Jeffords's False Parallel

"Sen. Jeffords, you're no Calvin Coolidge."

This article originally appeared in the National Review on May 25, 2001 at http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-reed052501.shtml.

In announcing his defection from the Republican party, Vermont Sen. James Jeffords invoked the names of previous Vermont politicians, including that of former President Calvin Coolidge, to justify his change to independent status.

Jeffords, who fought against President Bush's tax cuts, has less in common with his fellow Vermonter Coolidge than he does with another Republican senator who bucked his party and president to oppose tax cuts.  That senator was Michigan's James Couzens, who held office from 1922-1936.

The similarities between Jeffords and Couzens are striking.  Couzens was a maverick Republican who fought the tax-cutting, fiscally prudent policies of Republican presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Like Jeffords, he was more often allied with "progressives" who pushed for greater government spending and involvement in the economy. Though wealthy himself, Couzens often employed class-warfare rhetoric as an advocate of "soak-the-rich" tax policies, and his principal nemesis was Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon.

When Mellon came to Washington in 1921, the top federal income-tax bracket was 73 percent. Confiscatory levies were putting scarce capital to flight as investors sought refuge abroad or in tax havens at home. Arguing that taxes had to be lowered "to attract the large fortunes back into productive enterprise," Mellon noted that "more revenue may often be obtained by lower rates" — a notion most recently confirmed again with the 1997 cut in the capital-gains tax rate.

With the full support of President Coolidge, who had assumed office upon Harding's death in 1923, Mellon pressured Congress and by 1929, when legislators passed his sixth tax cut of the decade, the top rate had been slashed from 73 to 24 percent. Those in the lowest income bracket (earning under $4,000 annually) saw their rates fall by an even greater percentage — from 4 percent to one-half of one percent.

Where was James Couzens in the debates over the Coolidge-Mellon tax cuts? Like Jeffords, squarely on the wrong side, opposing them at every turn and painting dire pictures of a hemorrhaging treasury. But personal income tax receipts for 1929 were over $1 billion, in contrast to the $719 million raised in 1921, when tax rates were far higher. The economy grew by 59 percent in that period, America was awash in new inventions, and American wages became the envy of the world.

Simultaneously, with no help from Couzens, Coolidge and Mellon were constraining the spending side of government. In 1928, total expenditures were actually a shade lower than they had been in 1923.  It's safe to say that Jeffords's support for more federal spending — notably in education--has not been of great help to those who would hold the budgetary line today.

Ultimately, Couzens's opposition to his party's fiscal agenda also brought an end to his career as a Republican.  He was denied renomination in 1936, and died in October of that same year.

Though Jeffords grudgingly mustered the good sense to vote for the $1.35-trillion tax cut compromise that passed the Senate, his unrelenting efforts to water down President Bush's already modest relief package hardly qualify him as a great friend of the taxpayer. 

If being "independent" means being unable to support anything but the most meager of tax cuts in an era of federal surpluses, then Jeffords is right to go his own way.  Meanwhile, we can only hope that more of the senator's colleagues will depend upon sound fiscal policy and press for larger tax cuts to revive a flagging economy and relieve the overburdened American people.