Sic Transit Gloria: Grassley’s Accidental Honesty

Submitted to Des Moines Register
October 17, 2003

The accident came in the newsletter’s headline.  The type was big, bold, and clear as a missing headlight.  “Working for Job, Health Care, Energy, Retirement and Homeland Security”, was what it said.

Every Senator and Congressmen I’ve ever had has sent me newsletters.  Here one finds articles crafted to keep me, and my neighbors, well informed about the wisdom, vision, grit, and all-around upright character of The Honorable Sender.  An occasional photo shows the statesman handing over a big check to someone, or presenting (or, sometimes, for variety, being presented) a certificate-perhaps even an award.

Always, the faces in these photos beam joyous, in a grainy, newsprint sort of way.  God, they look happy.  From the look of them, you would think these pieces of paper carried the code to salvation itself.

Senators and Representatives send their Good News from Washington regularly.  These epistles are funded entirely (it seems only fair, given the value) at taxpayer expense.

I don’t read congressional newsletters, usually.  I toss them with the junk mail.  Most people do the same.

But I did read the one that came to me the other day.  It was from my Senator, Charles Grassley.  It caught my eye because it was accidentally honest.

I’m sure Senator Grassley meant to say “Working for Jobs” rather than “job”.  But he said “job”, and that was correct: Charles Grassley works hard at keeping his job.  He keeps his attendance record in spit-polish shape.  While in Washington, he calls, and attends, meetings.  And he sends newsletters.

Charles Grassley’s a thorough professional, and it shows: he has been in political office continuously since 1958–forty-six straight years.

Charles Grassley works hard at keeping his job.  But when it comes tojobs (including, say, yours), Grassley has done . . . well, to find out, let’s look at his newsletter, and his other public statements.

As Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, Grassley has pushed to reduce income taxes for millionaires.  He pushed to lower taxes on corporate dividends and capital gains, and to eliminate the estate tax.  There’s a bright common thread running through this work: all these taxes Grassley sought to reduce are taxes paid overwhelmingly by the very, very wealthy.

Grassley brags about these things.  The Senator believes – or at least, says — that by cutting taxes on the wealthy, he can create jobs.  He fails to inform us that this course will add hundreds of billions of dollars per year – every year, year after year — to a national debt that is now counted in the trillions.

The Iowa General Assembly tried a small-scale version of approach in the 1990’s.  The argument was made in 1997 that just by cutting the income tax, 144,000 new jobs would be created and revenues increased by $1.2 billion.  But the cuts had the opposite effect; jobs were lost and revenues fell.  We see the same result now at the federal level.  Instead of growth, jobs vanish and deficits soar.

Many who like tax cuts ignore the connection between them and the lack of money needed to fund programs everyone likes.  Voters in some states have even approved initiatives to expand programs and to cut taxes willfully on the same day.  Just put it on the credit card, they say.

I like tax cuts myself.  When I served in the Iowa Legislature, I took great pleasure in promoting the removal of the sales tax on food and medicine and the reduction of property taxes on low-income elderly.  I also like having a bit extra in my pocket to spend.  I know government can overspend and unnecessary taxes can stifle economic growth.  Overtaxing is bad public policy.

What I don’t believe, and what economists have never demonstrated, is that simply by tinkering with the tax code to favor the wealthy, the economy can be stimulated and jobs created.  The first President Bush called this “voodoo” economics.  Serious economists agreed.

Charles Grassley would call this debt binge a “conservative” approach to managing the economy.  It isn’t.  It is lazy, and deeply irresponsible.  Milton Friedman, the distinguished, Nobel prize-winning economist, and a real conservative, explains why.  Cutting taxes without cutting spending, he observes, does nothing to shrink the size of government.  It does nothing to free up capital for the private sector.  It doesn’t, therefore, create jobs.  All that is accomplished when we cut taxes without cutting spending is this:  we shift the burdens of current government spending from us, who benefit, to our kids and grandkids, who will pay.

The amounts involved are enormous.  We are borrowing against our children’s future earnings to the tune of five hundred billion dollars per year, every year, with no end in sight.  This isn’t conservative.  This is nuts.  And Charles Grassley, as head of the tax-writing committee of the U.S. Senate, has been at the very center of this theft (yes, that’s the right word) of our nation’s future wealth.

Yet it is understandable why Senator Grassley likes cutting taxes – the government’s source of income – without cutting spending in tandem.  The reason is unlovely, but easy enough to understand:  Cutting taxes is fun.  When you cut taxes, people like you.

Cutting spending, though, is hard, unpleasant.  It can even be dangerous for one’s political health.  The public may become angry.  Politicians who want to keep their jobs find it easier to push the problem off to the future and pretend deficits don’t matter.  Then they retire.  Paying these bills (including, for example, the generous pensions of retired Senators) becomes someone else’s problem.

In the short run, tax cuts help Senator Grassley keep alive his forty-six year long political career.  In the long run, we will come to a train wreck.  Then the survivors will scramble to Work for Job.

Arthur A. Small, Jr.