The Senate kills Obama's "Buffet Rule"

Republicans block debate on minimum tax rate but polls show public support.

US billionaire Warren Buffett's famous observation that he pays less tax than his secretary gave Barack Obama the political opening he needed to shift the tax debate to the left. The US President proposed a minimum tax rate of 30 per cent for those earning over $1 million (£630,000) a year, a measure that became known as the "Buffet Rule" (the inspiration for Nick Clegg's "tycoon tax").

But last night the resultant bill - the Paying a Fair Share Act 2012 - was blocked after the Senate voted not to open debate on it. The chamber backed the measure by 51 votes to 45 but this was nine short of the 60 votes the Democrats neeeded to overcome a Republican filibuster. In total, forty four of the 47 Senate Republicans voted against a debate, with just one - Senator Susan Collins of Maine - voting in favour.

Obama responded by arguing that "It's just plain wrong that millions of middle-class Americans pay a higher share of their income in taxes than some millionaires and billionaires." But he will be comforted by the knowledge that it is the Democrats, not the Republicans, who are on the right side of public opinion. A CNN poll published yesterday showed that 72 per cent of the US electorate, including 53 per cent of Republicans, support the Buffet Rule. As Charles E. Schumer, the Democratic Senator for New York, observed, for the first time in decades, the GOP is on the defensive on the signature issue of taxation.

Uncomfortably for the Republicans, their presidential candidate of choice - Mitt Romney - is a major beneficiary of the current system. As his 2011 tax return revealed, he paid an effective rate of just 15 per cent on an income of $20.9m. Obama paid 20.5 per cent on an income of $789,674, a lower rate than many US voters but higher than Romney. Moreover, the President can point to the fact that he is at least trying to solve the problem. As the White House noted:

Under the president's own tax proposals, including the expiration of the high-income tax cuts and limitations on the value of tax preferences for high-income households, he would pay more in taxes while ensuring we cut taxes for the middle class and those trying to get in it

Unsurprisingly, then, Romney is under pressure to release his tax returns for before 2010. The longer the Democrats can keep this story on the front pages, the better for Obama. Romney may quip that the Buffet Rule would only raise enough to fund the government for 11 hours but he should never underestimate the symbolic force of taxation.

Barack Obama speaks during a visit to the Port of Tampa on April 13, 2012 in Florida. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.