Chris Van Hollen sounds like Elizabeth Warren: Tax breaks for the middle, hikes for those at top

Is it the beginning of a 2016 platform?

WASHINGTON D.C. - Is Warrenism spreading within the Democratic Party?

For those who hope the answer is yes, Monday was a good day. Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee who is one of the party’s strategic leaders, unveiled a very Warrenesque policy manifesto. The thrust of it is to give substantial tax breaks to people in the middle class paid for by hikes on people at the top and corporations.

Two things to note: Reality-wise, this plan is as dead as William Jennings Bryan. Republicans are newly in control of all of Congress and President Obama has never been big on economic populism.

Second, there is nothing dazzlingly new in the proposals.   They remind me of Howard Dean’s money line from his 2004 presidential campaign, “I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.”

Nonetheless, Van Hollen’s proposals may be an important step as the party builds a platform for 2016.  Elizabeth Warren, who has become known as the party populist over the past few years, was the hottest speaker during the fall campaign.  But however popular her “pox on the 1 per cent” message has been with the party faithful, it hasn’t caught on with fellow members of Congress and their pollsters. Until now. Maybe.

Like Warren’s recent rhetoric, Van Hollen’s plan targets the middle class more than the poor and working poor.  The paper outlining the plan refrained from the broader arguments about systematic economic inequality Warren makes.

The Democrat’s economic agenda in the last Congress, according to Van Hollen, was “increasing the minimum wage, making sure that women receive equal pay for equal work, ensuring earned paid sick leave, and providing student loan relief.” Toss in education and money for infrastructure and that’s the current party platform.

“These ideas are an important start, but we need to go further,” Van Hollen says.

He proposes:

  • A Paycheck Bonus Tax Credit of $1,000 up to $100,000 of earned income ($2,000 for a two-income couple).
  • A Saver’s Bonus of $250 for people who put at least $500 into a retirement account.
  • A limit on what companies can deduct for CEO pay if they do not meet certain goals for employee pay.
  • Creation of a Second-Earner Tax Deduction for up to $60,000 of a couple’s second earned income to eliminate the so-called marriage penalty.
  • An increase in the amounts of the Child and Dependent Care Tax credit from $3,000 for one child and $6,000 for two or more to $8,000 and $16,000. The credit would phase out for incomes over $200,000.
  • An unspecified elimination of tax expenditures (that is, credit, deductions and loopholes) that go primarily to the top 1 per cent.
  • An increase in fees on financial transactions.

 

It’s a basic middle-class Robin Hood scheme: tax the rich, collect more money from the financial sector and cut taxes for people with incomes in the middle.

 

Presidents Clinton and Obama both were fans of what some Democrats now call “growth” strategies for the economy as opposed to “fairness” strategies.

Growth strategies aim at expanding the proverbial pie so the poor and the middle get bigger slices; for Democrats, this means spending public money on education, infrastructure and science.

Fairness strategies say just cut the pie differently, don’t count on the bakers sharing a bigger pie.

After the 2014 midterm spanking, many Democrats, but probably not most, said the party had been too wimpy -  reluctant to take credit for health care reform and a healing economy and too scared to talk about economic inequality.

Van Hollen’s plan may be an inconsequential political gimmick to respond to that complaint. Or it could be a significant moment for a party that really intends to argue over fairness versus growth.

It is certain to be red meat fodder for Republicans happy to munch on tax-and-spend, soak-the-rich Democrats.

[Also by Dick Meyer: Should middle class turn its back?]

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