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Why Don't Heartland Republicans Want to Raise Taxes on Malibu and Manhattan?

David Callahan

Political scientists who study Congress, like the scholar Douglas Arnold, have long argued that while money matters in politics, legislators ultimately tend to be responsive to their constituents. 

It will be interesting to see what such scholars will make of yesterday's  failure of the House GOP to stop tax hikes on middle class Americans starting January 1 -- all to protect the incomes of earners making over $1 million. 

The debate on taxes seemingly defies the logic of pluralist politics. Why? Because many of the Republican House members most vehemently opposed to hiking taxes on the rich hail from districts with virtually no rich people. Meanwhile, the vast majority of affluent Americans are represented by Congressional Democrats who favor higher taxes.

Take a look at the table below, compiled by the Heritage Foundation using 2006 data. It shows that the top five metro areas with high earners are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. What do these areas have in common? They send very few, or no, Republicans to Congress and instead send representatives who back Obama's plan to raise taxes on the rich. 

According to another Heritage chart, which you can see here, The four House members with the largest numbers of high earners in 2006 were: Carolyn Maloney of Manhattan (48,124), Henry Waxman of LA (42,409), James Himes of Connecticut (42,078), and Annie Eshoo of Silicon Valley (40,677). All are Democrats who favor tax hikes on the affluent. 

Contrast those figures with, say, the First Congressional District of Kansas, which is represented by Tim Huelskamp, who helped lead the oppostion to Boehner's "Plan B" to only raise taxes on millionaires. As of 2006, Huelskamp's district had just 2,865 residents making over $200,000. 

Huelskamp is one of the nine members of Congress who received a 100 percent rating from the anti-tax Club for Growth in 2011. Like him, nearly all of the other eight members represent districts with comparatively few high earners. 

At some level, of course, this is old news and a familiar story to anyone who has read What's the Matter with Kansas. Mostly white rural districts tend to be very conservative and send members to Congress who militantly oppose all tax increases and business regulations, including tax increases that would barely touch their constituents. And parts of affluent America have long elected representatives who favor higher taxes and more government. As I have noted here before, Barack Obama won 42 percent of Americans making over $100,000 in 2012 and 54 percent of those making over $200,000 in 2008 -- campaigning in both elections on a platform that included tax hikes on the affluent. 

Still, yesterday's events in Congress were surprising. By opposing tax hikes on millionaires that almost exclusively live in other districts, hard-right rural Republicans were all but insuring tax hikes starting January 1 on their own constituents of modest means, if only temporarily. 

This stance exemplifies both the power of ideology and the power of money. Despite acting against his constituent's interests, somebody like Huelskamp is unlikely to face retaliation at the polls because most of his constituents probably share his adamant opposition to all tax increases and might have voted the same way themselves. You can see that in the recent ballot initiatives to raise taxes on the rich in California and Washington, with lower income rural whites voting overwhelmingly against these amendments. 

But Boehner's inability to round up votes for Plan B also shows the power of money. The Club for Growth spent $20 million in the last election cycle, with a good chunk of that being used to primary Republicans deemed too friendly to big government. Nobody wants to be on the Club's hit list, or in the crosshairs of Tea Party fanatics, and siding with Boehner raised that risk. 

But, boy, this all makes for weird politics. A Republican Party that largely speaks for poorer parts of the country stands against taxes that would largely hit the richest parts of the country. Ditto on the healthcare issue by the way: a program that largely taxes blue America to disproportionately provide benefits to red America. 

I guess it's true what people say about liberals like the millionaire Nancy Pelosi (who also represents a district bursting with millionaires): They really do believe in redistribution: from the affluent coasts to the modest heartland. It's hard to fathom that Republicans fight this system so hard, but they do.