Tax Analysts Blog

Tim Johnson, Kristi Noem, and the Importance of Moderates to Tax Reform

Posted on Apr 1, 2013
Another Senate Democrat is retiring. South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson will not seek a fourth term in 2014, leaving an open seat that Republicans will be heavily favored to pick up. Johnson’s retirement brings the total number of Democrats leaving the Senate to five. The possibility that Johnson will be replaced by a Tea Partier such as Rep. Kristi Noem highlights the increasing partisan divide in the Senate, which has important consequences for tax policy.

While the latest crop of Senate retirements includes mostly old-school liberals (Tom Harkin of Iowa, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, and Carl Levin of Michigan), Johnson’s departure adds to the scarcity of moderate to conservative Democrats in the Senate, a group that has been important during tax compromises in the past. There was a time when conservative Democrats dominated the Senate. Who can forget the roles played by Ben Nelson, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln, Jim Webb, and Joe Lieberman (who, although technically an independent, caucused with Democrats) in watering down healthcare reform in 2009 and helping to remove the public option from consideration? Of that group, only Landrieu remains, and her race in Louisiana in 2014 will be heavily contested.

Conservative Democrats have played a key role in the passage of all tax legislation over the last 13 years. Twelve Democrats voted for the Bush tax cuts in 2001 (only Max Baucus, Dianne Feinstein, and Johnson remain from that group). Only two Democrats voted for the 2003 tax cuts, but those votes were crucial – the package passed after Vice President Dick Cheney broke a 50-50 tie. Moderate Democrats were vital in helping Republicans essentially gut the estate tax, with Lincoln being a key player in forcing President Obama to accept the high exemption level and reduced rates in place today. (In fairness to Obama, he did manage to get a slightly higher rate in ATRA than Lincoln and Jon Kyl pushed through Congress in 2010.) The fingerprints of red-state Democrats are all over the tax compromises that averted the numerous legislative “crises” of the last few years.

Many progressives are undoubtedly happy to see these Democrats-in-name-only go. Left-of-center lawmakers and commentators blame the Democratic Senate for derailing the first two years of the Obama presidency, and most were pleased when Nelson and Lincoln, in particular, left the Senate. In retrospect, the glee that liberals felt when Democrats hit the magic number of 60 in the Senate in mid-2009 was probably misplaced -- the makeup of that Democratic caucus more closely resembled the less partisan 1980s than the much more cohesive bloc in the 113th Congress. But the decline of conservative Democrats, in both the House and Senate, is just as much to blame for the partisan gridlock over taxes as the disappearance of the elusive moderate Republican. You need not look much further than Johnson’s potential GOP successors to find proof of that.

Nothing is set in stone, but former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds is likely to seek the Republican nomination. And Tea Party groups are already lining up to stop him. The Senate Conservatives Fund would prefer someone other than Rounds. A former staffer for Jim DeMint, who resigned from the Senate in December, has characterized the governor as soft on tax cuts and the role of limited government. They would prefer Noem, a Tea Party favorite. Noem hasn’t denied interest in the seat, and early polling shows her running just as well as Rounds. South Dakota leans Republican enough that Noem would probably have a much easier time than ultra-conservatives like Joe Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock in Indiana, whose runs for office proved disastrous. And Noem is a much more polished politician than the usual hard-right flameout. Rounds is also hurt by the failures of Denny Rehberg in Montana and Rick Berg in North Dakota, both establishment Republicans who failed to win red-state seats.

What kind of senator Noem would be is the subject for another article. But she certainly wouldn’t play as vital a role in forging tax compromises as Johnson has. Johnson is part of a disappearing bridge between Democrats and Republicans. As the Democratic right has shrunk and the Republican left has disappeared, the chances for tax reform have fallen sharply. While leaders in both parties might want to pass major tax legislation in 2013 and 2014, their chances of doing so decline with each moderate lawmaker leaving Washington.

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