa:

Mitt Romney: In last night’s acceptance speech, he sketched out his personal biography and delivered an effective brief on why we shouldn’t reelect President Obama. But, oddly, when it came to taxes Romney was nearly silent. And he said as much about what he would not do as what he would. A vow to not raise taxes on the middle class and a promise to reduce taxes on business was about it. Romney never mentioned tax reform, which had been a keystone issue for him earlier in the campaign.

His five-point job-creating plan included promises to achieve energy independence, enhance education and job training, reduce the deficit, enact new trade agreements, and encourage small business with lower taxes and less regulation. In this, the biggest of Romney’s campaign speeches, tax reform went the way of immigration reform. It was a non-issue.

Paul Ryan: The GOP’s vice-presidential pick is, sadly, not only running against Barack Obama and Joe Biden, he is running against himself. In his Wednesday night acceptance speech, Ryan was outraged that Obama cut $716 billion in future Medicare payments to hospitals and managed care companies to help fund the 2010 Affordable Care Act. “An obligation we have to our parents and grandparents is being sacrificed,” Ryan charged. Of course, the House budget written by Ryan just five months ago grabbed the same $716 billion from Medicare providers to reduce the budget deficit.

Ryan also blasted Obama for doing “exactly nothing” with the “urgent report” of Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the chairs of the 2010 White House fiscal commission. Ryan, a member of the panel, voted against those urgent recommendations.

The GOP platform: I know, platforms are not to be taken seriously. Yet, they represent, in many ways, the aspirations of a party’s activists. The GOP platform, not surprisingly, endorses the outlines of Mitt Romney’s tax reform—extend the Bush-era tax cuts, cut marginal rates by 20 percent, repeal the estate tax and the Alternative Minimum Tax, and eliminate taxes on investment income for low- and moderate-income households.

But it goes far beyond that.

  • It would preserve special tax treatment for charities and the deduction for contributions to those organizations—the only tax preferences the platform would explicitly protect.
  • It endorses a constitutional amendment requiring a super-majority congressional vote for “any tax increase.”
  • It says if Congress ever passes a value-added tax or national sales tax, it must also completely repeal the income tax.
  • It explicitly rejects the idea that tax subsidies are a form of spending. This is, the platform says, an “insidious” interpretation that “means that any earnings the government allows a taxpayer to keep through a deduction, exemption, or credit are equivalent to spending the same amount on some program.” This view reflects the challenge Romney would face should he try to eliminate some of these subsidies to pay for his tax cuts.

The rhetoric and policy papers that came out of Romney’s convention won’t be the last word on taxes or fiscal policy. But these events are forums for candidates to make their best case for why they should be president. And, if this convention is any evidence, tax reform is no longer a major part of Mitt Romney’s argument.