Tax Reform Revisited 

Senator Corker revives an issue that got short shrift in the recent debt-limit showdown.

Senator Bob Corker

Senator Bob Corker

Bob Corker, the junior U.S. senator from Tennessee, made it clear Monday, in a talk to the Memphis Area Association of Realtors on Poplar, that he doesn't think the spending cuts provided for in the last-minute congressional settlement of the debt-ceiling crisis were sufficient.

Corker, a Republican, was the author of a spending-cap bill — "the only bill that was bicameral and bipartisan" — that, over a 10-year period, would have trimmed the nation's deficit by some $5 trillion, a sum he contrasted with the $4 trillion figure that many in Congress had regarded as "the magic number" for reduction and with the $2.5 trillion in cuts, now and later, that was actually mandated by the final bill.

The bill wasn't enough, Corker said, it was "kind of like kissing your sister, I guess, not exactly what we had in mind." But it was a start, he said. His more striking statement was a piece of advice for the newly appointed "super committee" of 12 congressional members — evenly divided by chamber and by party and charged with finding a debt-reduction formula by Thanksgiving.

The senator said that "tax reform" needed to be taken into account, along with line-item reductions per se. Inasmuch as that phrase is a mite ambivalent and has so far lent itself more to Democratic rhetoric than to the GOP party line, Corker's suggestion was something of a revelation.

In point of fact, during the climactic negotiations over raising the debt limit, Republican congressional leaders had shied away from tax talk, whether coupled with the word "reform" or not, as if shielding themselves from a plague.

Spelling out what he had in mind, Corker envisioned closing loopholes and the possibility of "flattening and broadening the tax code" so as to raise ample revenue while lowering the tax rate for most people. Corker acknowledged that he had sought an appointment to the 12-member super-committee — "which was right up my alley" — and was disappointed not to be named.

This idea lay at the heart of the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson Commission, which Corker has long touted and whose report, issued in December of last year, was widely ignored in all the political infighting that crested early this month on the cusp of the debt-limit deadline. And Corker's application of the term "tax reform," as well as his rationale for it, are also reminiscent of the arguments for a flat income tax made by former Tennessee governor Don Sundquist, whom Corker once served as state finance commissioner. (That service, it should be noted, was long in advance of Sundquist's espousal of an income tax per se.)

Corker, whose abhorrence of careless public spending is well known, suggested at one point in his talk to the realtors that allowing someone financial gain from a tax loophole is equivalent to budgeting an equivalent amount of money and should be regarded as just another form of reckless spending.

That's an argument you don't hear very often from Republican congressional leaders, and, in fact, Corker's espousal of "tax reform," which he said would unleash "a tremendous energy in the country," was not his only deviation from GOP orthodoxy.

The senator also advocated a "six-year transportation bill" that sounded vaguely like what Democrats mean when they talk about spending money on the nation's infrastructure.

And, in a formulation that contrasted with the resurgent "supply-side" thinking that now seems to dominate most Republicans in Congress, Corker said plainly, "You've got to have demand. Demand is soft right now."

Corker also offered general praise for the educational reforms now being advanced by the department of education under Secretary Arne Duncan — especially what he saw as the Obama administration's distancing itself from No Child Left Behind.

The senator noted that he had joined other members of the state's congressional delegation in supporting Governor Bill Haslam's request that Tennessee be granted a waiver from NCLB.

Corker got on the same page as other congressional Republicans in his disapproval of Obama's health-care program — called "Obamacare" in GOP boilerplate — and made it clear he thought the bill was not only "unworkable" but certain to be found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court on account of its mandating that citizens purchase health insurance.

Given the nature of his audience, it was hardly surprising that Corker was asked a number of questions about his views on reviving the slumping housing market. Among other things, the senator made it clear that he did not favor removing mortgage-deduction provisions from the tax code and did favor measures to ease the current home foreclosure logjam.

Surprisingly, given his membership on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his prominence as an advocate of rethinking policy toward countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, Corker got no questions from the MAAR audience about the ongoing overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi by rebels.

Asked about that situation afterward, Corker said it was "hard not to be excited" over the deposing of long-term dictator Gaddafi, but he cautioned against direct American entanglements in yet a third theater of conflict in the Middle East.

• As a group, public employees have been taking it on the chin in recent encounters with government bodies, having to surrender billeted positions, job perks, and aspects of their pension plans to budget-conscious city and county governments.

Monday, at the public meeting of the Shelby County Commission, was a little different, as county custodial employees saw ordinances turned back that would have out-sourced food services at both the Shelby County Jail and the county's Division of Corrections to Aramark Correctional Services, a private entity.

Hard questioning of an Aramark executive by Commissioner Walter Bailey, who extracted an admission that the company's employees were guaranteed no sick leave, was instrumental in a unanimous commission vote to defer for two weeks the issue of out-sourcing jail services, while Harvey Kennedy, CAO to county mayor Mark Luttrell, voluntarily withdrew the Division of Corrections ordinance.

The retreat, however, was likely strategic, in that both proposals will probably be considered again, in fairly short order.


• The Shelby County Democrats held two fund-raising events this past week, one looking back and the other looking ahead, and drew decent crowds and presumably decent cash at both.

The first event, held Wednesday night at Alfred's on Beale, was a fund-raiser for the party's ongoing legal challenge of the 2010 countywide general election, during which the Democratic slate — somewhat unexpectedly, given the demographics — was swept by the Republicans.

The Democrats are appealing a ruling last year by Chancellor Arnold Goldin that disallowed the party's protest, which was based on alleged irregularities, some inadvertent, some believed by the Democrats to be more suspicious.

Then, on Friday night, some 100 people gathered at the Spaghetti Warehouse for a "straw poll" giving participants a chance to cast ballots indicating their preferences in the forthcoming Memphis municipal election. Perhaps unsurprisingly, candidates known to be Democrats swamped those with Republican or strictly independent connections.

The results, released this weekend, show the winners to be:

Memphis Mayor: A C Wharton

City Council Dist. 1: Bill Morrison

City Council Dist. 2: Sylvia Cox

City Council Dist. 4: Wanda Halbert

City Council Dist. 6: Edmund Ford Jr.

City Council Dist. 7: Lee Harris

City Council Dist. 8, Pos. 1: Joe Brown

City Council Dist. 8, Pos. 2:Rosalyn Nichols

City Council Dist. 9, Pos. 1: Paul Shaffer

City Council Dist. 9, Pos. 2: Shea Flinn

City Clerk: Thomas Long

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