Splitting the opposition: House Republican Leader John Boehner (L) and Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) ended up on opposite sides of the bonus tax bill. Cantor -- supposed future leader of the party -- voted with the Democrats and helped pass the bill (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
So, in the end, the Reagan Revolution ended with a whimper and not a bang. For nearly three decades, the only thing that unified Republicans in all circumstances was an aggressive anti-tax stance.
The revolution began with Reagan's 25 percent cut in personal income taxes passed in 1981. While disagreements over foreign policy (Kosovo) and social issues (immigration) would arise in the GOP over the years, tax-reduction and anti-tax philosophy was the glue keeping the coalition together. The one time that there was a split -- when George H.W. Bush's lips moved in 1990 -- was the exception that proved the rule. The future leaders of the party -- Republican Whip Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and others -- staged a rebellion among the House GOP on behalf of the Reaganite tax policy. After Bush I lost in 1992 (which the base of the party blamed on his violating his tax pledge), those rebellious House leaders went on to formulate the Contract With America, which included no less than nine tax limitation or cutting measures.
That background is important to understand the significance of Thursday's House vote to impose a 90 percent tax on individuals who got bonuses from AiG and other firms who received more than $5 billion in federal bailout money. The vote was 328-93. That's significant because it was brought to the floor under terms called "suspension of the rules." That means a bill can be considered without going through the usual process of being debated and voted out of committees.
Bills considered under "suspension" are usually uncontroversial, ceremonial bits of legislation -- like honoring a recently deceased beloved entertainer or naming a bridge. They require a two-thirds support for passage. In fact, they usually pass by voice vote. In any event, regardless of the "crisis of the moment," any bill that contains a 90 percent tax levy (no matter how narrowly tailored) could hardly be considered "uncontroversial." Even with the large majority that Democrats have, a two-thirds vote requires Republican support.
Which is why it would have been logical to assume there would be no way that this bill could get out of the House -- in this situation.
But, one could sense something was "up" when Grover Norquist, the high-priest of anti-tax theology -- who demands that candidates sign a no-tax-raising pledge -- declared that voting for a tax on bonuses was defensible-- with a pseudo-caveat:
"If your goal is to recoup the resources that you've given people that you hadn't thought would be spent this way, you can make it not a tax increase simply by having an offsetting tax cut on honest taxpayers," Norquist explained. "Or you could do the same thing by cutting the amount of money that you were going to give AIG in the next tranche that they'll demand, so you can have the withdrawal of the resources done in less spending."
Ah, right. I really can't imagine any other circumstance where Grover would give Republicans a pass to raise taxes today -- with a promise of cutting them later! Who is this -- Wimpy? ("I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today.")
Now, Norquist can justify this all he wants, but it's clear that he's allowed his populist instinct to overwhelm his anti-tax foundation (pun intended).
With Grover's dispensation out of the way, the eventual vote couldn't be seen as too much of a surprise. Unlike 1990 when the future leaders of the House and the conservative movement voted against a tax hike, GOP Whip Eric Cantor (who models himself after a young Newt Gingrich) ended up voting for the bill, bringing 84 other Republicans with him.
You know how bad this bill is? It's so bad that even liberal writer Josh Marshall -- who has been doing yeoman work in mining this A.I.G. story and everything connected to it -- calls it an "ill-advised..Frankenstein."
Yet, Cantor & Co. couldn't see that. They especially couldn't see what precedent was being set. Sure, they might say that this was a special circumstance and won't be replicated. But, they are now on record as voting for a 90-percent rate confiscatory tax -- and as the old joke goes, "Madam, we've already determined what you are; we're now just haggling over the price."
And, that's how the Reagan era died in the Republican Party.
With a wimp-er.
Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.