(CNN)Walter Mondale, who passed away last month, hit an electoral buzzsaw after promising to raise taxes in his 1984 presidential campaign. His party learned fast.
The next Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis, promoted a different revenue-raising plan: Tougher enforcement of existing tax laws. Though Dukakis also lost, his young economic adviser Larry Summers never dropped the idea.
Now Summers has helped put tougher tax enforcement on President Joe Biden’s economic agenda. And it just might unlock the bipartisan deal on infrastructure investments that Biden and Senate Republicans both insist they want.
“There’s an estimation of somewhere between $700 billion and $1.3 trillion if we hire up more IRS agents and we go after those folks who are avoiding taxes at the top end,” Biden told MSNBC last week. “So let’s say it’s somewhere in between — that’s $1 trillion. I’m confident (Republicans) would go for that.”
They haven’t before, and may not this time either. Making sure high-income tax evaders pay up isn’t as automatically polarizing as raising tax rates, but the idea hasn’t gained political traction in recent years.
Yet it offers an escape from the corner into which conflicting red lines have painted the popular new President and his GOP adversaries. Republicans have ruled out the corporate tax increases Biden has proposed, while the president nixes Republican calls for “user fees” falling on middle- and working-class Americans.
“There may be ways to get this done that don’t cross anybody’s red line,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNN’s Jim Sciutto.
Why there hasn’t been tougher enforcement
GOP resistance represents the biggest reason tougher tax enforcement hasn’t taken off yet. Reflecting the fears of wealthy donors and libertarian ideologues in an anti-government era, Republicans have sought to weaken rather than strengthen the IRS.
But it’s not the only reason. Some Democrats, too, view the idea skeptically, akin to airy Republican pledges to trim the budget of “waste, fraud and abuse.”
“It does have a history of people lying and exaggerating about it,” Summers acknowledged in an interview.
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