Jack Kemp once said that Bob Dole never met a tax he didn’t hike, a quip that was much-talked-about when the two ended up as running mates on the Republican presidential ticket in 1996. Twenty-three years later, a look at the Democratic candidates for that office makes ordinary voters pine for the days when politicians would merely raise your taxes. Now, led by presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, they’ll raise your taxes and invent some new ones besides.
Warren’s latest idea to take someone else’s money targets an unpopular minority: lobbyists. And, boy, are they ever unpopular. Lobbyists are the only professional group to routinely earn worse polling scores than Congress does, making them an attractive target from members of that body. They are so disliked that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., put aside their many differences and teamed up earlier this year to propose limiting their rights.
Warren endorsed that idea, too. Her latest take on lobbyists is a little cleverer and a lot greedier, but just as unconstitutional and just as wrong. She plans to impose a punitive tax on “excessive lobbying” and use the money raised from it to fund a “National Public Advocate.”
The people have a right to petition Congress, Warren admits. She just wants to take the money they would use for causes they believe in and spend it on causes the government thinks are better. As ever, her mission is to plan and control Americans’ daily lives, and if natural rights are caught in the crossfire, so be it.
People Have the Right To Lobby the Government
All Americans, even the unpopular ones, have the right to free speech and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances. The First Amendment guarantees both. Lobbying, already a highly regulated industry, sits at the confluence of these two rights.
Lobbying is free speech in action. It is, more specifically, political speech — the sort of speech that is necessary for a self-governing people. Lobbyists are hired by corporations, unions, and interest groups of all sorts to convince government officials that their client’s view of things is right and that some law or regulation should match that view.
Political speech like this, as I wrote in response to the Cruz-AOC proposal, is at the core of the free speech protections of the First Amendment. That same amendment specifically protects the right of the people “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” That means all citizens have the right to write to their congressmen, call congressional offices, or speak to their representatives in person if they can manage an appointment.
Warren’s complaint, like many Americans’, is that lobbyists have an easier time getting those appointments. This is true: Powerful people have unequal access to power. It’s unfortunate and certainly feels unfair, but a feeling is not enough to destroy anyone’s rights.
In every arena in which rights are exercised, some people or groups have advantages over others. Some news shows have more viewers than others, and some newspapers have greater circulation. Some churches have more members, and some defense attorneys have more talent. None of these things indicate that the more powerful are without rights, nor does it mean the less powerful are. Natural rights are universal, and the Constitution protects them for everyone.
Bribery is already a crime, and lobbyists must follow plenty of rules and disclosures already on the books. Warren’s plan does not step up regulation, nor does it increase the penalties for violating the law. It attacks the legal part of lobbying and makes it harder for Congress or the president to hear points of view that she personally finds distasteful. That’s not regulation, it’s suppression.
The Power to Tax Is the Power to Destroy
Knowing that talking to your government is a natural right, it is strange to hear Warren refer to it as “excessive.” Can a person excessively petition the government? Probably, but that is a matter of personal judgment. What I consider excessive, you might consider merely persistent — an adjective applied to Warren in the past.
The idea that people avail themselves of their rights excessively is one only ever expressed by someone who doesn’t think the Constitution should protect those rights in the first place. We hear it frequently from the left about our Second Amendment rights. Given the course of that debate, we should tremble to hear politicians discuss any part of the First Amendment in the same terms.
What is “excessive” to Warren, according to her campaign’s statement, is any person or group that spends more than $500,000 per year on lobbying. That fits neatly with the multimillionaire senator’s anti-wealth campaign, but there are exceptions.
As Vox reported this week, the limits “do not apply to charitable or social welfare organizations that also lobby the government, such as 501(c)3 and 501(c)4 nonprofit groups, but do apply to trade and professional associations, 501(c)6 groups.” Got that? If one side of, say, an environmental dispute is a corporation and the other is a non-profit advocacy group, only one side’s speech gets taxed.
Huey Long, Is That You?
If that sounds unjust, if it sounds like the government favoring one viewpoint over another and protecting some people’s rights and not others’, that’s because it is. When Big Government progressives fail to convince voters with the strength of their arguments, the next step is always the same: ban the other side from speaking.
“But we’re not banning speech,” Warren’s followers will say, “we’re just taxing it! The government has the power to tax!” But like most half-clever legal dodges, this one’s been tried before, and by no less a left-wing populist than Louisiana Gov. Huey Long.
As Ellen Carmichael reminded us last month in National Review, Long was probably the closest America ever came to having a fascist in charge of a state. Like totalitarians of all stripes, Long could not abide criticism by the press. In 1934 — he was, by then, a senator, but still in complete control of state politics — Long told the state legislature to tax all newspapers with a circulation of more than 20,000 copies per week.
They did as they were told, and the tax became law. It targeted only the 13 largest newspapers in the state but also happened to affect those that had been the most vocal in their criticism of Long’s regime. Twelve of the 13 sued to stop the infringement of their First Amendment rights, and the case, Grosjean v. American Press Co., Inc., made its way to the Supreme Court in 1936.
Writing for a unanimous court, Justice George Sutherland recognized the tax for what it was: an attempt to suppress speech that was at odds with the regime, no different from the Stamp Act taxes the British Crown imposed in 1765. The court did not say that the First Amendment barred all taxes on newspapers, but that it did stop the government from using taxes to silence dissent.
“It is not intended by anything we have said to suggest that the owners of newspapers are immune from any of the ordinary forms of taxation for support of the government. But this is not an ordinary form of tax, but one single in kind, with a long history of hostile misuse against the freedom of the press.”
This Is About Control
“Don’t worry, Warren has a plan for that” has been the unofficial slogan of the Massachusetts senator’s campaign, but her plans for every aspect of American life should cause a great deal of worry. The planners don’t leave any room in their plans for you. Each American is to be a cog in the progressive machine, and if any of those little gears spin the wrong way, they get removed. Warren’s fans call her a wonk; the old title of tyrant fits even better.
That need for control shows in her proposed lobbying tax. If it were a tax on all business activity, like the corporate income tax, it would be benign enough. But in narrowly targeting the people with whom she disagrees, the mask of impartiality slips, and the tyrant’s face shows through. Picking an unpopular target like lobbyists is shrewd, but the Bill of Rights was written to protect unpopular people and causes.
If the 2 percent tax levied on Long’s enemies is unconstitutional, how much more so must Warren’s proposed tax brackets of 35 percent, 60 percent, and 75 percent be? Channeling the proceeds of those confiscations into a “public advocate” — with the interests of the “public” to be defined by the government — shows how far beyond even Long’s harebrained schemes Warren is willing to go.
If Warren is elected president, we will face no end of government interference and restriction of our rights. It might begin with the rich and despised, but it never stops there. This proposal is a design on the restriction of all rights. If it is imposed, worse things will soon follow — plan on it.