What's with the GOP assault on the "Buffett Rule"?

Third wealthiest on Forbes' list is the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A), Warren Buffett. He is arguably the most successful investor in the world. The 81-year-old "Oracle of Omaha" holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Nebraska, a Master of Science degree from Columbia University and has a net worth of $44 billion.
Getty Images

News Analysis

Warren Buffett

The Republican Party has undertaken an aggressive counteroffensive against President Obama's attempt to use his "Buffett Rule" proposal to define the party broadly (and Mitt Romney specifically) as defenders of a status quo that allows some wealthy Americans to pay lower tax rates than those in the middle class.

That's not a surprise: Republicans aren't going to sit back and give the president free rein to cast them as the party of the one percent. But what might be surprising is the fact that they largely aren't attacking the substance of the proposal - despite the fact that there is a substantive case to be made against it.

First, let's look at the GOP's arguments against the rule, which generally calls for high income Americans to pay a minimum overall tax rate of 30 percent. The current version of the bill, which will be voted on in the Senate next week, would mandate that income above $2 million would be taxed at least at a 30 percent rate, with a graduated boost in the minimum marginal rates for income between $1 million and $2 million.

Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus wrote Wednesday that the plan "won't balance the budget. It won't prevent a debt crisis. It won't help the economy. It won't get you a job." He went on to say that the president "wants to divide the electorate with class warfare to distract us from his failed policies."

Let's start with that first claim: That the plan "won't balance the budget." That's undeniably true: The White House says the rule would generate only $47 billionin revenue over the next 10 years.

But so what? Is the fact that the policy won't singlehandedly eliminate the budget deficit a reason to oppose it? President Obama made that point pretty clearly on Wednesday: "The notion that it doesn't solve the entire problem doesn't mean that we shouldn't do it at all."

Then there's Priebus' claim that the policy won't help the economy, one echoed by Romney on Wednesday when he told Fox News: "Is there anyone who believes that dividing America and trying to find some group to tax more is somehow going to create more jobs?"

The proposal certainly doesn't seem like it would directly help the economy. But again, so what? While they have nodded in the direction of deficit reduction, Democrats are making an argument grounded squarely in the concept of fairness - the heart of their argument is simply that it's not right for millionaires to pay lower tax rates than the middle class. The fact that making the system more fair wouldn't necessarily spur the economy seems largely beside their point.

We'll give Priebus and Romney the "class warfare"/"dividing America" argument - that's a time-tested message Republicans went to time and again when the "Occupy" movement was in the news, and it seems to resonate with at least some Americans. But at best, it's an indirect attack, one that once again fails to take on the substance of the proposal. The implication behind this attack, and the others, is that Republicans aren't taking on the Buffett Rule directly because they don't have an argument to do so.

But there is an argument to do so, as NPR's Jim Zarroli detailed Wednesday. And it's this: The vast majority of high-income people who pay less than 30 percent do so because they make their money from investment income, which is taxed at a lower rate. That gives Republicans an opening to argue that Mr. Obama is hiking taxes on the very people whose investments spur the economy. The argument Republicans could make is not that the proposal doesn't help the economy -- it's that it actively hurts it. To quote Federal budget expert Maya MacGuineas on CBS News' "Face to Face" Wednesday: "Having further taxes on the things that incentivize people to save and invest [is] not necessarily good for the economy at a time when we're very focused on how do we grow the economy."

That's up for debate: Rob Williams of the Tax Policy Center told Zarroli that the Buffett Rule wouldn't really hamper investment, and economist Jared Bernstein said it could actually help the economy by prompting the wealthy to focus on investment opportunities instead of exploiting tax loopholes. But there is certainly a clear, relatively simple argument to be made that Mr. Obama's plan could have a direct, negative effect on economic growth. Which is why it's odd that most Republicans aren't making it.