Economy & Business

The FairTax Makes a Comeback

It won’t become law, but some new congressional Republicans think it can help the GOP win in 2016.

Republican senator David Perdue of Georgia sounds an awful lot like President Obama when he describes his plan to overhaul the tax code, which would repeal federal taxes and replace them with a consumption tax known as the “FairTax.” 

“[The FairTax] really levels the playing field in that regardless of who you are, where you are, you’ll pay your fair share, and it will be the same amount,” Perdue tells NRO. “It will be equitable.”

Perdue couches his description of the FairTax in rhetorical terms — “levels the playing field,” “pay your fair share,” “equitable” — that could’ve come straight out of Obama’s State of the Union address, and that’s no accident. Whatever the political prospects of the proposal — it has failed over and over again when proposed in the past, and it is expected to meet a similar fate this time around — it could allow the GOP to seize the mantle of economic populism from the Democrats, and, in so doing, to “win” tax reform in the eyes of voters. That’s important, because tax-reform legislation is one of the few big, ostensibly bipartisan efforts the new Congress is expected to undertake, and the scramble to take credit for it ahead of the 2016 presidential election will be fierce.   

The FairTax legislation put forward in the Senate by Perdue, his fellow Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson, and their colleague Jerry Moran (R., Kan.), was written with 2016 in mind. Perdue says that on Tuesday, before listening to Obama announce his desire to raise taxes once again, he and Isakson discussed the importance of their work in influencing the debate on tax reform. Perdue — the successful manager known for his ability to turn around businesses and revive brands – says he hopes to help move 2016 GOP presidential candidates in the direction of the FairTax.

The proposal itself is relatively simple: It would eliminate all federal income, payroll, gift, and estate taxes, and replace them with a 23 percent national sales tax. In addition to making the U.S. economy more competitive on a global scale and putting people back to work, the plan would strip the IRS of its ability to interfere in the lives of ordinary Americans, according to the conservative freshman from Georgia. Other longtime proponents of the idea agree, and argue that by replacing a system that taxes an individual’s earnings with one that exclusively taxes that same individual’s spending, it would allow each citizen the freedom to determine his own tax burden.

Perdue’s hopes for 2016 notwithstanding, the FairTax has not been a winning issue in past Republican presidential primaries. A number of GOP primary candidates, from Mike Huckabee in 2008 to Herman Cain in 2012, have failed to win the nomination while championing the proposal. And it will still be a loser come 2016, says Ryan Ellis, the  tax-policy director at Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform. “If this thing [the FairTax] was going to catch on as the next great hot thing, it would have,” Ellis says. “It’s not a practical tax-reform plan for governing, it’s something that people wish, aspirationally, they could put out there.”  

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The tax-reform proposals with the best chance of succeeding in Congress — and helping Republican candidates win in 2016 — are those that move incrementally toward the FairTax’s goals without overhauling the system in one fell swoop, Ellis says. Such proposals would likely combine some of the FairTax’s reforms — such as repealing the death tax and capital-gains taxes — with measures aimed at broadening the tax base of higher-income individuals. The winning formula to achieve fundamental tax reform, according to Ellis, is a plan that is pro-growth, pro-family, and “paid for by, as much as you can, rich guys.”

But those who warn that the FairTax lacks political viability only give more motivation to Rob Woodall (R., Ga.), the lead sponsor of FairTax legislation in the House of Representatives.

“That’s what I love about this bill: Washington hates this bill,” Woodall says. “There are all sorts of forces in town that discourage this kind of giant reform, but it’s being marketed at a grassroots level.”

Woodall’s Georgia district has a history of electing FairTax proponents to Congress. Woodall’s seat was previously occupied by John Linder, a tireless champion who first introduced the FairTax bill in 1999, and reintroduced it in each new Congress until he retired in 2011. He never succeeded in changing the law, but he did quite a bit to build support in his home state.

As Americans for Fair Taxation president Steve Hayes tells it, Atlanta-based radio talk-show host Neal Boortz is largely responsible for getting the idea off the ground. Boortz wrote The FairTax Book with Linder and trumpeted his support for the reform to a southeastern audience who readily took to the idea. Hayes’s organization works to garner more support for the idea across the United States.

The “power base” of the FairTax proposal has moved out of the Southeast and into the Midwest, Woodall says. Moran’s support as a lead co-sponsor has helped the idea gain traction in Kansas. A top Moran aide who worked on the FairTax bill tells NRO that Moran began laying the groundwork to lead on this issue last year, as former Georgia senator Saxby Chambliss was preparing to retire. Chambliss was a staunch supporter of the FairTax, and the aide says the two offices worked behind the scenes to ensure that the push for tax reform would live on. Woodall thinks the geographical shift in support will help the idea flourish in California and the Northwest. Moreover, he wants to gather supporters in key 2016 Republican-primary states and grow grassroots support in order to influence the GOP’s agenda.

But the effort to sell the FairTax primarily to devoted conservatives has left others in the dark as to its possible benefits. Laurence Kotlikoff, an economics professor at Boston University, has studied the FairTax and thinks it is a more progressive proposal than people realize. Kotlikoff says lawmakers’ lack of experience in public finance has led to a misunderstanding of the FairTax. He adds that he thinks Democratic minority leader Nancy Pelosi might even come around to the idea, if she realized that it would help some of the people she purports to care about most: workers.

After years toiling under former Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), some conservatives have grown excited by the Senate’s movement on this issue. The Moran staffer thinks a total of 10 or 11 senators may ultimately support the proposal, including new members and others who have changed their minds. The number of original co-sponsors of the FairTax in the House has increased during each of the last three Congresses, peaking this year with 57 total supporters.

Barring an unforeseen shift in Congress’s priorities, though, the FairTax appears doomed to fail yet again. Woodall knows the effort is ill-fated, and says he won’t look someone in the eye and tell them that a GOP-led Congress will put the FairTax on the president’s desk — or that the president would ever sign it. For the time being, his goal is more modest: He hopes to harness the relatively small but growing support for the proposal, and to take its message to voters across the country, showing his fellow Republicans that populist economic policies can win back the White House in 2016.

“This is a mission to change the way people think about the tax code,” he says. “It’s kind of a crazy idea until you look at it and you say, ‘Golly, why haven’t we done that already?’ Because we know that we can’t win Washington until we win the American voter across the country.”   

— Ryan Lovelace is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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