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.

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120 years on, and rugby league is still patronised as “parochial”

Even as Leeds and Hull Kingston Rovers do battle in the 2015 Challenge Cup final, the century-old conflict between rugby league and rugby union isn’t over.

When Leeds and Hull Kingston Rovers step out onto the hallowed Wembley turf on Saturday afternoon it will be a celebration, regardless of the result. The final of rugby league’s oldest competition is expected to be watched by over 85,000 fans, with countless more watching on the BBC. And the reason for celebration? This year’s Challenge Cup final falls on rugby league’s 120th birthday. 

Saturday will mark exactly 120 years to the day that the custodians of 22 clubs rendez-voused at the George Hotel in Huddersfield to split from the amateur Rugby Football Union (RFU). The teams who formed the guerrilla organisation were dependent on millworkers, miners and dockers who unlike their more affluent and privately-educated southern counterparts, could ill-afford to miss work to play rugby. As such, the Northern Football Union (which later changed its name to the Rugby Football League) announced its separation from the RFU and immediately accepted the principal of receiving payment for playing. Taking the schism as a declaration of war, the RFU struck back by issuing lifetime bans to any player associated with its northern kin. 

Neither league’s revolutionary spirit nor the promise of a pay cheque lead to a change in fortunes, though. It remains, according to one journalist, a “prisoner of geography”, ensnared by its older kin. Wembley is its parole, the chains are off, for but a short while, as league earns a pass out of its Northern confinement. Union, on the other hand, is the dominant code in terms of finances, participation numbers and global reach, while league is still viewed as a “parochial” sport. 

To understand why league is viewed as parochial, and union global, the writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci on cultural hegemony are particularly useful. Union embodies the resource-rich and powerful historic bloc, institutionalised through its strong standing within public-schools and its big-business connections. League, on the other hand represents the downtrodden and plucky subaltern. Its agency has only stretched so far as to command superior TV figures perhaps a ringing endorsement from the masses.

In order to quell its fellow oval-chasing brethren there are examples of union shockingly suppressing the spread of league. In France the 13-a-side code had overthrown union’s dominance as hundreds of clubs switched to le treize towards the end of the 1930s. As the Second World War divided France, union bigwigs held office with members of the Nazi-collaborating Vichy government who were persuaded to outlaw rugby league once and for all. 

On 19 December 1941 a decree forced league clubs to hand over kit, stadia and funds to their union counterparts. The game has never fully recovered in France, although two Frenchman are in contention to play for Rovers on Saturday – Kevin Larroyer and John Boudebza, testament to the art of treizistance.

There are other instances of union dignitaries stifling league’s growth in places as wide-ranging as Japan, Serbia, South Africa and Italy. Examples exist in the United Kingdom too. Cambridge student Ady Spencer was banned by the RFU from playing in the Varsity Rugby Union match having enjoyed the rigours of league as a youngster in his native Warrington. The incident was subject to a parliamentary motion in 1995 being condemned as an “injustice and interference with human rights”.

But even as rugby union followed its heretic sibling into professionalism a century after the split there’s little to suggest the relationship has changed, highlighted this year through the case of Sol Mokdad. A Lebanese national, Mokdad will be watching the final in Beirut with friends, but it’s a far cry from where he was just a few months ago – locked up in a jail cell in Dubai at the behest of UAE Rugby Union (UAERU). 

“I moved to the UAE in 2006 and set up rugby league there a year later. I was arrested for fraud and for setting up a competition without the UAERU’s permission,” he tells me. “I was baffled as they’re a completely different body. It’s like the Cricket Federation demanding that they control all baseball matches. We’d just got a huge deal with Nissan to sponsor our competition which the UAERU weren’t happy about. They said I’d impersonated their president in order to get the money which was a complete lie. They weren’t too happy that we were getting a lot of exposure in western media outlets too, because I’d suggested that the UAE would be a good place to host the World Cup, that’s where it all started to go wrong.”

“I was at a corporate event when I got a phone call to say that UAERU had ordered my arrest. I tried ringing my mate George Yiasemides who was the COO of UAE Rugby League. He’d promised to help me out, but he didn’t want anything to do with me. He sold me down the river. I was chucked into a cockroach-infested cell. The bathrooms were covered in s**t  and I was locked up for 14 days with no contact with the outside world.” 

Eventually an agreement was reached and all Mokdad had to do was sign a document which would guarantee his release, subject to conditions. Easy enough right? But as he explains it wasn’t. 

“They sent me to the wrong police station and when I eventually got hold of the document they’d added conditions I hadn’t agreed too. I had to make a public apology on all of our social media, destroy all documentation and was told that I was financially liable for any damages or legal fees that may come up in the future. Any monies gained from our sponsorship was to be handed over to the UAERU, as well as having to agree to never participate in any rugby activity in the UAE again.”

Homeless, broke and jobless, Mokdad returned to his native Lebanon and he is unsure of where his future lies. “I definitely want to stay in the sport however I can. It was incredibly hard to leave what I’d created in Dubai.” he says. “I still think about it now. It was so surreal.” 

He’s backing Leeds in the final, in case you were wondering. Although it all makes Saturday’s game seem rather irrelevant if in 2015 you can be jailed for establishing a sport. Perhaps it shows more than ever, that after 120 years of separation, rugby league is still trying to shake off the shackles of its older brother.