Lobbyists for a day, a band of millionaires stormed Capitol Hill on Wednesday to urge Congress to tax them more.
They had a little trouble getting in. It turns out there are procedures, even for the really rich.
But once inside, their message was embraced by liberals and tolerated by some conservatives — including the ideological leader of anti-tax lawmakers, who had some advice for them, too.
“If you think the federal government can spend your money better than you can, then by all means” pay more in taxes than you owe, said Grover Norquist, of Americans for Tax Reform, a group that has gotten almost all congressional Republicans to pledge to vote against tax hikes. The IRS should have a little line on the form where people can donate money to the government, he suggested, “just like the tip line on a restaurant receipt.”
One of the millionaires suggested that if Norquist wanted low taxes and less government, “Renounce your American citizenship and move to Somalia where they don’t collect any tax.”
In the silence left by the private efforts of the “supercommittee” to find $1.2 trillion or more in deficit cuts by Thanksgiving, free advice flowed in public.
And not just any advice: pie-in-the-sky suggestions from those not connected to the talks, mostly to reopen debates that have led nowhere. The millionaires want the panel to raise taxes on people who earn more than $1 million, even though most Republicans are committed against the idea. And 150 House member and senators urged a much bigger debt-and-deficit deal, even as a small-scope agreement is proving elusive.
While they were at it, the lawmakers insisted that bipartisanship was not, in fact, dead.
This group of House members and senators shared a stage and some jokes and signed a letter urging the supercommittee of Republicans and Democrats to find the required $1.2 trillion in cuts — plus about $2.8 trillion more. They all want the panel to avoid triggering automatic cuts as a penalty for failing.
So this uneasy alliance of 150 Republicans and Democrats will vote for whatever deal the supercommittee strikes?
“No,” said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer. “Nobody’s going to commit to the deal until they see the deal.”
What deal? There is no evidence that one is near, so the millionaires tried to meet with anyone who would meet with them.
The progressive caucus did, eagerly and on-camera. The rest wasn’t so easy.
At a basement entrance to the Capitol, a police officer pointed to the name badges that identified each wearer as “Patriotic Millionaire.”
“That is not a visitor’s badge,” the officer said. “Go to the visitors desk and get a visitor’s badge.”
Off they trudged, a group mostly of men in business-casual clothing toting laptops and umbrellas, to a desk visited by tourists and lobbyists. Badges secured, they headed in.
Lawrence Benenson, vice president of Benenson Capitol Co., ran into freshman Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., in an elevator.
“I’m with the Patriotic Millionaires and we want to pay more in taxes,” he told her.
“How much more?” she asked.
Then it was off to meet, not with senators but their staffs — and not in the Capitol but in offices across the street.
Progress was not made, by all accounts.
A meeting with an aide to Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., opened with his aide announcing that the senator believes the wealthy pay more taxes than their fair share, according to one of the millionaires, Matthew Palevsky, a consultant and founder of the Council on Crime Prevention.
“We defined it as not paying our fair share,” Palevsky said of the 20-minute chat. “It was clear we were coming from different points of view.”
In a meeting with Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, the congressman faux-proposed — apparently — to an aide to the millionaires. She declined.
Then it was off, on a bus not a limo, across town to see Norquist.
Why were they bothering with him?
“That’s what I asked this morning,” said one of the millionaires, Frank Jernigan, a former senior software engineer for Google.
“It’s a media hook,” offered another, Guy Saperstein, a retired lawyer and former president of the Sierra Club Foundation.
Such candor is not the norm in these parts.
For his part, Norquist said he was ready for the group with a tongue-in-cheek Torah lesson: Maimonides and his “eight degrees of charity.” That’s what Norquist says the millionaires are essentially proposing with their tax-me-more pitch. Perhaps there should be a ninth, Norquist suggested.
“Nobody’s holding them back” from donating money to the federal government, he said as he prepared for the group’s arrival. “They’re saying, ‘Gee, I’d sure like to write a big check to the federal government, if someone would just stop stopping me.’”