By Colby Itkowitz, The Morning Call
WASHINGTON — Republican U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, who represents the Lehigh Valley, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Holden, who will represent parts of the Valley if he wins reelection, each staked out his party's positions on income inequality ahead of a populist-themed State of the Union address delivered in the early stages of this presidential election year.
Addressing a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, President Barack Obama reiterated his call that millionaires shouldn't pay a lesser tax rate than middle-class Americans.
"Now you can call this class warfare all you want. But asking a billionaire to pay at least as much as his secretary in taxes? Most Americans would call that common sense," Obama said. "We don't begrudge financial success in this country. We admire it." But the president said if the wealthiest don't pay their share, the burden falls on "a senior on fixed income, or a student trying to get through school, or a family trying to make ends meet."
Obama's emphasis on the growing disparity between the economic classes is one that will reverberate through his campaign speeches as he fights for reelection amid improving — but too slowly for most — unemployment figures.
The idea is something Obama has proposed before, calling it the "Buffett Rule" after billionaire Warren Buffett revealed that he paid a lower tax rate than his secretary. Buffett's secretary, Debbie Bosanek, sat with first lady Michelle Obama during the speech.
Dent, echoing a popular Republican refrain, said the way to achieve tax fairness is to simplify the tax code by lowering or eliminating deductions and loopholes, and by lowering income tax rates for all taxpayers.
"The president, I've always thought, has a compensatory tax policy," Dent said in an interview a few hours before the speech. "I think we have a difference of opinion on what is fairness … his is equal outcome. My definition is giving everyone a chance and equal opportunity."
In Dent's view, which in other words is free enterprise, it can be achieved by simplifying the tax code.
Holden supports allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to expire and returning federal income tax rates to where they were during the Clinton administration. In 2013, Holden's district will include Easton, a sliver of Bethlehem and other parts of Northampton County as a result of congressional redistricting.
U.S. Sens. Pat Toomey and Bob Casey took similar partisan positions after the speech. After failing to find two seats together last year, the two were side-by-side this year. But like a microcosm of the larger body, Casey, a Democrat, clapped and stood, while Toomey, a Republican, stayed seated, stone-faced.
Toomey, who said his low expectations were met, said Obama's tax proposal "is part of his class warfare, it pits one group against another."
Casey said, "We need more people at the upper incomes helping to share the burden."
The tense partisan response before, during and after Obama's speech made the president's calls for cooperation seem unlikely.
"We need to end the notion that the two parties must be locked in a perpetual campaign of mutual destruction; that politics is about clinging to rigid ideologies instead of building consensus around common sense ideas," said Obama, who will campaign as much against the eventual Republican nominee as he will against a "do-nothing Congress,"
Holden, a moderate who is facing a primary challenge from the left, said the president's speech is a promise for what Obama hopes to do with four more years in office, not a prescription for the next year — because Republicans won't accept anything he puts forward.
"We have been facing obstructionists with the Republicans in Congress who won't cooperate on anything," Holden said. "It doesn't appear there's going to be governance in the next 11 months."
Dent said it's Obama and the Democrats who have been blocking Republican efforts to lift regulatory burdens on businesses. He scoffed at Obama's emphasis on domestic manufacturing and energy production, saying his environmental protections stymies the first, and his recent decision not to allow the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline hurts the latter.
"I wish his actions would match his rhetoric," Dent said.
The pipeline, which would have distributed crude oil from Canada to refineries in the United States, is one issue Holden agrees with Dent on, but he accepts Obama's rejection of it based on a rushed time frame for approval.
"But in the long run we cannot afford to lose those construction jobs," Holden said.