When Earl Long ran for governor of Louisiana back in 1948, one of his first acts was to demonstrate flexibility on tax policy. Before the election, Long had promised repeatedly he'd cut taxes if elected. But as soon as he took office, he proposed an increase in tax rates. When a worried adviser asked how he'd explain it to the voters, the governor replied simply: "Tell 'em I lied."
Few such bursts of candor have graced American politics since, but some of Earl's style has survived in his nephew, Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La). Although the chairman of the Senate Finance committee has been too cautious to be caught in many turnabouts quite so brazen as his uncle's, he's proven just as adept in articulating Louisiana's unusual -- and often well-oiled -- tax philosophy.
It was the modern-day Senator Long, for example, who early on put his finger on why President Carter's successful campaign promises for "tax reform" are unlikely to find many takers in Congress. In the best Uncle Earl tradition, Long describes taxpayers' attitudes today in homespun Louisiana doggerel:
Don't tax you,
Don't tax me,
Tax the fellow behind that tree.
Likewise, it was Senator Long who, during a meeting of the Finance Committee a few years ago, served notice that defeated conservatives might still find another way to push a special-interest tax break through the Senate because "there's more ways to kill a cat than stuff him with butter." Some critics swear they've seen cat butter flowing from the committee ever since.
Now, some of the best and the most outrageous of the Louisiana senator's musings have been compiled in a two-part series -- and the result should make good reading for Congress-watchers of all ages. Solemnly entitled "The Thoughts of Chairman Long," the quotations will appear this week and next in Tax Notes, the weekly "tax reform" journal of Tax Advocates and Analysts.
Thomas J. Reese, who culled the quotations from back issues of the Congressional Record, describes the result with emotions "torn between admiration and despair." As some connoissuers of tax legislation have been able to detect, Long has not always been in the forefront of what liberals regard as "tax reform." Much of the cat butter emanating from the Finance Committee has gone most often to the fat cats.
Nevertheless, Reese -- like other Long-watchers --"As a tax reformer I cringe at seeing Long" defeat traditional "tax reform" measures, he confesses. "But as a political scientist, I am enthralled by the manuevers."
Reese concedes his "ambivalence" about Long is reflected in the quotations he chose, taken from Senate debates between 1975 and 1977. Although some of Long's most classic quotes have been in Finance Committee discussions, Reese says admiringly these still show "Long the storyteller, Long the shrewd political observer and Long the persuasive orator who rarely loses."
Here are some sample's from Reese's collection: A Matter of Timing
This is such a good amendment, I suggest, as I did last night, that we vote now and talk about it later.(April 29, 1977) On Limiting Debate
If you know that you are going to be against the matter anyway, you do not need to know a great deal more about it to be even stronger against it than you were to begin with. (March 29, 1975) Lobbyists
Well, my impression of lobbyists is that most of them are overpaid and underworked. They do about one week's work and get a solid year's pay. (Oct. 29, 1977) On Tax Reform
I always felt that tax reform is a change in the tax law that I favor or, if it is the other man defining tax reform, it is a change in the law that he favors, because tax reform is supposed to be a change for the better. That is what tax reform is supposed to mean.(June 16, 1976) On Making The Tax system More Equitable
Here are our two possibilities of how we could eliminate the discrepancy between the rich and the poor:
Either make the poor rich, or make the rich poor. That is the only way you can do it. (June 23, 1976) Special-Interest Legislation
By the time congress gets through (with tax reform), somebody has hired a lobbyist and it is worked out so that various and sundry concerns have had their problem properly considered and taken care of.
Here is some poor soul who never knew anything about it but was willing to take his chance along with everybody else. He finds a law which takes care of almost everybody, except for a few who were not represented here in Washington. The result is that they got the worst of it.
So, this fellow comes in complaining about discrimination against him. Everybody else has been taken care of except him. At that point he says, "How about me? You took care of everybody else who was not represented up there." At that point, he talks to his senator and at that point, I guess, he can be accused of being a special interest. (April 28, 1977) History of the Unmaking
Some years ago, I made the point to the late Robert Kerr, who served with me on the Finance Committee, that it would be good if we would start moving to eliminate tax loopholes, to eliminate tax preferences, and to reduce the rates.
Sen. Kerr at that time told me, "Russell," he said, "you will never be able to do anything like that. You couldn't even get the Republicans to vote for that, much less the Democrats."
Since that time, it has been demonstrated that the people do want exactly that kind of thing. (June 28, 1976) Income Redistribution
I do not have any doubt that when we proceed to shift the taxes around so that one set of taxpayers pays a lot more taxes and somebody else pays a lot less taxes, the people who benefit from it do not remember it very long. They tend to feel that it should have been that way all the time, and the people who are paying the additional taxes resent it very bitterly. (Aug. 4, 1976) Corporate Taxes
There is a difference between taxing a corporation and taxing the rich. The senator knows as well as I do that about two-thirds of those taxes you put on corporations are passed on through to the consumer in the price of the product anyway.
so while it looks like you are taxing the shareholders of the corporation, in the last analysis you are taxing the people who consume the product when you put the taxes on the corporations. (June 18, 1976) On Business Deductions
If we are going to tell people that they cannot fly first class, then we should go the rest of the way and tell them when they get there they cannot take a taxicab, they have to take the bus; when they get to the hotel they cannot take a big room, they have to take a small room; and when they desire a restaurant they cannot go to the good restaurants, they have to go to McDonalds. I do not have anything against McDonalds -- I eat there a great deal. But the point is, once in a while a person should have a freedom of choice. On Conventions and Call Girls
We (once) got into whether a businessman who takes somebody out to lunch should be permitted to buy anything more than the blu-plate special, and whether he should be allowed to deduct the cost of a cocktail if he entertained someone.
Then we had the argument, I recall, about whether or not he could deduct taking his wife to the convention with him.
Finally, it was agreed that if was somebody else's wife, he could deduct it, but not his own. If he took his secretary, or took somebody else's wife and called her his secretary, he could deduct it, but not if he took his own wife.
If we had gone along with that thing, we would have built in this country even a bigger industry of call girls and camp followers. But thank the merciful Lord, we realized that wives have a place in the lives of men.
It is just as my Uncle Earl said: When those wives started going down there to the State Legislature withtheir husbands, a lot of that carousing and so forth would come to an end. The people were there and ready to do business the following day.