Party Crashers
Pointless concession stand.


Ramesh Ponnuru

I believe it was Richard Cobden, a great 19th-century British free trader, who remarked that many times he had known Parliament to do the right thing — but never just because it was the right thing. Very often, a bill that advances the public interest can pass only if it also includes special-interest provisions that win the votes of the last few senators it takes to get to 51. If the bill’s sponsors calculate that they have to pay that price in order to prevail, it would be childish to object.

But what’s the point of making such concessions to senators who won’t vote for the bill? Monday’s Wall Street Journal reported on $6 billion in last-minute amendments to the Senate tax bill. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, inserted a tax break that will benefit Las Vegas. Hawaii Democrat Daniel Inouye got a tax break for airborne sightseers. Other amendments were sponsored by Charles Schumer and Joseph Biden. None of these senators are voting for the tax bill. So why are they, even in a small way, shaping it?

A Senate Republican aide attributes the inclusion of these provisions to Finance Committee chairman Charles Grassley’s desire for bipartisanship. “I don’t know that our members are all that excited about” the amendments, the aide says. “I think the members are kind of surprised by the level, the magnitude of what [Grassley] gave.” Legislative favors of this sort, he adds, are a “Senate tradition.” Would that Sen. Schumer showed such deference to tradition when it comes to filibustering judicial nominations.

The $550 billion tax cut passed by the House reduces tax rates on capital gains and dividends to 15 percent, forever (essentially). The $350 billion tax cut passed by the Senate eliminates the tax on dividends, for three years. The goal now is to “reconcile” these two bills into one that can pass both chambers — and it would appear that the odds of passage will be higher the closer the size of the final bill is to $350 billion. So isn’t the obvious solution to combine the dividend tax rate from the House bill and the sunset from the Senate bill? The higher tax rate would make it possible for the sunset to come later — maybe as late as 2010. It sounds like a good deal to me.