Focus On Romney's Tax Returns Justified By Central Issues Of His Campaign
Normally, I’d be inclined to agree with that position. Governor Romney has a long record as a governor and he’s laid out a policy vision for America. It's understandable that his campaign would want to limit the national discussion to those issues.
The problem with their line of thinking, however, is that in this instance, Romney’s tax returns provide important context for understanding the Romney-Ryan platform.
Romney is campaigning chiefly on the idea of lessening the tax burden on job creators (or, everyone who makes over $200,000). He claims that the president’s policies have resulted in the overtaxation of the wealthy, and have placed an undue burden on free enterprise. He claims that cutting marginal tax rates by 20 percent, extending cuts to the capital gains tax and repealing the estate tax and a variety of others, will resolve that problem.
The issue for Romney, then, is that his tax returns constitute the most effective response to his policy vision that the Obama campaign could ever ask for.
Romney’s tax rate for the past decade was as low as 13 percent. That percentage is lower than the percentage paid by a head of household who makes $47,000 a year (Romney paid $21.7 million in 2010). Paul Ryan’s rates aren’t any more encouraging for the Romney-Ryan narrative. Ryan paid 15.9 percent in 2010. Not bad for a guy who made almost $350,000 last year.
These numbers raise important questions regarding Romney's ability to claim that the wealthiest Americans pay more than their fair share in taxes. Romney already pays a lower tax rate than people whose incomes are 461 times less than his. How will a tax break, exclusively for members of his tax bracket, make the system more fair?
But, clearly, these figures don’t by themselves provide a damning indictment of the Romney vision for America. Mitt Romney’s tax returns do not serve as a comprehensive survey of taxes paid by people in his income bracket. But they do show that the wealthy have the ability to finagle their way into paying a much lower tax burden than the majority of Americans. Which raises the question, why is Mitt Romney fighting for tax policy changes that exacerbate that problem?
His official campaign website mentions a number of tax benefits included in Romney's plan. But they all seem to be conspicuously geared toward people in higher income brackets, with elimination of the estate tax and decreases in capital gains taxes playing prominent roles in the plan. The page never mentions tax policy changes geared toward building a stronger middle class, like the Earned Income Tax Credit, or an adjustment of payroll taxes.
Policy records are important, and usually when a campaign chooses to focus on an aspect of a candidate’s personal life over policy differences, it's distracting the public from real issues. But the discussion of Romney’s tax returns constitutes a rare exception to that rule. This nation is in the middle of a legitimate conversation about fairness. The financial collapse, nearing expiration of the Bush tax cuts and looming deficit crisis, have all created a perfect storm that is forcing Americans to think about what constitutes economic justice.
So, when a candidate stands up in the middle of that debate and bemoans his heavy tax burden, despite the fact that he already pays a lower percentage than the majority of Americans, talking about his tax returns is probably fair game.