On Tuesday, Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer was asked by Cheddar whether or not he agreed with the push to raise the top marginal tax rate to as high as 70 percent, an idea put forward by freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez which a recent poll found has support from the majority of Americans. Unsurprisingly, he said he didn’t, but his full answer shows how centrist Democrats are adrift and scrambling to keep up with the debate.
But having said that, I think we need to pay for what we buy, and I think that’s an important concept. We need to get the deficit down and we’re going to have to pay for that. So while I think a 70 percent marginal rate—which, by the way, was in existence some decades ago—is not reasonable to attain, either politically or frankly, I think, from a policy standpoint, we need to make sure we have a tax system that in fact provides the revenues necessary to paid for our priorities and our needs.
Hoyer has been in Congress since 1980. He’s been in the Democratic leadership for as long as Nancy Pelosi has. While a divided Congress and a Republican president ensures that we won’t see a 70 percent top marginal tax rate any time soon, Hoyer is well aware that policy-wise, there is no obstacle to taxing the rich more. He acknowledges that we’ve already done so in the past. In fact, “some years ago” is underselling it a bit: 70 percent is exactly what the tax rate was when Hoyer first entered Congress.
Waleed Shahid, a former Ocasio-Cortez staffer and communications director for the progressive group Justice Democrats, described Hoyer’s response as “Republican-lite talking points.” To a certain extent, this is what Democratic talking points have been for 40 years: One ongoing response to Reaganism.
Now, the tectonic plates are moving beneath Hoyer’s feet, and he’s not exactly sure how to respond to it aside from elementary concern trolling about the deficit. He says we need to “pay for what we buy,” but gives no alternative to how exactly that happens without raising taxes and/or cutting spending. That’s because there is none; the Democrats tried this with Simpson-Bowles, a double-edged sword of austerity in the middle of the recession, and it (thankfully) didn’t work.
The lack of a real response from the top centrist in the House indicates that Ocasio-Cortez and the left is already winning the debate over taxing the rich more. The next and more important fight within the Democratic Party internally is going to be over how exactly that money should be used—on the deficit, as Hoyer proposes, or on a comprehensive expansion of social democracy in America centered around healthcare and climate change. The choice is obvious.