Sophie’s Choice — and Washington’s

Hon. Ernest Istook Former Republican Congressman
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Would you vote to cut taxes only for the middle class, if that were your only choice?

The furor over how House Republican Leader John Boehner answered that question obscures the fact that it’s a tough question — one for which all politicians should have a response ready before it’s asked.

Reporters want to push them onto the horns of a supposed dilemma: either disavow across-the-board tax cuts or be labeled a toady for the rich.  Or dodge the question and get depicted as a weasel.

The better approach is to challenge the very premise of the question.  Who is trying to force a decision between bad alternatives?  It’s known as a “Sophie’s Choice” — from the Meryl Streep portrayal of a mother cruelly forced by Nazi’s to choose only one of her children to save from a death camp.

America’s economy is hurting, but must President Obama and his team of class warriors insist that some can be saved from January’s automatic tax hikes but others must not be?

Examples abound that Obama’s selective approach hurts the very group that creates the jobs we need; the entrepreneurs who are holding back from expanding and creating jobs due to Obama’s impending higher taxes and heavier regulations; the five percent who are credited with 37 percent of consumer spending.  As The Wall Street Journal reports, “According to new research from Moody’s Analytics, the top 5% of Americans by income account for 37% of all consumer outlays.”

Like it or not, those who can spend more freely provide a wealth of jobs for everyone else.  Punishing them ends up punishing blue-collar people.  The classic example was the 1990 luxury tax imposed on jewelry, yachts, private planes and more.  Congress repealed it after thousands of layoffs occurred in those industries and the added unemployment costs exceeded the luxury tax revenue.

Pick the metaphor of your choice, but responses to the Sophie’s Choice question on taxes should reject the premise that some must be left behind: To save the economy, we need lifeboats for everyone.  When the economic house is burning, don’t tell us we can rescue only some who live in it.

A full economic recovery requires a full, across-the-board extension of the lower taxes that boosted our economy before and now can boost it again.

A number of Democrats recognize that Obama is trying to force Congress into a bad no-win decision and are speaking out for lower taxes for all who pay income taxes.  They include key Senators like Kent Conrad, Ben Nelson, and Jim Webb and House members like Reps. Gerry Connelly, Jim Matheson, and Melissa Bean.

Responsibility for bad choices rests with those who refuse to permit good options.  And it’s not just Obama.

Many believe that a bipartisan majority would approve the across-the-board approach if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would permit a vote.  It ought to come quickly, before the November elections, so voters will know where everyone stands.  And our economy could get some much-needed good news.

Ernest Istook was a U.S. Congressman for 14 years and is now a Distinguished Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.