The New York Times and Mitt Romney’s ‘government handout’

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School
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On Tuesday, The New York Times reported that “buried deep in the tax returns released by Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign are references to dozens of offshore holdings.” And buried deep in The Times’s front-page story is a veiled acknowledgement that Romney was in full compliance with federal tax laws. But that did not keep The Times from editorializing in the same edition on “Mr. Romney’s government handout.”

My question is how full compliance with the tax laws can result in a government handout. The claim, of course, is that, had Mr. Romney not consulted his lawyers on how to legally minimize his federal tax liability, he would have paid more in taxes. Which I guess means that I received a government handout last year by deducting home mortgage interest from my taxable income. Had I not done so, I would have paid more in taxes. And, apparently both Mr. Romney and I received government handouts because we deducted from our taxable incomes the amounts (though in Romney’s case not the full amount) we contributed to charity.

If The Times’s point is that the tax laws are riddled with credits, deductions and loopholes that need to be eliminated, I’m in full agreement. But what does the fact that Romney took pains to legally minimize his tax liability have to do with the need for tax reform? The Times has enthusiastically endorsed President Obama’s call for restoring the pre-Bush tax rates on the wealthy. Does that mean that Warren Buffett and the president himself received government handouts because they paid the required top rate of 35% (15% on capital gains) rather than voluntarily paying 39.6% (20% on capital gains)?

The persistent effort to paint Romney as a tax-evading, cut-throat capitalist (and Buffett as a community-spirited philanthropist) can only be seen as an evasion of what should be the real issues in this campaign. Personal attacks in politics are the flavor of the month when the attackers lack for persuasive arguments on the merits. Let’s get serious, on both sides, about tax reform, spending priorities and deficit reduction. Rather than attacking Romney on his business successes and his compliance with tax laws, The Times and the media in general should be demanding that he tell us precisely how he will reform the tax code, cut spending and reduce the deficit. And they should demand the same of President Obama.

Tonight’s debate would be a good time to start. But don’t hold your breath. The sad experience of several election cycles suggests, and an absurd format of truncated, rehearsed answers guarantees, that we will hear policy platitudes and thinly veiled personal attacks rather than a sophisticated and informative policy debate.

The best I can hope for is that my guy will land a zinger or two and get a bump in the polls. That’s the way it works these days. Pretty pathetic, I know, but better than taking The Times’s lead and opposing a candidate because he was smart enough to pay only what he owed in taxes. Heck, if he’s elected, maybe we will get lucky and he will manage the public’s resources with the same care he has devoted to his own.

Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.