The Anti-Grover: A liberal tax voice in conservative Washington

Bob McIntyre, director of the advocacy group Citizens for Tax Justice (CTJ), leans back in his chair and reflects on the current chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

“Bill Thomas [R-Calif.] has this economic theory. The theory of cir-cu-liz-a-tion,” he says, mimicking Thomas’s sarcastic elongated vowels. “Give money to companies and they will cir-cu-late it to everyone else. I asked him once, ‘Well, if that’s it, why don’t you just give it to the people directly?’” McIntyre says, laughing. “I don’t think he likes me.”
michael s. gerber
Bob McIntyre: “If you’re looking for people who hate me, dial at random.”

McIntyre, 55, has been a thorn in the side of Ways and Means chairmen for the past quarter-century, decrying tax cuts for the wealthy, urging Congress to close egregious corporate tax loopholes and favoring balanced budgets without cutting government spending.

He is, in a way, the left’s antidote to Grover Norquist, head of the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, who favors reduced government spending and sees tax cuts for investors and business as spurring the economy.

McIntyre notes that he and Norquist differ on virtually every tax issue. “I’m just guessing that if I endorse the [pending] corporate tax bill, Grover would have second thoughts.”

Yet, as conservatives have taken over and Norquist’s political stock has risen, McIntyre finds himself out in the wilderness. The old tactics — what worked with President Reagan, with former Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer and former Senate Finance Committee Chairman Bob Packwood — are no longer effective, he says.

“The usual technique that you embarrass politicians into doing the right thing — because they want to get reelected, because, at least in the old days, they just didn’t want to do bad unless there’s a political necessity for it — is not working very well right now because Bush is not embarrassable. … Bill Thomas I can’t embarrass because he knows he’s doing the right thing and if it doesn’t work then it probably means he didn’t do enough of it.”

McIntyre has argued vociferously against the Bush tax cuts of 2001, 2002 and 2003. He denounced the pending corporate tax bill, which is now in conference, as “a caricature of how not to run the railroad.”

In a detailed report issued two weeks ago, he revealed that many large American companies, including ones that would be rewarded in the corporate tax bill, have paid little or no income tax in recent years.

The report received good press coverage and aroused the interest of congressional Democrats, but McIntyre recalls a time when such reports exploded like fireworks on Capitol Hill.

In the fall of 1981, he received a phone call from a Washington Post reporter. “Have you seen this thing where Occidental Petroleum is selling these tax breaks to GE?” the reporter asked. “Yeah, I saw it. It sucks. Everything sucks,” McIntyre recalls saying. Tax liberals had just come off of a few harrowing years — a capital-gains tax cut in 1977, then the famous Reagan tax cuts in 1981.

But McIntyre researched the tax trading anyway, and a subsequent Post article created a “huge splash.” Congressional leaders took up the issue, vowing to shut down the loophole, and eventually passed a bill that scaled back a third of Reagan’s
corporate tax cuts.

“We ended up leveraging that story into an $100 billion or so tax increase,” McIntyre said.

Buoyed by the victory, McIntyre and CTJ went on to publish a study in late 1984 that showed that half of the largest American companies did not pay any income taxes. That report, in the estimation of many, was the impetus behind the landmark 1986 tax reform act.

“That seemed to be how you did it. You brought the problem home to people. If you tell them GE is not paying any taxes, Lockheed isn’t paying any taxes, Boeing isn’t paying any taxes — in fact, you are paying more taxes than all of them put together — that gets people excited,” he said.

The 1986 law closed many corporate tax loopholes and created the corporate alternative minimum tax, which ensured that all profitable companies would pay some tax.

“They actually fixed it!” McIntyre exclaims. “Some of my friends don’t want to take credit for good. They always want to whine. [But] the public shouldn’t be disillusioned about the government’s ability to do good.”

He puts sneakered feet up on his desk. His office walls are adorned with photos of his family and artwork created by his wife. Faux-wood paneling, reminiscent of the ’70s, peeks out from behind the prints. A window air-conditioning unit sits silent, thanks to the cool October air.

CTJ’s building is owned by the Service Employees International Union, which offers free rent. Next year, though, the site will be made into condos, forcing CTJ to relocate.

CTJ relies on funding from foundations and from small contributions made by about 10,000 individuals around the country.

Peppering his stories with “Caddyshack” jokes, McIntyre recounts his years needling lawmakers and providing a reliable counterpoint to the growing hoards of corporate tax lobbyists.

“If you’re looking for people who hate me, dial at random,” he jokes. “Bill Archer and I weren’t exactly bosom buddies,” he recalls. A tax staffer told McIntyre that Archer would ask the joint tax staff, “If we do this, can CTJ estimate” where the money goes by income group? “If the answer was yes, he would say, ‘Well, damn, we can’t do it.’”

Despite his differences with Archer, McIntyre became friends with Packwood. “We used to have press conferences together. He’d say nice things about me. I’d say nice things about him. And we’d talk about how we had to close all these loopholes. It was fun.”

McIntyre grew up in Attleboro, Mass., in a Catholic family of eight children. He attended Providence College, then an all-boys Catholic school, before heading on to the University of Pennsylvania law school. He went on to attend a public-interest program at Georgetown University. While he was there, his older brother, now a tax-law professor at Wayne State University, asked him to comment on some Internal Revenue Service regulations.

“I went to law school to save the world. … Taxes wasn’t what I had in mind. I don’t remember what I had in mind,” he says.

He worked briefly for Public Citizen, a Ralph Nader creation, in the late ’70s before he and Nader “had a dispute about real estate” and McIntyre joined the newly formed CTJ.

McIntyre blames Nader for Al GoreAl GoreCNN to host town hall featuring Nancy Pelosi Tucker Carlson: Calling others 'racist' used to be a 'big deal' West Coast states eye early presidential primaries   MORE’s loss in 2000. If the election comes out more poorly this year, “we become Canadians for Tax Justice,” he quips.

How could the elections come out worse from a liberal perspective?

“If you take the same thing and keep doing it, that’s worse, isn’t it?”