Glenn Kessler’s wrong call on Romney’s Buffett Rule chicanery

I thought I’d never say this, but I think my colleague Andrew Fieldhouse is being soft on Glenn Kessler, writer of the Washington Post‘s Fact Checker column. Long story short, Mitt Romney and the Republicans are criticizing the Buffett Rule for only raising $47 billion. Democrats say that score is bogus because it’s measured against a current law baseline in which the Bush tax cuts expire, and instead are using a $162 billion score that is measured against current policy (all the Bush tax cuts are assumed to continue). Kessler ends up defending the current law score and criticizing Democrats and other Buffett Rule supporters for using the current policy score.

Kessler’s wrong on both points. For conservatives to claim that the Buffett Rule only raises $47 billion over a decade is simply nonsense. The only groups that measure policy impacts with the assumption that the Bush-era tax cuts will expire are those that are legally required to do so: the Joint Committee on Taxation and the Congressional Budget Office. In contrast, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, President Obama, and even Romney, all use an adjusted current policy baseline that assumes the Bush tax cuts will be extended.

Second, Kessler, argues that progressives are wrong to use the $162 billion score against current policy because it overlaps with other tax policies they support, namely expiration of the upper-income Bush tax cuts. This is ridiculous, but complicated, so bear with me.

Let’s start with the very basic point that most policies have interaction effects with other policies. That’s why it’s important when creating a budget to consider the order in which you want to layer policies on top of a baseline. In other words, each policy is scored against a changing baseline in which all the previous policies have already been adopted. It doesn’t matter to your top-line deficit impact, of course, but the scoring of many policies depends on whether they are preceded by other policies with which they interact—particularly when it comes to tax policy.

But scores for individual policies outside of the context of a larger comprehensive package are always scored against the same baseline. Kessler is implying that the Democrats and Republicans should use different baselines reflective of their policy preferences. But this would undermine the entire purpose of a baseline, which is to make sure that everyone’s numbers are calculated using the same assumptions so that the differences reflect only the policy differences. In other words, Kessler is defending Romney and the GOP for using a baseline that they use in no other circumstance, and criticizing progressives for using a baseline that they—along with everyone else—use consistently.

Since Kessler is seemingly the closest thing our political system has to a court of law, let’s examine the legal holding he’s just created: Scores must be measured against a baseline that reflects your other policy proposals. This creates a number of problems. First off, not everyone that supports the Buffett Rule supports all the same policy proposals. Let’s say I’m a congressman who opposes letting any Bush tax cuts expire—am I allowed to use the $162 billion score? What if I’ve been vague on the subject of the Bush tax cuts but strongly support the Buffett Rule, what score would I use then without violating Kessler’s rule?

Second, as I mentioned earlier, the order of the policies matter. Kessler argues that the $162 billion overlaps with the $849 billion from the top two rates, so the $162 billion is wrong. But that assumes that Democrats intend to layer the Buffett Rule on top of the rate increase—if they do the Buffett Rule first, then the $162 billion score is accurate.

See how complicated this gets? Heck, I probably lost most of you once you read the word “baseline” in the third sentence. So let’s make it simple. Right now, pretty much everyone uses a current policy baseline. They may differ around the margins—for example, should the baseline assume tax provisions like the research and experimentation credit get extended?—but they’re mostly the same. Generally, when people  are using scores that aren’t against this baseline, they’re intentionally being misleading. And rather than encouraging that behavior, Kessler should call it out. After all, isn’t that his job?