The debate over the Buffett Rule is missing something important. As it stands, the fight is between Democrats who believe millionaires shouldn't pay a lower tax rate than the middle class vs. Republicans who says no one's taxes should go up by any amount at any time for any reason.
That's a legitimate fight, to be sure, but there's more to it: approving the Buffett Rule would mean closing a loophole, and in the larger context of the debate over tax policy, this makes all the difference in the world.
Let's step back for a second. Paul Ryan's House Republican budget plan appears to add an additional $5.4 trillion to the deficit over the next decade. Ryan insists that's not the case -- once he "clears out all the special-interest loopholes," his numbers will start to add up.
Which loopholes? Well, it turns out that Ryan refuses to say. Maybe they're secret loopholes; maybe they're imaginary loopholes; but either way, he hasn't identified any -- literally, not one -- loophole he's willing to close to help pay for his own agenda. It is, as Paul Krugman put it, the "mystery meat" of the Republican plan.
"Oh, yeah?" my Republicans friends ask, "well why don't Democrats come up with some loopholes to close?"
And therein lies the point: the Buffett Rule closes a loophole. It's a quirk of the tax code that certain millionaires who enjoy private-equity riches pay a lower tax rate than middle-class families, and approving the Buffett Rule would not only mean establishing a degree of fairness, it would also mean scrapping this loophole.
The point is not lost on President Obama, who made this observation on Wednesday:
"I'd just point out that the Buffett Rule is something that will get us moving in the right direction towards fairness, towards economic growth. It will help us close our deficit and it's a lot more specific than anything that the other side has proposed so far." [emphasis added]
In other words, where Paul Ryan is vague and evasive, Obama is being direct and specific. The president is identifying actual loopholes he wants to see closed (Buffett Rule, corporate-jet loophole, tax subsidies for oil companies), which would total tens of billions of dollars in the coming decade. Meanwhile Republican leaders talk about loopholes, but choose not to back this talk up with anything substantive.
One approach represents an honest budget policy. The other, relying on magic asterisks, is a fraud.