Leave Buffett’s tax returns alone

About a month ago, Warren Buffett, the chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway, made a strong case in support of raising taxes on those who enjoy enormous wealth. He noted, among other things, that he has a lower tax burden, as a percentage of his income, than anyone in his office. Millionaires and billionaires, Buffett said, “have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.”

It led the White House to propose something called the “Buffett Rule.” The general idea is that “millionaires shouldn’t be able to use loopholes and avoidance strategies to end up paying lower tax rates than middle-class families.”

It’s not surprising that Republicans oppose the idea. But this kind of response is just silly.

The GOP is making a concerted effort to pressure billionaire investment guru Warren Buffett to release his tax returns to the public.

Republicans say Buffett — the public face of Obama’s proposed “Buffett rule” to increase taxes on the wealthy — needs to reveal his finances if his views on tax rates are going to serve as the basis for Obama administration policy.

“Will Warren Buffett release his tax returns so we can see why he should be the standard for tax policy?” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) questioned in a tweet Thursday.

“If he’s going to be the gold standard, so to speak, in terms of what our tax policy should be, yeah, let’s look at it [his tax returns],” Cornyn told ABC News.

It’s not just Cornyn, by the way. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) and Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) have also said they want to see Buffett’s tax returns.

These guys are badly missing the point. Buffett, in this case, is a recognizable figure, known for having great wealth and for arguing that the rich need to make greater sacrifices for the public good. The White House is using the Berkshire Hathaway chief to demonstrate a larger point about tax fairness, or in this case, the lack thereof.

The issue here isn’t some fluke of the tax code affecting one specific Nebraskan; the problem is more systemic. The Tax Policy Center crunched the numbers: “40 percent of taxpayers with incomes between 30K and 40K pay more than 12.9 percent of their income in income and payroll taxes; meanwhile, 25 percent of people with incomes over $1M pay less than 12.6 percent of their income in these taxes. This suggests that there are a lot of very-high-income guys paying a lower tax rate than their secretaries.”

If Republicans want to argue this isn’t a problem, fine; we can have the debate. If they want to argue that the very wealthy should have less of a tax burden, fine; we can debate that, too.

But if they’re inclined to think billionaires should pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than the working class, GOP officials would be better off looking at the inequitable tax code, not Warren Buffett’s returns.